Let Go of the Bar

magic_kingdom.jpgI haven’t posted in a while. I haven’t wanted to talk about teaching. Something happens to me when I talk about teaching, and it’s not unlike a child at Disneyland. When I went to Disneyland for the first time, I was in the fifth grade, and me and my family had but one day to explore the magic kingdom. My enthusiasm for riding every ride (and some rides twice), for buying up all the mouse ears and tee shirts and candy, for taking pictures with all the crazy costumed college students far over-reached the possibility of a single day in the park. Time and time again, I felt disappointed by what we weren’t able to do, especially when around me there seemed to be so much possibility. Disneyland is immersive, unlike any other theme park I’ve been to. You can walk the alleyways and streets and paths of Disneyland without ever the imperative to think about the outside world. Disney World is even more immersive – almost delusional in its immersion – where the rules of normal time and space seem intentionally suspended. Bills? What bills? Deadlines? What deadlines? Work? Are you kidding? There’s Winnie-the-Pooh! Oh, and look, there’s a honey pot on his head.

To me, dear readers, teaching is like that. It’s magical. It’s a trip to the happiest place on earth where you can pay for things with your room key and they end up wrapped and waiting for you on your bed. The normal, banal regulations of a daily existence don’t exist in the classroom. It’s a place where you can play, where you are authorized to explore and invent, to reach out, mold, craft, create. It’s where there still is wonder. Why? Because human beings are the world’s best and most natural learning machines. Our minds want no more than to learn, to experience, to be exposed to new thoughts and ideas, and to use these ideas to invent for ourselves a perspective that makes sense. Learning is, must be, an imaginative act. Otherwise, it’s just work. And everyone knows – everyone knows – work sucks.

When I talk about teaching, I feel compelled to explain the wonder I feel when I’m in the classroom. I feel compelled to narrate it in terms of techniques and approaches that are not only digestible, but are reproducible. To be honest, though, I have no idea why teaching feels like such fun and like so much invention to me. I don’t know why transparency is easy. I don’t know why it just makes sense to let students take control of their own learning. This is just the natural way that I teach. And I love it.

When I started this blog, I thought I could somehow parse my teaching. I thought perhaps I could use examples from my experiences to narrate. But I find I struggle to do this. It’s like trying to explain to someone how you managed to raise your hands over your head in Space Mountain, or on the Matterhorn. You did it because you believed you were safe. You did it because you knew it would be more fun that way. I don’t know if I can parse my teaching. I don’t know if I can explain – even to myself – why I teach the way I do, and why I enjoy it as much as I can.

I had an e-mail exchange with a student of mine this week. She thanked me for my approach to writing – one of invention and exploration, one that does not attempt to put grammar before expression, structure before innovation – and she said that many, many of her teachers had made her feel she was in kindergarten. They’d condescended to her, expecting her to either already know how to do it right, or believing she would never actually get it right. I responded thus:

You are not in kindergarten here. On the other hand, you are authorized to play, invent, create, and explore. It’s the best of both worlds. All the respect of an adult, all the freedom of a three-year-old.

Why shouldn’t this be the case? Three-year-old children are the biggest geniuses of all, learning at rate that’s not just hungry, it’s obsessed. Little starving monsters, feeding on everything they can find. It’s amazing and it’s delightful, and for some reason our staid curricula don’t support it.

But what’s more, we have to ask whether our pedagogies support that ravenous learning. Do we open up the world for our students and invite them to make of it what they may? Or do we tell them what the world is made of, leveraging expectations for what “learning” means? To open up the world to our students, we have to trust them intimately, explicitly, and utterly.

Just as we have to trust the bizarre magic of Disneyland, couched as it is within the economic power of a dispassionate corporation. Disney may not care about us, just as the education system in America seems oblivious to learning; but the magic that happens along the avenues of the magic kingdom is genuine – just as is the magic that can occur in our classrooms if we’re ready to let it.

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One thought on “Let Go of the Bar

  1. “You did it because you believed you were safe. You did it because you knew it would be more fun that way. ”

    And there you hit the nail on the head of why I can’t seem to do that radical transparency thing. I do not feel safe in doing so in my own classroom.

    There’s a world to unpack in that sentence, but not tonight. Back to planning.

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