Tag Archives: education

Back to School

Last night I had a recurring anxiety dream: that I was back in high-school taking a math test.

Upon waking, I wondered why that dream was resurfacing now, and admitted to myself that I was having some anxiety about the start of the Spring semester in a few days. I’m sure this anxiety is common for teachers just as much as students.

Bashar tells us that anxiety occurs when excitement gets obscured by a negative belief. I wondered what belief I held that soured my excitement about returning to the classroom and found that it was this: the fear of not being good enough. We meet again, old friend. I suddenly felt with compassion towards the students who often struggle with that same fear.

When confronted with a fear, I do my best to just sit with it. Invite it in. Say hello. As fear and I looked at each other over our cups of tea, I remembered something Malidoma Some said: that Spirit often works better with the part of us that doesn’t know.

And what is the fear of not being good enough but the fear of the unknown? Realizing that, my grasp on that fear softened. I didn’t have to conquer my fear. I didn’t have to transcend it. I could instead honor it as a necessary element to the inner opening I sought through my teaching.

In a sense, I could place my trust in fear. I could trust in the unknown. We can trust in the unknown.

And if you’re a student reading this, let me clarify that trusting the unknown is not an excuse to not do one’s work. It’s just a different kind of work, wink, wink.

 


Ballet, Curried Chicken and Mentoring

“Until you are liberated to trust your own inner direction, your experience will be limited by your beliefs. Once you are liberated to follow your own inner direction, your experience will shape your beliefs.” –Elia Wise from Letter to Earth

As a child, no one taught you how to climb a tree. You did not read a text-book before hand. You did not consult the GPS on your hand computer for the quickest route to the top. You did not check the weather first. You didn’t ask for permission. You didn’t pay for a workshop on how to climb trees, which trees are best for climbing, which will surely ruin your pants, which are most likely to contain a hornet’s nest. Perhaps you saw someone else climbing, or simply, you started to climb spurred on by nothing more, nothing less, than your own curiosity.

You felt the tree. Felt how the air changed where you stood beneath it. It represented another world and you were not wrong in that. You climbed. As you climbed, you discovered that the very act of climbing was the door itself, to that other world and the more you climbed, the better you got at it. You ventured off to explore other trees, other worlds. You played amidst leaves. You had fun. You invited others to join you in that heaven. There was no point. There was no test.

The practice of applying trial and error with a sense of play is how you learned as a child. Through this process, you developed your observational skills. You naturally got better at your task. But in our modern approach to education, we often neglect this way of learning. We tend instead to force a consumption of information, preferably as rapidly as possible. The sweetness is missed. It is difficult to digest a plate of raw cold facts. The information is not chewed or processed through experience. Then it gets pooped out on a test in messy chunks that are rather painful to pass.

Sorry. That’s kinda gross.

Students adopt what I call the laundry list approach to learning. They “learn” how to follow a list of things to do. Then they do it and receive a good grade for doing what they were told. For following the directions. The reward or punishment at the end reinforces this way of learning. Good boy, Tommy, good boy. Pat on the head. Sit. Treat.

We have to think of what it means to be ‘academic’ and ask ourselves if that is what we want for our kids. The word itself tastes dry, uninspired. An artist does not want her work to be called academic. Even academics don’t like that word. Often, as a teacher of dance, I find that young people take this academic, laundry list approach to learning an art. They want to be told what to do. They want a blue-print of how to get “there” but magic does not have a blue-print.

They have learned through years of education to not trust the observation/trial-and-error/play mode of learning through discovery. They have been taught to prize information above all else. Above experience. They do not trust entering into any new experience, such as dance, without a tour guide. They seek to know something before they do it. It’s absurd.

When they don’t receive the reward they feel they should, they drag their parents in for a conference. Now, in my day, the last thing I wanted was for my mother to show up to school because I knew she’d be on the teacher’s side. But oh, how times have changed. Often parents who have been indoctrinated into the laundry list approach themselves are on the kid’s side, insisting that their child be rewarded for an uninspired, academic performance. The conversation will go something like this:

Student: I deserve an A because I did what you said!

Teacher: Yes, you did what I said, but you are still a B.

Parent: Well, what else does she have to do for an A? Tell us. Just tell us!

The above conversation is repeated in a circular fashion about fifty times or so. Then the student/parent will ask about writing a paper for a higher grade. They assume that a paper is a cure-all.

On CNN recently, a very educated man spoke very educatedly about how we need to lengthen the school year. Did I mention that he was unquestionably very educated?

“That reminds me of a joke,” says Mr. Octopus.

“It would.”

“How do you know someone went to Harvard?”

“I don’t know. How?”

“Because they tell you.”

So the expert said that after a long summer break, the students forget a lot of the information they acquired during the school year. He emphasized this need for more information. Well damn. How much information dey need? I look ’round and see people gettin’ infomated by dey hand computas lef’ and right. Don’t even look up when deys crossin’ da street. So busy gettin’ infomated dey ’bout to get run ova! I was not convinced with his argument. I think we emphasize teaching too much. Teaching needs to be balanced with play in the area of the student’s choosing. They need time and space to follow their own direction. We all do.

They also need to incorporate the observational aspect of true learning. However, our students are so over-scheduled that they don’t have time to do this either. The esteemed African shaman, Malidoma Some, describes his own indigenous education with a mentor as consisting mostly of observation and practice, not through direct instruction. Similarly, a lot of what I learned about ballet came from simply watching others more advanced. Generally, before a teacher formally introduced a step in class, I already had some understanding of it in my own body from watching others and from goofing around in the studio between classes. I think this way of learning is probably true of most things, although I can’t be sure because I have a very narrow skill set. Ballet will do that to you. Seriously, I can do some steps and make curried chicken. That’s about it. Cyrille, thankfully, does the cooking. Recently he allowed me into the kitchen to chop garlic and make rice, so there’s hope.

In modern western education, we tend to emphasize the formal relationship of student-to-teacher as opposed to the mentoring approach found in a master and apprentice relationship. They are both important. In my own experience, teaching doesn’t really get interesting until the teacher becomes a mentor anyway. The teachers that had the biggest impact on me were also mentors. It’s intimate. Personal. The mentor and student feel valued by each other. Maybe that’s just me. This year, I had the great honor to mentor someone and it is one of the things I am most proud of in my life.

Ok, I guess that’s three things I can do: ballet, curried chicken and mentoring.

“And accessorizing,” adds Mr. Octopus.

“Yes! That’s right! I can accessorize! Yellow Fluevog mules and chunky necklaces are in this spring.”

“Thanks for the tip Jackie O. Got anything for Octopuses?”

“How about a rhinestone muzzle?’

“Oh, you shut up.”


More Better than Money

I often read about the spiritual experiences of others. I find these stories to be a source of inspiration, a way to stay connected with my own desire to nurture that non-physical part of myself, especially when I feel tugged down by the every day blues. I especially like stories about death, near-death, psychics, aliens, gurus, fairies, angels, saints, masters of every sort, Atlantis, Egypt, dreams, out-of-body experiences, and shamans. Ordinary stories about just noticing shit really turn me on too. I love to talk about the sunshine, the moon, the lake, the trees, prayer, beauty, meditation, art, music, lyrics, poetry and flowery language of every sort.

Eloquence is an important part of indigenous culture. Words have the power to bring things to life. Speaking beautifully is one of the sacred things we’ve sacrificed for the sake of crappy technology. Some would argue that language has merely changed because of technology. That it is always evolving. I think we should worry a little more about sustaining things instead of evolving. We abuse that word so. Evolve. Maybe we are devolving. I’m sorry but OMG does not feed the soul. It does not acknowledge the soul because OMG doesn’t have a soul–

“Are you done?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“What? I was just saying–”

“I believe you are rrranting. Do you have a point?”

“Oh, yeah, there was something I wanted to say. Something’s got me all worked up!”

“Let’s pause for a second.”

“Good idea.”

[PAUSE PAUSE PAUSE PAUSE PAUSE]

“Betterrr?”

“Yeah. I think it worked.”

In the spring, the students I teach at the public arts high school here in Boston have a concert. At the end of this show, we have a tradition where the students call all of the five teachers from the dance department onto the stage and present us with flowers. It is very touching.

Last year, as I was presented with a bouquet, one of my students thanked me for helping them to get in touch with their spiritual side. In that moment, I realized they got me! They heard me! It was a very affirming moment.

By “following my bliss,” as Joseph Campbell says, towards all things spiritual, a little of that magic, that wisdom, found its way to my students. Hurray!  I want to make it clear that I do not see myself as a font of spiritual wisdom and authority of any sort. A lover of spirit, yes, and a fool. But spirit can sometimes usurp even a fool’s tongue. My student’s comment was a little victory for the Luke Skywalker inside us all.

The more I work in education, however, the more I see how it is increasingly driven by a business model rather than a spiritual one. (Well, most of our spiritual models have become bankrupted, which is perhaps the subject of another entry). This rotten, business, soul-sucking way of living through getting more, more, more has seeped its poison into education.

Of course, this unexamined business model showing up in education is not the conscious intention of dedicated educators and parents. Many have fought and are fighting against it. But this seepage is happening while most are all too caught up in the hardship of daily survival to notice. It is slinking into our classrooms under such glossy titles as No Child Left Behind.

In school, as in business, we have become obsessed about showing growth through data. Influenced by business, we made the erroneous leap in logic that assumes that an increase in test scores is somehow a measure of the growth of a human being. Well, I’m sorry, but just because a teacher has managed to shove some information down a student’s throat, through cleverness, intimidation, manipulation and force (usually because the teachers themselves are being forced) does not mean that that student, that person, has somehow grown.

And what do we want them to grow into? Better human beings? Naaah. We are teaching them to become people who will fit in unquestioningly to this modern system ruled by greed, power and fear. We send them to college where most become initiated to a life of debt. The rich just want to make sure they keep getting richer and they need our young people, body and soul, to do that.

We teach them to line up and play the game. Bliss? Shmiss! Get a job! We are so good at teaching them to get a job, that is, when there are jobs to be gotten, that the majority of people who graduate from college end up with a job that had nothing to do with their major. Now that’s success! Furthermore, we teach them the importance of “good communication skills” when it comes to getting that all-important job, but we don’t teach them how to connect deeply with whom or what they are communicating.

OMG.

We boast that we are teaching them how to be of “service,” but what we are really teaching them is how to go out and get what they want under the guise of serving a good cause in order to satisfy a selfish agenda. It’s based on business, based on colonialism. Everyone looks good on the surface, masking a hollowness, an inauthenticity. In a recent school meeting, I heard some teachers speak proudly of how they had taught students to make cold-calls. Really? This is how we do things now? We take. We take. We take. And since we’ve convinced ourselves that we are taking for a good cause, that makes it alright.

It is not alright. Respect and authenticity matter. True service, giving one’s gifts to those who have expressed a need, matters. These things actually make life better. More better than money. What good is a bunch of money if we are spiritually poor? Rich people who are spiritually poor have proven themselves to be disastrous to all life. If we start focusing on teaching our kids how to live, instead of how to pass a test, how to get over, then maybe we can restore some beauty to this world.

I’m so fed up with the business machine and its insidious nature of taking the most while giving the least, or giving nothing at all. Shamelessly it corrupts even our most sacred traditions and institutions. I am against the lie that money makes the world go ’round. It does not. It never has.

When I was dancing, I didn’t make a lot of money, but I felt rich. Nothing I could buy could give me the good vibes I got after a great, hot, sweaty class. Writing this blog and the people who read it make me feel rich. Nature makes me feel rich. Being in ritual makes me feel rich. Spirit makes me feel rich. My boyfriend makes me feel rich, rich, rich. My family and friends make me feel rich. My students make me feel rich (sometimes).

“What am I? Chopped liverrr?” asks Mr. Octopus.

“Oh, sorry! And Mr. Octopus makes me feel rich!”


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