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Civil Conversation Circles

In a world with a shortage of civil discourse, we have reduced talking to talking at people. There is a binary process where we say yes or no, turn on or off, incude or exclude people. This leads to thinking in limited ways about choices we face. In fact, I think we end up dependent on those we perceive to be in charge to make decisions on our behalf. This is happening in education as we try to figure out how to get students back in class. As I listen to politicians, educationalists, teachers, parents, etc., what impresses me is we have limited our choices to re-opening schools completly, often without adequate resources and human capacity. or some form of remote learning, as if these are the only two choices. Other choices e.g. home school seem to be excluded, understood as marginal.

Quite a few years, I introduced daily conversation circles. We used them to clarify from my perspective, Also, students shared what they wanted. At the beginning of the school year, each student introduced themselves. It seems small, but this often goes unattended in groups, regardless of where they exist. In my experience, each student, humans in general, want a voice in their learning and work; a voice often cancelled.

In our conversation circles, we used a ‘talking stick.’ The person with the ‘talking stick’ is the speaker and others listen. The ‘talking stick’ was a gift from a parent who was a member of a First Nation. It had some traditional meaning attached to its design. In an era of digital technologies, the talking stick reinforces a civilty of face-to-face conversation which we increasingly need in our world.

In our small school, parents played an integral role, including and not limited to meaningful teaching in the classroom, teaching complementary courses, teaching at home, etc. I shared about our small school in a post called Soul’s Choice, so won’t add more here. My experience and research suggests, after Kindergarten, parents and teachers are somehow on a different team. But, as one teacher proposed, “We share something; the love of a child.” In bringing children back together, we need to hear from two essential voices, often excluded from the conversation about teaching, parents and teachers.

The following is a poem that rattled around for a few days. It might be a bit rought around the edges, but I thought it needed to see the light of day.

Reducing to binary,

Simplifying choice–

0 or 1,

Silencing others.

Inserting ‘and’ in conversations,

Accepting ambiguity–

Listening with one’s heart,

(In)forming community.

Embracing each child,

Loving without conditions–

Parent and teacher raison d’être,

Centring our calling.

Educating,

Sharing purpose–

Making whole,

Caring and healing together.

The picture is the talking stick, which I still have. The following is a short description of the symbolism of the talking stick. The wood is driftwood which came from a local lake and reflects nature’s contributions to conversation circles. Someone carved a bear head into the top of the stick. In some traditions, the bear symbolizes courage, freedom, and power. The feather is from a hawk. Hawks are visionary and guide the person. The coloured ribbons represent the four directions in the circle. The parent attached a medicine bag. The medicine bag heals, guides and protects, and has materials or objects of value to its carrier.

The Establishment

I wrote this poem when I was in high school, so some 50 years ago about the time I wrote Angry Young Poet. I updated both poems several years ago, but the underlying theme was evident in the orginals and I tried to keep that in mind in editing.

I found both poems as part of handwritten notes I dug through one weeked while Kathy was away. What struck me was how little things change. In fact, I might argue things are more entrenched than ever; the rich got richer and the poor poorer. One only has to consider the enormous wealth being accumlated by billionaires during the multiple crises we are experiencing.

Multiple crises, health, economic, and social justice, might give us room to re-imagine the world we want for our children and grandchildren. Instead, I am afraid we are more entrenched in our binary positions. Despite this, I hold out hope, not optimism and positivity, that we can begin the process of transforming the world to make it more democratic, socially just, and equitable. Part of my writing is revisiting an article I published in 2012 called Rocky River: Building a Learning Organization to re-imagine how we might educate children, youth, and adults. I begin re-imagining with a simple shift in language and call those engaged in teaching and learning educands a word Paulo Freire used in Pedagogy of Hope: Revisiting Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

More broadly, we can apply the learning organization’s principles to other institutions. Peter Senge cautioned it is hard work and takes time. Unlike other revolutionaries, Freire stated incremental change, based on dialogue between humans, was essential to transforming the world. Although Senge does not draw on Freire’s dialogic model, he suggests dialogue, with deep and caring listening, is at the heart of transforming institutions.

They know best for the rest–

Indoctrinating,

Not transforming,

Recalling non-existent good old days.

In disagreeing–

Simply wrong-headedness,

Daring to rebel:

Who are we to question?

Having it made–

Hunting and gathering,

Material wealth signaling success,

Repress, suppress, oppress.

Depending them to know best.

Maintaining existing order,

Demanding blind loyalty,

Failing to practice what preach.

I re-worded the poem again. I see how little changed in 50 years. Without a picture, I thought of which blues musician might best convey my message. I immediately thought of Nina Simone, who sings with edge. When I play her songs for undergrads, those with backgrounds of privilege demonstrate a visible level of discomfort.

 

Angry Young Poet

In keeping with Why Do I Write Poetry, the following poem is one I wrote many at about the same time. This is the third time I visited the poem in terms of writing and editing. Several years ago and while explaining the importance of teaching poetry, a student asked if I wrote poetry in junior high school and I responded, “Yes!”. He asked me to share with them. I found them in a small lock box I keep at home and shared several with the class. We talked about the context I wrote the poem in. Even in Canada, I lived in the shadow of the Vietnam conflict and struggled with what that meant.

Sam Intrator suggested teachers expose adolescent students complex, existential questions of life as they move through those formative years. I wrote my poems in 1969. It was a time when identity was increasingly rooted in a global nature of the world, not just immediate community and family. War entered homes via television. Increasingly, I discovered my voice through poetry, expressing an abhorrence to institutional and government sanctioned killing. What set me apart from my peers, was I took no sides. Each was equally wrong in my mind, advancing their ideological stance. My teacher, Mr. McKenzie, an innovative English teacher, encouraged us to discover our voices.

I shared the following poem with my students. We talked about how metaphors of war are used commonly in various institutions and how I found this as troubling as the violence and trauma of war. That feeling re-emerged over the past months with describing dealing with Covid-19 in war-like terms and the troubling events of the past weeks where purported leaders feel it is OK to speak about human beings, not citizens, as an enemy and objects to be manipulated for financial gain based on the basest forms of self-interests. It is worse than the war as it takes on invisible and pervasive forms. It is a form of Social Darwinism where the strong survive, trampling on those further down what is understood as a food chain premised on unfettered oppression of other humans, including various forms of systemic violence. Consider billionaires, in the Covid-19 crisis, gained while those in most need lose what little support they had.

I contrast this with Jacinda Ardern‘s message as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In The Atlantic, Uri Friedman describes her as an empathetic leader. What emerged in reading the article was we de-serve better leadership, mindful, transforming, serving, etc. focusing on people as humans, not objects.

Students asked me to share poems and I did, with the context within which I wrote them. Parents, who were in the classroom each day, asked about my candour. I responded “I am not about changing minds. I try to change how each student thinks about the world, to see under the surface, reveal a sordid underbelly, and revel in the wonderfulness of human life.” This is a hopeful message, and the leadership we need is evident e.g. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Mary Wollenstonecroft, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, Soujouner Truth, Rosa Parks, etc.

Win or Lose: What Difference Does it Make?

A game–

Darwin misunderstood,

No great thing to win.

War and it language!

Bells ringing hollow,

Men, women, children gone!

Woe! vanquished losers and winners;

Humans, vanquished in every sense–

Thriving on dividing.

Resenting conquerors,

Rebuilding ruins–

On countless graves.

Morally rudderless,

Blaming the fallen,

Beggaring humans.

Homes on streets,

Hollowing souls–

What war brings?

Innocence dying–

Prryhric victories,

What war brings?

Comrades fallen,

Enemies vanquished–

Proving nothing.

Will we learn?

I pray

For human survival.

I leave you with the following video and song. We listened to Harry Belafonte, and I still do, with his uplifting and hopeful message. We are in this together, not against one another, with each other.

Why Do I Write Poetry

During a professinal development event, a presenter spoke about teaching poetry. To my knowledge, this person spent little time teaching, yet he was a supposed expert about all things teaching. In the course of his presentation, he expressed disdain for poetry. He claimed, without evidence, we teach poetry without explaining to students why we teach it.

In my teaching, I described reasons why I taught something, opening up learning to include what students considered important. This included questions about topics and content. Often, students began with a negative view of poetry. With time, we got over hurdles together. Without a collective effort, we do not overcome issues in life and learning. We end up with haiku written through rote formula:

Here are five syllables

And here I write seven more!

Are you happy now?

The presenter indicated, despite having written poetry, he was unsure why teachers taught poems written. I think there are good reasons, but I could be wrong.

Poetry calls me to choose words, paradoxically spare and spacious. Spareness is in the number of words; the fewer the better. The space allows the reader room to interpret. What did the poet mean? What senses are invoked through the word choice?

Instead of counting something, poetry asks me to explore life and understand quality is not evenly distributed. I have privileges, maleness, whiteness, education, that others do not have the eauitable access to.

Choosing words,

Caring about each–

Describing feelings,

Experiences never identical.

Revealing thickness in meaning,

Experiencing sameness different–

Bringing us together,

Bridging worlds.

I told students, who struggled with reading and writing, poetry was an alternative to express themselves. I used ee cummings, as a model, to overcome worries about grammar, spelling, and capitalization.

i dig ee cummings

no punctuation

no capitols

won’t worry about spellin either

no sweat

aint no problem

i write poetry

I enjoy poetry. I always have. I remember a poem, The Elevator, I memorized in Grade 4. I think it Walter de la Mare wrote it. My friend memorized a poem called Douglas Fir. His name was Douglas. When I enjoy who and what I teach, I bring enthusiasm to writing poetry.

Artists, including poets, are often at the forefront, addressing social issues. In our times this includes Maya Angelou, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, Parker Palmer, Thich Nhat Hanh, etc. Sometimes, I do not think of these authors as poets. Each of them wrote/writes poetry helping to raise my awareness about issues.

Below are the wonderful and poetic words of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Peace in our heart

I close with a poem I wrote many years ago as a 15 year old in high school. I have never been a fan of what we call capitalism. What we have is predatory and is at the root of current political, economic, and social issues. Only a handful are admitted to the club.

Captains of Society

Captains of Society

Shallow, superficial, arrogant

Single ambition

Greatness in the eyes of others

Only those with resources can apply

The rest

Forgotten

Pay a high price, but…

It’s their fault

They own their misery.

A cheque to charity

Assuages my conscience

What about the despair?

Don’t care

I claim I do

Donations in badfaith,

It’s a tax receipt

I really claim, but…

Done on the backs of others

Get the staff to donate time

Not mine.

Increase taxes

Not mine!

No way!

It’s wrong!

Tax others!

What is work?

I create jobs

It’s a spectator sport

This work, which

I manage from afar.

Drive luxury wheels

Shout

Curse

What’s the hold up?

Who’s blocking my way?

The ‘75 Ford station wagon

Engine shot

Dead broke!

Is it their home?

 Throw a party

Drink

Eat

Be merry

No concern for homeless

A romantic notion this ‘hobo jungle’

Not my world

What’s wrong?

It’s not my fault

I gave at the office.

After all.

Throw money at problems

It might help

Don’t

Stop, see, care

If it really helps

Denying, refusing, unfeeling

I pay for a clear conscience

After all.

 The misery

In surround sound…

Is out of sight;

Out of mind

Lost

I sometimes feel lost in the world, without bearings. David Wagoner counseled that when we feel lost to stop and listen to the world, as if it were the forest and a powerful stranger able to speak to us.

When I stop and pray, I ask someone for help, but, if I rush on, without listening, the prayer cannot be answered. I pose a question that I cannot answer. Prayer is not just speaking. My heart opens and receives what is returned to me.

Is it in the form of words? Or, is it the gentle breath that is hardly perceptible? When I am mindful and listen to listen, I intuitively sense differences. Mindfulness becomes an attentive and sensitive way of life, as opposed to just happening.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

From Earth, Fire and Water by William Butler Yeats

Today, an interesting thing happened. All three grades are at key points in Science. The Grade 8 class was learning and applying the equation for density. They were completing a worksheet, but got bogged down with the equation when it was not straightforward and had to think algebraically. I was moving between the Grade 7 and 9 tables and looked up. There was a colleague who had stopped by on her day off helping the Grade 8 students and the parent helper. I had not asked for help; it arrived in the quiet and I thought of this poem.

We can make our own minds so like still water

that beings gather about us that they may see,

it may be, their own images,

and so live for a moment with a clearer,

perhaps even with a fiercer life

because of our quiet.

What If Nature Could Remember or Dream?

After I posted Open Heart; Open Mind, I recalled a Wendell Berry poem entitled In a Country Once Forested. I wondered what if nature really could remember? What would that be like? What if nature were a dreamer of dreams? I think Wendell Berry says it beautifully and wisely in this poem.

The young woodland remembers

the old, a dreamer dreaming

of an old holy book,

an old set of instructions,

and the soil under the grass

is dreaming of a young forest,

and under the pavement the soil

is dreaming of grass.

I think nature is can recall and able to dream dreams. It might look like this.

Culture of Peace

Each child has a voice

In a secure space

Voices are revealed.

I am reading Tuned in and fired up: How teaching can inspire real learning in the classroom by Sam Intrator. It is the published version of his doctoral dissertation so I read it out of a twofold interest: as a teacher and as someone getting ready for the dissertation process. Sam asks teachers to consider the following question: “What engages children in learning?” That was the focus of his study and he found an innovative teacher, Mr. Quinn, who lived up to the challenge.

Mr. Quinn was studying Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, but found the students were not enjoying the early part of the book. He took them outside to the ball diamond, had them select a small patch of ground, and spread out from their classmates. Mr. Quinn asked students to observe, collect data, and write about a 1 foot by 1 foot (30 cm by 30 cm) patch of grass. They were to try see the world as a poet-scientist and find their way to describe their small ecosystem. Despite initial grumbling, the students became engaged and wrote poetry, reflective journals, and connected that patch to their lives in many ways. For many, it was the highlight of their learning that year.

In Grade 8 Social Studies, I found an activity in the Teacher Resource Manual called A Culture of Peace. This activity engages students and brings out even the voice of those who generally choose not speak up. This is one of those activities with no right or wrong answer.

First we discuss a Culture of War, which by the standards of the day should be easy to do, but an interesting thing happens. About 10-15 minutes into this discussion, students run out of descriptors for a culture of war or they repeat what has already been said. I record comments on the whiteboard and say, “It is time for a change of pace. What are some descriptors for a Culture of Peace?” I fill up a whiteboard with student responses. They are so engaged they know when they are duplicating previous responses. They are listening intently to each other. The shy, reluctant students engage in the conversation, because they feel no risk of being wrong.

The first time we did this we had to stop after an hour because we were borrowing another classroom and the teacher needed it back. When we walked out of the classroom to return to our classroom, one of the boys turned to a friend and said, “I could do this all day.” As a teacher, I felt like I was on Cloud 9. I look forward to this activity each year. The students and I become engaged in our learning.

Question: What was one learning experience that engaged you fully and made learning worthwhile and so memorable to be vividly recalled years later?

Ode to Teachers

I wanted to blog and post pictures of some great cloud formations around Edmonton last night, but I received an email and there was an idea I could not resist. We each had teachers, and I use the word in its broadest definition, who made an impact on our lives. Ruth is someone I taught with for 12 years.  I use the word taught guardedly and refuse to use the work word to describe our relationship. We learned together. Learning is different and is relational. In her email, she described a visit with a parent of a former student and shared this phrase, ‘child whisperer.’

Each of us, had or have people in our lives in many forms who fit the phrase. They remind us of what the root word of educate is–educare. Even the Latin word speaks of care, which I think is vital to the relational nature of learning.

I can think of many who filled the role. Sister Phillips was my first grade teacher. She was a member of the Catholic order the Sisters of Service and it was special in her class. Later, in high school, I had Ms. Lyford, a short, stocky Australian woman who loved Shakespeare. She once said, “Ivon, if you only tried you would be an A student.” She did it loving and in a caring way, I think. I was good with a B and explained that to her.

Outside school it was my grandmother and mother. I still learn from them although the former is long past away and my mother lives 8 hours away. I learned from my father-in-law and mother-in-law and, needless to say, I learn from the daughter I married. I learn from our boys and my students in many ways. This list is incomplete, but the point is : Great teachers are great not because they tell you do something, but because they lead you to want to do it and ignite your imagination and spirit for learning in a magical way .”

Blend compassion and passion

Bring out the best in each child

Walk with them

Open your heart

Greet them

With your story

Receive their stories gently

Reveal vulnerability

Be a guide they need

In each moment

Learn, share, create

Listen and hear

And speak in a voice

Only a child whisperer can.

Take a moment, tell us about a teacher or teachers who made a difference for you, who whispered at the right moment and spoke the right words lighting a fire in your spirit.

Larry Cuban is a leading writer and researcher in school reform or I think a better way to phrase it is a lack of true reform. He points out several key points in this excellent article. His first paragraph about teachers working together daily is not prophetic as you will see in the article. It has been part of the educational reform lexicon for a several years, perhaps decades is a better word. Why do the ‘reforms’ with all their pat answers and revolving, recycled fads secret this away in the closet? I think they are afraid.

 

First, top down measures are not the order of the day. Second, schooling and learning (my added word) at all ages are complex systems and forged out of relationship not transactional activities. This nature does not invite top-down. It encourages community and collaboration. The leading thinkers he refers to part way through the article are a short but impressive list. I would add others who contribute in many ways i.e. Deb Meier, James Comer, and Nel Noddings come to mind. Finally, real communities actually are dysfunctional. It is what we do in those moments that leads us to collaboration. Joining hands around the camp fire is nice, but only superficially functional. Agree to disagree is sometimes the path.

 

I read another blog today and my conclusion is slow is sometimes the way forward.

 

We in Canada who think we are doing something better are wrong. We all need the same wake up calls, a new conversation, and a reimagining of schooling and learning. Note I did not say school. That is the brick and mortar that in some cases is passé.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Want to give a “no excuses” reformer a stroke? Suggest that teachers working together on a daily basis have a better shot at improving teaching and learning than the highly marketed structural changes of standards-based testing and accountability, Common Core standards, more charter schools, and evaluating educator performance through student scores.

Too many reform-driven policymakers high on the rhetoric of these current reforms ignore how much improvement in teaching and learning can occur when  teachers work collectively in their classrooms and schools to improve their content knowledge and teaching skills aimed at common district goals.

For many years, teachers, administrators, researchers, and a sprinkling of policymakers have concentrated on both traditional and innovative professional development and learning communities to build teachers’ capacities in knowledge of subject and teaching skills to improve instruction in schools and districts. Such school-based efforts converge on the teacher simply because within the complex system of…

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