20
Nov
14

mirror exercise

In drama games we play mirrors, where the goal is to “follow the follower.” First one partner leads and the other follows her/his gestures and expressions as if facing a mirror; then they switch roles: the focus is on following the leader, on close observation. But as they continue, a fluid exchange of leadership occurs, until when both members of one mirroring unit function perfectly, neither an observer nor even the twain can tell who leads. They have achieved the goal of following the follower.

In my English classroom such moments occur as frequent flashes, but just as in drama those spectacular star bursts of creative energy have brief half lives, until you look again and once more it is obvious who leads who.

I have practiced the co-leader co-learner philosophy for at least 8 years now, in class and in my St. John’s College Alumni seminars, at CEL conferences and at church book studies; it even shows up in jazz music when I try to work on songs at the piano with a sax player, and this year it adds a new focus to my Professional Development circle of 4 teachers each struggling to learn about ourselves as instructors with the observations and insights of the other 3.

Today it feels as though my English classes are one long attempt to generate more flashes of following followers. Am I wishing for more beauty in the constellation of student interactions with texts and each other? Clearly, yes.

It seems my students don’t recognize the flash, spark, beauty when I have found it.

Consider my 10th graders, who helped write stories with 2nd graders in October (at our K-12 school): when self evaluating, students didn’t feel their work merited a grade; however, I was able to see that their accomplishment had met at least 5 of our school’s major learning outcomes, in categories of service, critical thinking, and communicating. Grades themselves weren’t the issue, but even as we have begun to move toward narrative feedback of student progress, the language of standards and Envisionment learning (Langer) is not yet adequate to meld in student minds with what they actually accomplish: they do not see reflections of themselves in words yet, but still see themselves as grades.

My seniors notice the problem with being identified as grades, numbers, ACT scores. They desire to be known by colleges for their interests, skills, and personalities; what’s more, they dream of a higher ed experience that they can tailor to their own needs and interests–one that won’t kill off their love of learning things.

I am now focused on starting a Utah StuCamp, modeled on the EdCamp movement, in which a half-day of free meetings with other teens, without an agenda, affords students the opportunity to express themselves and have their voices heard by others, including teachers who assist in the logistics of the operation. I think students need to hear other students, in order to figure out whether they experience learning as more “doing” or “done to”.

Creative problem solving

Students can be offered, and taught that they have, choices; part of making wise choices is believing that they can solve a problem – with help.

But few students request help. Without expressing their interest, curiosity, or inquiry, they neither lead nor follow, but have not begun to play the mirror game. Without having identified an interesting problem to solve, they find little focus for their individual or collective attention. Maybe I should say they won’t express a desire for help directly: so my job becomes reading the signs that a student wants help with a passage, a task, a procedure.

Thomas Merton observed beauty in the early Christian mosaics of Rome, where he encountered “the image of Christ and responded with religious longing”, and went to churches over and over to see them. “And thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim. I was unconsciously and unintentionally visiting the great shrines of Rome, and seeking out their sanctuaries with some of the avidity and desire of a true pilgrim, though not quite for the right reason.” (quoted by Paul Elie, p. 35, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, FSG 2004)

As I wander around my room, kneeling on my one good knee at eye level of each of my co-leaders, who are draped over my non-furniture of cushions, ottomans, and lap desks, I seek to listen, and to give their comments about their progress and pace the attention I would to a sacred space. They may not say it in words, but they have stories of learning to tell.

If I listen closely today, I will hear, respond, and learn what they have to teach me.

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