Being 53 + 32 weeks: Our classroom is a community of writers

I couldn’t have said it better myself…actually, I wish I’d said it!

Francisco Jimenez, on teaching writing to students who are learning to communicate their ideas in the English language:

Being in the classroom gives me energy. It’s wonderful to be helping young people develop their talents and to see them getting engaged and wrestling with the subject matter. That’s very exciting to me. I strongly believe that I learn from them. They have different experiences that they bring to discussions that profoundly enrich me as a teacher. Students have responded positively to our journey together. I tell them how blessed I feel to be a teacher and to have the privilege of learning from them and helping them to learn.

Part 4 – His words to you: quotes from Francisco Jimenez


About Bulgaria: Handout or hand up?

The question arose at dinner last night as to the effectiveness of social support models that offer a hand out versus a hand up.  I was asked my opinion, but this question is a complicated one that requires a thoughtful and rather intricate answer.  So…

In its most simplistic form my short answer is that despite my growing understanding of social supports and the variety of individuals whom are served by them, I can’t tell the difference between a handout and a hand up.  I’m not trying to dodge a bullet, I’m simply saying that it can be hard to understand the realities of social support services from the outside looking in.  It’s taken me a long time and a lot of encounters with people in many different situations to realize this.

The best answer I can give at this point in my current understanding is that when the question of handout versus hand up arises, I find that at its core is actually a question about “fairness.”  I’m going to define “fairness” here as “the desire for everyone to be treated equally” or “for everyone to receive the same support.”  Personally, I don’t think equality (fairness) is a realistic consideration of whether a social support – be it monetary, educational, health-related, technological, or anything else related to the things we need to survive in today’s world – is a handout or a hand up.

Where I am in my current understanding of such a question is that equality looks very different than equity, but the former (equality) is what many people are really describing when they try to differentiate between a handout and a hand up.

Supporting the needs of an individual in an equitable manner requires me to consider what this individual before me needs right now in this moment.  On the other hand, providing the same support to another individual because I have a model of social support that I think is “fair” for everyone, may very well prevent another individual from benefiting from my social support precisely because I haven’t created an equitable entry point to the service.  

So what is equity?  It’s worth following this link and scrolling down to the visual representation of three individuals standing on boxes to understand how the perspective shifts when we see how the barriers to equitable participation can be misunderstood.  It’s especially easy to confuse concepts of equality and equity when I have everything I need to be “on the field and in the game.”  The image of equity found on the link clarifies my comments above that when I consider the needs of the individual, most often the discussion of handout versus hand up becomes extremely problematic.

About the only thing I’ve discovered for myself on this topic  – and which I’m (un)comfortable admitting – is this: When I notice a situation or someone whom I think is being given something I worked for, paid for, or repaid the benefit of receiving, I know it’s time to stop and ask myself why it even matters to me that someone else needs what they need when I have everything I need to provide for my survival needs and then some?  Taking time to reflect on this isn’t an easy task and often it’s a humbling one because with time and acceptance of seeing what’s behind my reasons for noticing a perceived unfairness, I come to the reality that I’m considering their need through the lens of “fairness” which is not a very good gauge of the worthiness of a particular social service much less of the other person’s need.

At the end of the day there are certain realities of my existence I can’t change that will almost always give me an advantage in any situation based on “fairness” and “equality” if for no other reason than externally I profile as a person of the dominant culture that has created concepts of fairness in the society I live in. Meaning, externally I identify to others who don’t know me well as “white”, middle class, educated, heterosexual, English-speaking, U.S. citizen.

Ultimately, I really can’t offer an answer to the question that was raised at dinner.  I can only contribute an additional perspective.  So I leave you to your own thoughts as I consider these from feminist-science fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin as quoted on my favorite blog, Brain Pickings:

“Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful?”

Rediscovering my learner-voice and my story of learning

Hardly a day has gone by since attending the Krishnamurti summer educator’s retreat in Ojai, California, that I don’t anticipate how the experience will factor into my work with students, or recognize how it’s already impacting my work with educators. As I write this post, two weeks remain before students return to class. But teacher training and work with colleagues has already begun.

One of my fellow retreatants sent an email reminder of homework given to us by our facilitator, Dr. Gopal Krishnamurthy.  At the closing session he asked us to complete the following:

If learning is __________ then teaching is ___________.

If learning happens __________ then teaching happens _________.

In my current environment this means _______________.

Here’s how I fill in the blanks:

If learning is to be transformational then teaching is a continual cycle of inquiry and self-reflection.

If learning happens through self-reflection then teaching happens when I honor multiple ways of knowing.

In my current environment this means I will listen and watch for more opportunities to “take myself out of the way”, so to speak. I will know I’m practicing this when I step back, remain silent, listen with intention, and allow students or teacher-professionals to explore a concept and express understanding in ways I might not have conceived of or “planned for”.

An unexpected result for me from the Krishnamurti retreat has been a resurgence of my inclination toward ways of knowing rooted in intuition, contemplation, and self-reflection – all of which factored heavily into my Master’s thesis about ways of knowing. When I first arrived at Creighton University I took to the study of mystics and spirituality like a duck takes to water. But at some point after graduation, I couldn’t get past the sign-posts used by even the mystics I loved the most. I came to a point where it didn’t matter whether I was encountering Christian symbols, Buddhist symbols, Jewish imagery, or Sufi metaphors…the very use of any one word or concept concretized the communication in such a way that I couldn’t get past any negative notions I connected to a particular vernacular (i.e. God, Christ, the Buddha, Lord). Without realizing it and for various reasons, I had come to the Krishnamurti retreat having thrown the baby (a mystical learning style and intuitive way of understanding the world) out with the bathwater (religious symbolism).

So I’m surprised to find myself at home after the retreat, digging out my Thomas Merton books, re-reading Buddhist sutras, and pondering Rumi with renewed interest. Why now? After seven days devoted to the intense study of one of Krishnamurti’s most essential writings, Learning and the Significance of Life (which is filled with exhortations against organized religion among other things). Why has the California retreat led me back to a path and way of understanding the world that I was certain I’d left behind – outgrown, if you will. Am I Krishnamurti flunky? (Is that theoretically possible?)

Partway through the retreat I found it impossible to ignore the connections I was making to Krishnaurti’s thoughts and those of Cistercian monk and writer, Thomas Merton.[1] Merton’s essay “Learning to Live” was the basis on which my entire thesis rested. “The least of the work of learning is done in classrooms…whatever you do, every act, however small, can teach you everything – provided you see who it is that is acting.” (Merton, p 366-367)

Whereas Krishnamurti seems to have eschewed religious (and spiritual) influences, Merton chose to study, appreciate, and integrate perspectives from traditions far beyond his Catholic interpretations specifically to expand his ways of knowing. This allowed Merton to understand “the wisdom of the human family.” (Cunningham, p 6) Merton didn’t abandon himself as I had, but rather he seemed to find himself through an inquiry of monastics and mystics in vastly different contexts.

Or was Krishnamurti not quite as sterile as I thought? In the course of writing this post, I stumbled upon this YouTube of Krishnamurti entitled What is a Spiritual Life?  in which Krishnamurti gives a nod toward “monks” as not religious.

But do I need to give up Krishnamurti for Merton, or vice versa? Can I deepen my understanding of the world around me by embracing both? And more importantly, what concepts from each can I practically apply to broaden the scope of my work in public education?  Short answer – no I don’t, yes I can, and let me explain how I plan to do it.

I love the way the Universe works! Since returning from California, a colleague in Kansas City shared a deeply meaningful and practical article about critical teacher reflection. Authored by Tyrone C. Howard, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection provides a rich discussion supporting contemplation and self-reflection as practical and necessary to the craft of teaching and learning. I highly recommend reading it in full text. Paste this link into your browser to access it:

For Howard, “The term critical reflection attempts to look at reflection within moral, political, and ethical contexts of teaching.” (Howard, p 197) Merton sought to unite “head and heart, philosophy and contemplation” (Cunningham, p 6) in his writing and in his mentoring of novitiates. And in the two I see that “transformation of mind and heart is the issue…” (Cunningham, p 7).   Krishnamurti also recognizes that without self-reflection little may change in the relationship between teachers and students, “By being fully aware of ourselves in all our relationships we shall begin to discover those confusions and limitations within us of which we are now ignorant; and in being aware of them, we shall understand and so dissolve them. Without this awareness and the self-knowledge which it brings, any reform in education or in other fields will only lead to further antagonism and misery.” (Krishnamurti, p 85)

Returning to the practical approach that Howard describes as, “The willingness on the part of teacher educators to share their own lived experiences, expose their own human frailties, and reflect on their ever-evolving identities within a community of diverse individuals”, he offers suggestions on “how to translate critical reflection into culturally relevant teaching.” (Howard, p 200).

For example, this summer’s retreat has given me an opportunity to reconsider aspects of certain tools I use, like rubrics. At present I find them useful and valid within the context of my environment primarily because I create rubrics to keep myself accountable for ensuring equity when evaluating student work. However, I can also appreciate the necessity for examining whether a specific rubric might end up being more limiting than equity-building if it restricts the expression of knowledge to a stringent model that I have created from my worldview or limited understanding of the content. This is particularly challenging given that I work with students from a vast number of cultures and a variety of languages in an education system that demands knowledge be expressed in only one language (English) to be valid!

This year I am committed to exploring some of Howard’s questions along with many of my own. Howard’s suggestions for reflective questioning include:

  • How frequently do I differentiate instruction?
  • Do scoring rubrics give inherent advantages for certain ways of knowing and expression?
  • Do I allow culturally based differences in language, speech, reading, and writing to shape my perceptions about students’ cognitive ability? (p 200)

In addition to a commitment to answer these questions, I will add a commitment to:

  • Reflect on my current practices in order to understand the difference between instructing, educating, training, and teaching.
  • Incorporate less conceptual knowledge into my practice and increase experiential ways of knowing.
  • Unite head (pedagogy), heart (empathy), philosophy (inquiry and ethics), and contemplation (critical reflection and deep listening) in my teaching practice, and integrate them into the learning atmosphere I offer students and colleagues.

In my search for practical examples of self-reflection as teacher practice, I stumbled on a recent example posted by a former professor of mine, Dr. Andria Stokes at Avila University. In a post on her blog for the Center for Transformational Learning, she applies self-reflection to her role as a student advisor:

“I had to ask myself if my advisees were taught from the beginning to build their learning and social experience at our university, or did I simply share the “required classes” within the time structure that was offered? After a lot of thought, I believe I attempted to accomplish the use of discussion and questioning during advising, but what I did not have was [anything] created by the student to show their thinking during our sessions. What I had was a bank of notes I took to show I covered the needed content.

AHA!  As a faculty member, my job during advising should help the student create a draft of his or her story of learning, make intentional edits along the way, and support each student in creating his or her own voice as a learner at our university.” (emphasis added) — Dr. Andria Stokes

It’s my hope that through a contemplative, self-reflective practice which includes writing my “story of learning”, that I will better support students and fellow teacher-practitioners this year in finding their learner-voices.

Thanks for reading!

[1] You can find Merton’s essay “Learning to Live” in the anthology Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: – The Essential Writings edited by Lawrence C Cunningham.

Getting ready to learn

Chapter 1, paragraph 1, page 3 (PDF version):

“When one travels around the world, one notices to what an extraordinary degree human nature is the same, whether in India or America, in Europe or Australia. This is especially true in colleges and universities. We are turning out, as if through a mould, a type of human being whose chief interest is to find security, to become somebody important, or to have a good time with as little thought as possible.” — J.Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life

School hasn’t officially started and I since don’t teach students in the summer months this post will be less about my classroom and more about my work as an ELL (English Language Learner) Specialist.  As a Specialist I spend June and July researching everything from federal and state policy on education, to what it means to be “college and career ready.” I spend hours deciphering the language of the Common Core State Standards, exploring developments in pedagogy and andragogy, familiarizing myself with changes in standardized assessments, attending conferences where I can collaborate, pose questions, and only hope to spark an interest in new ways of bringing equity to academic education. (K is likely turning over in his grave at the thought that anyone this interested in his book is as heavily imbedded in “the system” as I am!) Any and all of these topics eventually get blended into an infinite number of professional development sessions, workshops, and trainings. Many of which I create, all of which I deliver for educators and administrators. You might also find me coaching and mentoring teachers and colleagues throughout the year. So when does the teaching come in? My classroom work with students will resume in mid-August and runs through the end of May, but a Specialists (and a teacher’s) work is never done!

The most fulfilling aspect of my role as an ELL Specialist is being an advocate. I’ll take any opportunity I can find to discuss the classroom conditions and learning needs of students who are also learning English while learning academic content. (That’s a lot of learning in one sentence.) Although it’s unlikely that K had multilingual students in mind when he wrote “Education…”, in previous readings of his book I discovered many, many connections to his ideas, my students, their learning, my teaching, and our classroom. I promise those connections will surface in future posts.

There are days when education does seem to be all about “…turning out, as if through a mould, a [certain] type of human being…”. The current emphasis in the U.S. is that every student will graduate “College and Career Ready”, but if K were still alive I imagine he would be asking, ready for what? Larger amounts of funding are being allocated to programs that focus on the objective of College and Career Readiness at a younger and younger age. In and of itself, I support the idea that everyone have a choice about college and/or career.  But is there something more fundamental to human development that should be a focus of education?

K’s concern in this opening paragraph appears to be that students will leave school prepared (or conditioned) to only seek security and reputation, and by means of the easiest route to either one. There are days when I wish for more security – maybe a newer car, more retirement savings, the daily presence of a partner. Other days I want to feel important – shouldn’t we recognize each other for something well done? I like to be right because being right gets a different sort of attention than being wrong. And of course I do occassionally imagine myself in a job that requires little effort but provides substantial monetary reward! The days I’m describing are the days when I’ve forgotten that I have the privilege of making a choice about being a teacher.  Neither security or importance comes with the territory of being a teacher in adult ESL education.  However, I do have a good great time in the classroom despite it often requiring a good deal of work.

I love being a teacher because being with my students illuminates the learning I need to do in the classroom within myself.

Thanks for reading!

Re-envisioning Education and the Craft of Teaching and Learning

Why have I chosen this topic?  The short answer is that I’ve just returned from a seven-day retreat, “Re-envisioning Education and the Craft of Teaching and Learning” at the Krishnamurti Education Center in Ojai, California.  The retreat was centered around the book, “Education and the Significance of Life” by J. Krishnamurti.  But the more interesting answer will take a little more explaining.

For two months prior to the retreat I had read and re-read every word of the book.  In many places Krishnamurti’s (K) words resonated with me.  Other times I was aware of labeling his thoughts as unrealistic. This troubled me.  And I thought, how can I possibly explore whether this sort of learning environment can be created?  I’d spent so much time with the book that I’d even counted the number of paragraphs.  (There are 370 to be exact.)  Given that a few paragraphs contain only one sentence, I realized that by focusing on one paragraph a day I could reread the book over the course of a year and reflect on how just a single paragraph applies to daily experience.  As a Benedictine oblate I’ve been well-schooled in lectio divina.  And as a graduate of a Jesuit university, concepts of social justice have woven themselves into the fabric of my life.  An avid journal keeper, a plan slowly began to form in my mind.  I considered how a blog might keep me motivated to undertake an entire year of integrating K’s text into my life as an educator.  With each day of the retreat, I waffled back and forth doubting if I had the stamina for such a public undertaking.  Yet here I am, typing well past my bedtime.

An overarching question at the retreat was, “Can you design a school outside of ‘the system’?”  The ‘system’ being one built on:


sorting and ranking,

linear batching and sequencing of knowledge,

reward and punishment,

and one teacher-many students.

I don’t deny it.  My realm (public schools) is fraught with the stresses of students, teachers, and administrators mired in an elaborate system containing the above components.

There were times during the retreat when I felt like the villain in the room while I waxed rather poetically about why, for example, I use rubrics and how they help me remain impartial and consistent in my evaluation of student work.  Without looking, I sensed the barely perceptible intake of breath, the narrowing of eyes, or the merest hint of a raised eyebrow.  As if by merely using the word “rubric”  I was somehow offending the sensibilities of those in the room who’s educational utopia thrives without the use of any student evaluations or assessments, much less rubrics.  But are rubrics inherently “bad” or “wrong’?

Back home and 1,668 miles away from the retreat I no longer feel as certain about my intentions.  One minute I’m no longer sure of how much anything I do contributes to real learning and understanding.  And in the next minute of thinking about the retreat, I feel more grounded than ever in who I am as a teacher.  School starts in a few days, assessments will begin, and evidence of student progress will once again be requested to fulfill federal and state funding requirements.   I know from having given over 1,000 standardized assessments in my career that they provide a blurry snapshot (at best) of any student’s capabilities.

Perhaps it was my imagination or merely that I wanted to hear something that would enable me to recognize the relevance of my work in the sphere of public education.   During his closing remarks the retreat facilitator, Dr. Gopal Krishnamurthy,  implied that authentic learning can take place when a teacher so committed closes his or her door and dares to leave the bureaucracy outside.   His words solidified a sort of defiance that had been building in me all week.  I realized that while my efforts to ensure my students are really, truly, and deeply engaged in learning may not always be perfect, I can indeed carry the intention of creating a K-school in my heart every time I step into a classroom.

Thanks for reading!