Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stepping back and Breathing in...

The winds that blow through my educational institution this March warn of increased class sizes, smaller budgets, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes. My students confront the state exam next week, a measurable outcome that significantly impacts us all. If I let it, these problems can suck me dry. Sometimes I spend hours debating with colleagues, reading professional publications, and racking my own brain, trying to think of answers to the big problems facing public education today. Ultimately, I realize that I am a teacher, and regardless of the system’s trends, I need to protect my own pedagogical fire in these winds. What do I believe I am there to teach when I stand before my students?

Luckily for my buffeted soul, I remembered a key influence on my pedagogical fire, Elizabeth Hutton Turner’s Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things. Even more amazingly, I found the book quickly amidst my piles. Comfort flashed through me as I just ran my hands over the cover. Ten years ago, I first read Turner’s essay, “The Real Meaning of Things” in a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, steps away from the Phillips Collection gift shop where I impulsively purchased the book. It fell easily to the pages most pertinent to my spirit, to the passages that most call my name. Turner explains the effects Arthur Wesley Dow’s philosophies had upon O’Keeffe’s work. She writes, “Dow wrote, ‘The study of composition means an art education for the entire people, for every child can be taught to compose—that is to know and feel beauty and to produce it in simple ways.’” My mind instantly transposed these ideas for the visual arts to the written arts. With kindred recognition, I read on: “O’Keeffe told her high school students to find art in the everyday: ‘when you buy a pair of shoes, or place a window in the front of a house or address a letter or comb your hair, consider it carefully, so that it looks well.’ Max Weber, a former student of Dow’s…instructed his classes…with much the same mantra: ‘Culture will come when every man will know how to address himself to the inanimate simple things of life. A pot, a cup, a piece of calico, a chair, a mantel, a frame, the binding of a book, the trimming of a dress…these we live with. Culture will come when people touch things with love and see them with a penetrating eye…’” Sigh. I find just typing such sentiments a gorgeous experience.

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When I teach students the magic of words shifting parts of speech as they move about a sentence or how the scansion in a sonnet reinforces the meaning of the words, I believe I liberate them to lives of simple beauty. I do. If they can find adventure through text and exhilaration through writing, they can live lives without boundaries, the rich inner lives of those who see beauty and gain wisdom from the everyday. (It’s the way I want to remember to live, too.) No one needs to agree with me. No school system needs to adopt this philosophy as its core curriculum. These are some of the ideas that inspire me. Reading this essay, feeling in line with artists empowering others, that’s what lights me up when I stand before my students even if we’re reviewing for a state exam. My pedagogical fire is my secret weapon, and no one will protect it but me. I’m not putting this book back in the pile. I want to leave it where I can see it, especially while these winds blow hard. Teachers must find and protect what excites them about education. We owe it to ourselves and our students.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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