mystery: my day in black and white

things begin to make sense when they don't make sense

     It's Spirit Week, which conjures up images of ghosts or alcohol. However, it's really just a chance for students to dress up as nerds in the name of school pride. For what it's worth, I'd rather have students feel a sense of pride in their learning rather than in the institution that houses them. Yet, I can see that dressing up for Eighties Day does give kids a sense of belonging (Incidentally, the day is about a decade and not a day to celebrate octogenarians) and if dressing up as a marginalized group is necessary to empower students in their learning, then perhaps Nerd Day is necessary as well.
     Kids are wild during Spirit Week, but I am able to round the class up  and direct them toward Bell Work. We call it “Bell Work,” but our school doesn't really use bells. I guess it's better than, “silent work to do while I take attendance and make last-minute changes to the lesson.”
     I walk around and read the student answers to my question, “What are the pros and cons of being proud of your culture?”
     I smile smugly at my class at work. Students are thinking deeply and working quietly. I've arrived. After half a decade, I've figured out this whole teaching gig.
     As I walk by, I read a student connecting the dangers of nationalism in the Holocaust, current fear of the Mexican culture and his own experience of discrimination as a Haitian living in the Dominican Republic. The student next to him sputters out a sentence and whispers to me that it's too hard. She's not the only one. Two boys send instant messages instead of writing blog entries.
     Maybe I haven't arrived.
     One boy raises his hand in confusion. “Which culture do I choose?” He then describes living on the reservation as half-white and half-Navajo and never feeling at home in his own skin. “Except it gets worse. I'm not really half white. My dad was white and Indian. Not the kind of Indian that they name baseball teams after. The kind that own convenience stores and work as doctors.”
     Do I even begin to confront the racial stereotypes in his comments? Is now the time to engage in that discussion? Or should I appreciate his honesty in exploring cultural diversity? There is no handbook, no memo, no conference speaker that can hand me an easy answer.
     As the class moves into small group discussion, I watch a few conversations turn intense while others trail off into conversations about the weekend. On some level, the lesson works and I'm shocked by their ability to articulate a complex philosophical concept. On another level, I'm lost. I'm wandering in a cave with a flame that flickers from bright to nearly extinguished. The minute I become convinced that I have reached some sort of expert enlightenment, the flame dwindles back down and I come to terms with my own ignorance. It's a mystery.
*     *     *
     Rewind five years and I'm sitting with liquid happiness in my hand. “Brad, people really pay attention when you teach. What's your trick?”
     “There is no trick. I think people seem engaged, because I'm provocative.”
     “What makes you provocative, though? What do you do to get people so into it?”
     “I plan like crazy ahead of time,” he says and takes a long sip from his pitch black coffee. “Then I set
down my notes and I teach in the moment. It's serendipitous.”
     “So, you ditch your notes entirely?” I ask.
     “I actually throw away all lessons after I write them. I want it fresh. I need it to be in the present tense. Does that make sense? So, I'm totally prepared and yet completely unprepared. That's a mystery or a paradox. I can never keep it straight which one is which, but the ideas are held together in tension,” he says and locks his hands tight.
     “What if you get off track?” I ask.
     “It's something you feel your way through. It's a dance, I guess. You lead, but then you follow. Sometimes you step in and correct and sometimes you let it go and sometimes you end up stepping on toes in the process.”
     Brad warns me that a teacher could fill up a white board with observable objectives and start to believe that learning is an observable behavior, missing the mystery of a person's mind. He believes the most dangerous place to be as a teacher is in that place where you are convinced you understand everything about a person or a subject or an idea or even about oneself.
     It's hard to believe that education isn't a commodity and it's not a behavior. It's a mental process and any assessment is a fuzzy picture at best. For all the talk of the importance of data and research and daily reflection, I do best when I don't over-analyze or try to chop up the pieces into a highlight reel.
      When I think I see what's going on, I am most likely lost. When I let go and feel my way through it, things begin to make sense.

*     *     *
     When I was in high school, I tried to argue my way out of an F on a test.  It was a real lame attempt, based mostly on the fact that a failing test would mean I'd miss a cross-country meet (to most kids, running was a punishment, but for me it was freedom).

Me: Does math have to be binary? Does every question have to have a right answer?  To me, this word problem could work a few different ways based upon interpretation.
Mrs. D: There's either a right answer or there's not.
Me: Or there's both.
Mrs. D: The answer was wrong.
Me: But I got the right answer.
Mrs. D: But you used the wrong process.  If you try that on other problems, it won't work.
Me: Maybe there are many ways to solve one problem.
Mrs. D: See, that's why you and I are different.  I see the world in black and white.
Me: I do, too.  But black is the absence of all color if you look at it as light.  If it's pigment, it's every color combined.  So is white.  So black and white are both non-colors and all-colors co-existing at the same time.  That's a paradox I can't wrap my brain around.

     I still earned an F and missed a cross-country meet, but I knew, even as an arrogant high school student, that the world is not held together by a series of two binary options. I knew that even something as "cut and dry" as math was often only partially cut and more muddy than anticipated.

*     *     *
      I believe in absolute truth.  It's an offensive idea to many of my trendy hipster friends, who like to "send positive energy" my way instead of saying a prayer.  I believe in mystery and paradox and relativism and sometimes that makes my church friends just as nervous, fearing that I'll someday transform Jesus into a pot-smoking Hippie at a folk concert.
     I don't buy into left-brain and right-brain theory, as if all people are more of one than the other.  I think everyone is capable of using their entire brain and that, when push comes to shove, we're a whole lot more motivated by the Amygdala than we like to admit.
     The mind is a mystery.
     People warn me not to trust my emotions; that they are a fleeting vapor.  So are thoughts. Consciousness is a stream.  But some things will always be permanent. Witnessing a kid getting bullied will always piss me off and a certain acoustic Eric Clapton song will always remind me of the first time I danced with Christy and genocide will always stir up feelings of anger and sadness and even a certain level of guilt for my middle class apathy. The mind is fluid and permanent, linear and disjointed. A sage of the past said, "The heart is deceitful above all things and without cure.  Who can understand it?"
     I tend to agree.

*     *     *
     This week my students will take a drill-and-kill test to prove what they don't know. I will walk around pretending to proctor while my mind conjures up plot lines of imaginary graphic novels I'll never draw.  The only reason I won't cheat and grade papers is that I care about my administrators enough to play nice. “Play” is the key word here. It will be a game of pretend.
     Multiple choice cannot measure knowledge, much less wisdom.  Still, the results will be sixty percent of their final grade in the core subjects. Most special ed students will fail and it won't be the fault of the students or the teachers. Point this out, though, and the elusive "they" will accuse you of low expectations. Many English Language Learners will fail as well.  Mention this and you'll hear a lecture on high standards.
     It seems to me that if the mind is a mystery then maybe we should be a little more humble in how we approach assessment.  I say "we" because I often end a grading period with a lingering sense that I have let students down; that I didn't get to know them well enough or offer enough feedback or spur them toward deeper thinking.  If I'm not careful, I'll get as bad as the textbook conglomerates in wanting something measurable to validate my efforts.  Maybe the old sage is right.  "Who can understand it?" It's a mystery.
     So, students will walk into my class and I will try and engage them in a dialogue about technology and how it is reshaping their world.  I will fight a battle against online games and Facebook status updates and a site promising free music in exchange for one's personal information.  I will try and convince my students that a book might speak as much truth into their lives as a screen. I'll feel like a hypocrite for having them use technology to criticize it and then I'll tell myself that it's necessary to speak their digital language to get them to see the dark side of technology. Eventually, I'll settle on both and recognize that my students need to be part technophile and part Luddite. While they tap away at a binary machine, I'll ask them to think in paradox.
     Sometimes I get tired of technocratic futurism and grand predictions of "a new pedagogy." Yes, computers are cool, but so is Socrates. I want my students to be mindful of the past and interested in the future and present in the now. I want them to engage in the mystery. Perhaps that is too much to ask of a twelve year old.  I'm thirty years old and still haven't figured it out yet.
    I will encourage my class to criticize that which they use and use that which they criticize and when that feels to schizophrenic, I will break this up with some humor. Yes, I want them to laugh at a fart joke or a funny accent or a song parody.  Laughter is just as human as abstract conversation and on a good day I'll remember that I'm still teaching kids and that as much as I want to prepare them for adulthood, I still want them to savor childhood.
     I will engage them in a conversation about whether or not the computer world of binary reality is as pretend as The Matrix and the act we put on is as poor a performance as Keanu Reeves. If I'm humble enough, I'll be transparent and maybe even a little vulnerable. I won't try to make a difference, but in the process I just might shape a mind or two. And I'll be baffled that they can learn from someone who is broken - not despite the fact that I'm broken, but because I am broken.
     The end result will be a beautiful mystery.  Not sloppy, but not exactly planned, either.     
     After all, it's black and white.

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