Friday, May 3, 2013

Thoughts on living, teaching, & learning...

A few things about my philosophy on living, teaching, & learning...
This is an excerpt from the introduction of my recent promotion packet for full professor...

effective teaching & student learning

That teaching has many benefits is a little known fact to people outside the realm of education. One of the educational world’s not so closely guarded secrets is “summer”. I’d be insincere if I were to make a personal list of teaching pros and not mention it near the top of my list. Yes, summer is a time for vacation, but it is also the season of growing, and for respite, repose, relaxation, and catharsis. Though fleeting, summer is a transitory time between the main events of spring and fall in the academic calendar year. It may be a cliche, but until recently, I spent many of my summers living the life of an artist which is where I would draw much of my creative energies from for honing my trade as a craftsperson, a technician, and moreover, the educator I aspire to be for the coming year. It is a time of dreaming and planning, and also a time to reflect on what has come before. The notion of summer, as this kind of time is nothing new to writers, artists, and storytellers at large, shares obvious romantic and practical qualities in most traditions and mediums. My husband who is rooted in the world of research and science even claims that summer is often the busiest most critical time for himself and his principal investigators. Therefore, what I hope to illustrate is not some epiphanic earth-shattering point, but rather in truth, an introduction and the place from which I am writing this narrative of reflection. As I look back on what I have intended, and what has come to pass and in the six years since I last pieced together a promotion packet, and my ten years since I accepted the appointment of full time faculty here at Saint Charles Community College, I am met with all the organization, strength, persistence, pleasure, and tears of my own design.

I have written in many different contexts, and even my previous promotion packet, about my family and the remarkable number of educators, it comprises. I grew-up on the backs of an extended family almost entirely made of public school teachers; several generations of them surrounded me, and in some shape or form, still do, in person and spirit. The culture of that educators club has its own language and practices just like any other. Nonetheless, summer always carried immense weight as a myth and a legend, a longed for island of rest and health, and a place in which to have the freedom to lose oneself. Educationally, from my point of view as a kid, it was the best classroom of the year. It was in my early years, and is for me still, the most marked, open, revisited, and rich time in my memory for revelation and insight.

June through September is:
1) a time to play/explore, 2) a time to reflect, 3) a time to be together as a family.
By family togetherness, I mean in quality ways that the school year really did not allow; chasing fireflies and the ice cream man, riding bikes, and living as a water nymphs as often as possible were common activities. 

But please don’t misunderstand. It wasn’t all daisies and puppy-dogs. There was plenty of mischief and serious trouble to be had, as well as hard work, I am just not sure how to reconcile the mischief stories’ content appropriately for such a serious assessment as this packet. In fact, in many ways, these summers of my youth held not only the most important learning moments, but also the critical points in time where experiences and content began to take hold. It was the time and place where the connection of the dots could be fleshed out, and more often than not, put into motion. The classrooms were never formal, often consisting of a couple of rickety old lawn chairs, a fishing pole, and my dad and or grandfather silently swaying with the rhythms of the dock on the lake, or a crochet needle, some recycled yarn, and my Grandma Finley’s exuberant company. Walks to collect the day’s harvest in my steadfast & diligent Grandma Sanker’s bountiful garden all made for the greatest experiences in which to think and learn, to make mistakes, and to get one’s hands busy and mind free, or so I like to think. If I come off as spoiled, I was, and terribly so. And if it also sounds idyllic, it was that too. But who really comprehends that in the formative years of innocence? Sincerely, this is a bit of a self-deserved scolding for not being wise enough to appreciate what I had at the time. I believe it is also a bit of a reaffirmation of what it means to find a recipe for learning... and for teaching... 1) Spend quality time with people who are mindful, compassionate, & empathetic, 2) doing things that require you to engage, explore, and create freely, and 3) it is prerequisite that they talk about it with you as the adventure unfolds as well as let you chew on these ideas a while on your own. This could be as great as an epic camping trip and as simple as snapping beans for dinner or dying easter eggs. All the while, the elaborate neuron-connecting process is hard at work creating a foundation for how to think about thinking and enriching associations to narrate and illuminate the path.

I really didn’t have any perspective on how fortunate these circumstances were, nor did I understand the generous gifts that I was so privileged to receive until I fell upon a contemporary developmental molecular biologist and research consultant, John Medina and his Brain Rules books & research. I had no idea that, scientifically, this kind of recipe for our minds was so extremely potent. Most importantly I had none of the foresight to sense that these opportunities would lay the foundation for my own future, investigating how people perceive life, communicate, and learn. All of this paired with inquiry into how one applies mileage to a lesson, even long after it’s delivery, have all become deeply fascinating subjects for me. Over time I have connected and processed many things from my early pings of consciousness, and most primary to my personal lens is that, particularly, visually speaking, I am most interested in memory and experience but also how we employ these experiences. Very fitting interests for a photography instructor, but also as an artist, and absolutely essential tastes for an educator.

As I continue to explore my identity and learn about myself through my latest adventures in parenthood, I unravel so many more of these wonderful acquisitions of experience; moments I have been presented with at some point or another, ones that reverberate powerful echoes. Most often there is an associative thread of familiarity for me back to many of those fundamental realizations, like the discoveries found on seemingly unending summer afternoons, in childhood, or college, when the baggage was light and my mind was vast and open to possibility. These lightbulb moments I find to be the most pivotal, attractive, and the most comprehensive of my growth as a human being. To this day the summer is still filled with many things, but those three primary components that I mentioned early on have the strongest foothold, quickly out-voting my preconceived understanding of what it is to successfully learn something in the most thorough sense. So now, in relation to my child, and my students, I am constantly asking myself what is it to create a place for enriching experiences that enhances the existence of others? Have I done this? and if so, how...? What is a successful learning experience? In my humble and sometimes unpopular and unorthodox opinion, these gifts of the summer just might arguably be the most important three-legged stool to successful learning that I know, (and promotion packet constructing I might add!): free creative exploration, reflection/meditation, and quality time with caring and accessible individuals. To get to the chase, how do I make this happen in my classes? Ah, well, that is where the 5” binder comes in to play...

After a grueling fall semester of reading promotion packets (tough, but I really enjoyed it, and it made meeting so many faculty that I otherwise might not get to know or understand their roles to the college and their gifts to our students possible), a spring semester of many technical growing pains in the computer lab, and too much friction managing my time with my baby-turned-toddler, and then let’s not forget the rest of life, I decided that it was time to start the process of putting together my promotion packet for full professor over my cherished and much needed summer. A glutton-for-punishment? Maybe. But for me it seemed like the natural next step in the process. I often need to commit to writing the things that have come to pass whether that be in my personal life or my studio practice. So as an educator I am excited by the idea of this packet constructing experience. I am a collector by nature, and so now it is a chance for me to step back and survey the entire collection/composition and its parts. It is also a chance to see my growth and make new realizations about the quality of experiences that I am facilitating for my students and colleagues--a daunting task, especially after reading so many wonderful and thorough packets in the last two years. Undeniably though, through that time serving the promotion committee, it became very apparent that I needed some quiet time to reflect and focus in on all that I have been a part of in the last six years of my life as an educator and artist, hence my summer and the context from which I am writing to you. 

I decided that this packet, which reflects upon my achievements and service, needed a purpose of sorts, beyond the obvious promotion itself. I needed to set an intention to my practice/process. I am someone who needs to be able to appreciate the process in which I find myself, and so I did exactly that. I settled on my intention/dedication being my daughter, Finley who will be nearly two by the time you read this. Before I lose you to the core-content of this packet, please bear with me, as I connect the circle here and describe for you what I feel that my role as an educator means.

My intention is Finley, not just because she is my daughter, but because in my mind’s eye she symbolizes for me all the reasons that I strive to be first and foremost, not a perfect person, but a mindful person, and that very important detail about who I am folds itself neatly into my role as educator. She embodies the promise of the beginner mind and the all of the exquisite possibilities of wonderment. This is the place where photography begins and hopefully so does a particular type of living in the present moment. I feel it is my responsibility to show anyone who is interested how to try and tune in to this fine art of “seeing”. Generally speaking, for me, this is all done through the creation of, and discussion of, photography. So it is her unassuming spacious mind that I am honoring in writing all of this. 

Therefore, to tie up my loose ends, this is an not easy, clean, or perfect process. In no way do I want to sound overbearing or self-absorbed. These are simply reflections upon my process and strategies for teaching and learning. I am much like a tour guide, pointing at things and facilitating the logistics of the three hour time slots. I require myself to be willing to laugh, try new things, be playful, and to fail!! in this process in order find these ah-ha experiences. I have had many “banana-accident” moments throughout my time spent figuring out what “teaching & learning” is to me and to others, and I am still growing, for as long as possible. It is certainly anything but glamorous, trying to keep apathetic students turned on and tuned in. I have even heard that my antics are sometimes “dreaded” as I am known to make students swim against what they know to be the current of truth by requiring them to think on their feet, identify their emotional intentions, exercise empathy, write blogs, do service projects, spontaneously practice yoga in mid-class to wake up to or to focus down, embrace technology (when they refuse), work with one another as a community, and most importantly begin to dissect verbally what they see instead of what they WANT to see. But,thankfully, most of them can attest to the fact that no matter how embarrassing, fun, or laborious the creative process can be, or the process of my courses, they won’t soon forget the experiences or the tools that they stand to leave with, and hence whatever life sport they choose to play, they stand to win.

The aforementioned creative & critical thinking skills in the current contemporary landscape are essential to survival and will become even more so as all of our primary mediums of language continue to melt into the lazy use of visual symbols and gestures as our culture continues to shift to a one of access vs. knowledge. I am certainly NOT teaching anyone to cure cancer, but I am very aware of the fact that the tools that my students potentially walk away with in their toolboxes are the ones that do facilitate open dialogue and thinking, and within that recipe there are many cures-- scientific, miraculous, or otherwise. Cultivating the creative toolset, developing visual and media literacy, and the willingness to investigate the world around oneself are the types of tools in one’s toolbox that can facilitate highly productive, cathartic, and intelligent conceptual thought. It also helps create a well-rounded emotional and intellectual life. Additionally, I teach students how to use technology through the seductress of photography. These opportunities to see across disciplines and across experiences help to cultivate personal growth, life opportunities, and successful learning in myriad ways. So, I may not be saving the world, but I sure hope that I am giving many students an invitation to meet experiences in their lives with a skill set that allows them to think on their feet and to see the things that at first glance might normally be taken for granted. I have come a very long way down this road in the last ten years. This binder is evidence of and a testament to the last six. My intentions are offerings to somebody’s Finley--not just my own, and I can only hope that from my planted seeds she will one day inherit and reap a bountiful harvest as well.


This is an excerpt from the introduction of my first promotion packet for associate professor...

Before I delve into the factual evidence contained in this packet, please allow me to introduce some little known facts about myself.  It is integral to understand that I am the product of three long generations of teachers.  None of this is to brag or qualify myself, if anything, it might disqualify me.  It is remarkable.  The head count is really sort of a phenomenon in itself.  The tally goes something like 2 great uncles, 2 grandmothers, 1 grandfather, 1 mother, 1 father, 4 aunts, 2 uncles, 3 cousins, and a little brother, all of whom were/are educators.  As if that weren’t enough, almost all of the folks on this laundry list have been in the business of teaching for thirty years or more.  There are a couple of exceptions, one being my father’s mother who at the ripe age of 19, fresh out of high school, literally had to leave home to pursue a teaching career.  Her family was comprised basically of the stock standard good German farmer bloodline who carried the very altruistic “for the good of the group” mentality.  Against her parents wishes she left home and began teaching in a one room school house in Warren County.  Not for long though; in rural Missouri some seventy years ago a young woman could not continue to teach if she married.  Nonetheless, her career was cut short, otherwise I probably would not exist.  She does however, to this day still see some of her students.  She is 89.  The other grandmother, ten years the younger, taught for thirty years, having received her teaching certificate on much of the proceeds she received from being crowned Miss Missouri 1945 while a student at Central College in Fayette, MO.  

Miss America 1945–Atlantic City  –  Kate’s Grandmother (Betty Ream, later Finley) top row, 5th from the right

If this isn’t a genetic tendency, then there is something very suspicious going on here, wouldn’t you suppose?  
...None of this is to imply that on any level my promotion, one way or another, be based on a predisposition to being a “school person” (as my mother would refer to us).  “Only other school people really GET other school people,” I can hear her even now, perched on my right shoulder as I type.  What I mean to tell you is why I am a teacher.  
When you are surrounded from the moment of inception with an entire family and nearly every other friend, who ALL happen to be educators, there is a really big mark left on you.  Nearly every summer vacation I have ever been on in my entire life involved other school teachers.  As a child, or even a high school student, I’m sure I felt that this mark was more like the mark of the beast.  I was always conscious of my otherness with friends.  Back then it was as if my parents had crossed the line to the dark side, or that they were somehow in-the-know.  In order for me to have contact with them, I too would have to straddle this imaginary line to stay connected to both worlds.  Getting away with anything at school was utterly...well, impossible.  Unless it was one of the few teachers who were too new to know who my parents were (my parents have been around since parts of Mexico Road were gravel) or they were sympathetic to my plight.  Fortunately for me, this mentality too, passed.  
All humor aside, this mark I speak of, and I do believe it is real, has something more to do with a kind of craftsmanship.  These educators mark you in a way that you will never forget and sometimes never live down.  From my experience as a child, no matter how tortured I thought I was, all the way to my current place in the world, it is undeniable to me that there is a quality and a care with which an exemplary teacher handles the medium of your mind, unfolding for you, so to speak, the possibilities. 
Honestly, when you are raised on every side by some dynamite teachers, you are molded, like a piece of modeling clay, by their words, their actions, their habits, the way in which they emphasize things, break things down, or even test you.  One comparison might be that I am a hatchling poking my head out of my shell only to find my caretakers, who would imprint upon me an identity, just so happened to be a pack of dogs.  The possibility has it that I could have been anything.  Regardless, it is a gesture or impression, forever marked on my mind.  As a fledgeling I practiced talking like them, moving like them, imitating their every mannerism, and practicing it on anyone available.  It became ingrained in my vision of myself.  Eventually it became a drive, like a survival instinct--to become my examples.  In light of the person, artist, and educator I have grown to become I seek this same experience many times over again, as a student, as a teacher, as both--always amazed at the marks we make upon one another through our sharing and our transience.  
As an 11th grade student I had the kind of experience that changed me irreparably.  I had the honor of being allowed to be a student in my father’s class.  I was teased greatly, but I paid no mind because what I had the opportunity to observe in that stinky little classroom sealed my fate.  I watched the man who had taught me so many things completely mesmerize a classroom full of apathetic high school students.  He excited them about life, about what they thought they knew, why they should question it, and about how to apply it.  It was all with the same patience, and firmness, and sometimes cleverness with which he had taught me to do so many things--ride a bike, fish, you name it.  These kids were getting it, and it was primarily due to the delivery, the application, and most of all the example.  
As an Assistant Professor now, I too get to see the same epiphanal moments in my classroom.  I am reminded constantly of the students’ hunger for experience and life even when they are none the wiser.  I see them have light bulb moments and moments when I think that they might grab the closest object and poke my eyes out, but nonetheless they are stretching, growing, and sometimes ripping their way into a richer existence.  The existence they are learning about is one in which wonderment is kept alive, and experience is highly valued.  Sometimes it is only a mere glimpse, but they are marked even without their consent.  When the day is done, and someday when I feel as though I have given all I can (and to no avail), I make way to my little home and my little domestic mailbox and I find a letter from a student telling me that, unbeknownst to me, I shared a certain caliber of guidance that she too would like to work in the field of education (see letter from Nicole Sherry in Student Notes, Emails, etc.).  It reminds me that what I do is far bigger than simply imparting information.  It is about humanity, the cycle of life, and a need to make a difference.  It is about an investment that cannot get repossessed off your driveway.  It is about a skill set that far surpasses the 3R’s.  It is everything.  Learning is for the living, may we all never stop.
In conclusion, I never stood a chance really.  I mean to say, I didn’t really have a choice, whether it be genetic or an imprint of my environment; it is this idea that runs through my veins.  It is that feeling in my gut that drives me.  This is why I teach.

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