The Art of Lifelong Learning

I have been working steadily as an educator now 11 years, some of it very frustrating, most of it joyous. I will teach in any setting, will work with any age group, and the size of the group matters not a whit to me. If I can share the information I have cultivated and the passion I feel for writing, language, reading, and learning, I will do it. Often I even am paid for my instruction and that is becoming more and more a precedent, which is a good thing since this is my career.
In school settings, particularly in the one district that I served for 6 years, I was frequently scheduled to work with what I refer to as reluctant learners. Other times, I was placed in “special ed” classes in which students mostly had emotional issues and/or learning disabilities, I assume with the hope (or even expectation) that I would not only address skills needed to bring scores up on the standardized assessment tests but also perhaps excite the students. Now, those who work in education understand the delicate balance of special ed: there is often additional funding to provide the support, even if just a small budgetary asset, so that is a potential plus; the other side of the seesaw is that those students labeled with special needs will test lower and bring the overall rating of the school down (and, thus the teachers who may face evaluation and public scrutiny in the process). This will affect funding, faculty assignments, sometimes even the fate of the entire school. These are very high stakes.
I am not sure what happened with my work in that district overall. There was never any formal assessment of my work, which leads me to believe that there was a certain disconnect with the value of what I was developing to meet the needs of improved literacy as well as English Language Arts proficiency. I had hoped that there would be a tracking of the students, some of whom I met in elementary school, taught again in middle, and then in the high school. I was hoping to not only further develop my pedagogy but prove that it had merit. We never did the pre- and post-tests. There was no step to that higher level of documentation and observation. On the one hand, I had tremendous freedom in my work, often tailoring my lesson planning to specific classroom needs and requests from the teachers themselves so that was the upside. The downside is I have no data to indicate my effectiveness. I can only hope. 
In that district, I worked annually in five schools: two elementary, two middle, and the one high school. Add to this schedule the other districts where I gained contracts, plus my adult education, and a single class at the college level, and I determined that I was teaching an average of 2000 individuals a year. Most of those students were before me for an average of 3 – 5 contact sessions.
I have been observing that the philosophy of lifelong learning is fading over the horizon. Even with adults, the idea of being a learning machine is not prevalent. We are a goal-oriented society much more than we invest in the value of process. In the college level course as well as the adult writing workshops I facilitate frequently, I have discovered an attitude that I refer to as consumer-based education; in other words, “I am paying for this so you have to teach me what I want and the way I want you to teach it.” I find this frustrating.
The idea that an experienced educator, or even expert in one’s field, would determine how they best can convey the knowledge to the student who does not yet have it is not valued, particularly once one has presented a check or a credit card number to pay the course fee. Often, the student wants to decide how much they can be asked to read, to produce, and how the course should be structured. Just as often, the paying student does not even fully understand the nature of the course he or she has signed up for after reading the 30-word blurb in a brochure but still wants the course to meet some preconceived idea of what they will be experiencing. Additionally, some (albeit a very small minority) can be quite vocal about their perceived needs and expectations, even confrontational.
The word I use more and more often about the process of writing is discovery. I want students to discover what the poem wants to be, to discover the wonder of a great line, or the sound of the vowels, or the subconscious metaphor in their work. I want them to be curious rather than exacting. I want them to be patient in letting the work unfold, knowing that there is no deadline in creating a good piece of writing. Deadlines only apply to homework and publishing.
Racking up a pile of adequate poems is far less important that lolling about with a new work and striving for the best word, the most advantageous line end, a new stanza configuration, all with the goal of creating something magical, or even important. What does it matter if a writer spends an hour rearranging a new piece to see what will be implied in the process? After all, isn’t that part of the joy of being a writer, playing with language to discover all its potential and impact?
If I ask a class of adults at the beginning of each session, “How was your week as a writer?” I am suggesting that they take the time from all their other obligations, duties, and distractions to honor that part of their selves, their identities. It is no frivolous query. Yet, sometimes those adult students balk at the question, shy from it, and then complain about it on my evaluations. They are looking to get a particular set of teachings or experience, mostly “What do you think about my poem?” rather than “What can I learn about being a poet?”
I am never complacent about my work. I demand a great deal from myself. I read other poets and read about poetry regularly, I talk with other writers, I experiment, and I push myself to grow, to never believe I know all there is to know about the art. I have determined that I know a fair amount and that I have a certain level of skill that I am now becoming comfortable in, even confident. I know I have a viewpoint that is worthy of sharing. I have also discovered that a classroom full of seemingly cranky 5th graders will often be more open to discovery than any number of adults. This is so in adult writing workshops and in teacher in-services. It is sad that we only want what we think we need. We want praise and a list of “how to’s” rather than being willing to let the instructor be the driver and to sit back and enjoy the ride, while discovering that there is a new landscape beyond our own knowledge and expectation.  In the interest of discovery, I rarely forecast what I will be teaching. I am resistant to syllabi, and equally resistant to rubrics.
I teach what I want to learn. I learn more every day so I can teach it better. I love my work but I do wish that every student enters a class because they are more interested in process than product. The product will come. This much I know. Now to convince the customer.
Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Lifelong Learning”

  1. You've nailed some very central teaching concerns as I see them. The passive-aggressive "I'm the customer" attitude is one I confront face-on in every class I lead, arguing for the idea that the classroom is more like a gym than a gas station: they're here to work out, not to receive. Luckily, the better students get over it as soon as they see the reasonableness of accepting the teacher's expert leadership. Still, most of them (even Oswego's graduating English majors, believe it or not) report that their overall learning goal falls far short of BEING a writer. And their writing sadly shows it!

    But the problem that concerns me most is the first one you bring up: the way our work is so little valued that no one wants to measure its effectiveness. When I ask college statisticians (or their bosses) to track my performance against others' or against the average, eyes glaze over immediately. I don't even get coherent excuses from those folks. Possibly, though, it's because they know that lots of other faculty would scream bloody murder at the prospect of their effectiveness being measured in such a specific way. I'll bet ten bucks I beat most of their pants off, though.

    So keep fighting the good fight, GA. the stakes, as you say, are very high.

  2. Thanks Jim and I agree that you are probably well in the lead of many. But we persevere because we believe in the work and its purpose. We will keep going because sometimes we see the spark in our students.


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