Things I Know 186 of 365: The teaching is ubiquitous

We seek not rest but transformation.
We are dancing through each other as doorways.

– Marge Piercy

I logged in to the dying social network today and found a message from a former student with the subject line “Blogging Advice”:

Hi Mr.Chase hope you are having a great summer. I am going to be blogging from california in a couple of days and was wondering if you could give me any advice. Thanks in advance!

I responded that I’d be happy to help and asked where would be best to have the conversation. I offered Facebook, IM, phone call, and texting.

I expected a quick IM conversation or phone call.

The student opted for texting, explaining she had no computer access at the moment.

I told her that would be great. A few moments later, I received the first text via my Google Voice number in my e-mail inbox.

I responded and archived the message. This continued back and forth, as you can see below, for a total of 25 messages.

All the while, I was working on other projects at my desk.

A question would pop up on my computer and I would reply to her phone.

It looked like this:

Student: Chase!!!!!

Me: What’s up, kid? Ok. Probably, the best place to start is you to come up with specific questions you have about blogging.

Student: Well, I guess my first question would be about the difference between a more journalist approach to blogging versus a more a free write style of blogging.

Me: Great question. Journalism is going to make sure you’ve got the who, what, when where, why and how in there. The goal is to communicate the story or event to people who weren’t there.

Me: For the journaling piece, it functions more as a personal record that is public. Something for you and your memories that is available to others.

Student: Ok, that makes sense. So what is the best way to establish the so what factor for both of blogging? I get that the journaling type of blogging is more personal, but if you are posting don’t you want people to get something out of it?

Me: The something they get out of it are the stories and thoughts you put into words. Sometimes, I’ll write from the perspective of, “I want readers to do X because of this post.” Often, I just want to tell a good story and make people think.

Student: Makes sense. Does that apply to journalist writing style too?

Me: Yes.

Me: When you’re writing to inform, the goal is to make sure you’re offering information people would want to have.

Student: Wait, that confuses me.

Student: What if it’s something they could care less about until you informed them?

Me: Your job as a writer is to make them care.I would imagine it’s the same as your job as a poet.

Student: You’re right. I would think it’s like writing a persuasive essay but i’m pretty sure it’s different. What the difference between essay and the structure of a blog?

Me: Think of a blog as fitting the information of an essay into a more informal storytelling structure.

Student: So there are no set rules?

Me: Nah.

Just tell the story of the piece.

Then, revise.

Then, proofread.

Then, revise.

Then, post.

Me: My best writing comes from reading blogs. See if you can check out some poetry blogs and get a feel for what others are doing. This will help you develop your taste.

Student: You make sound easy Chase. lol

Me: It’s quite difficult at times. I find the easiest recipe is to find something you want to say and commit to saying it. Again, not always easy, but always good.

Student: Well, I think i’m out of questions. Thanks for taking the time to help me. Hope you have a great summer.               Love, Chella

Student: P.S- I know you are going to be amazing at Harvard!

Me: It’s been my pleasure, kid. If any other questions pop up, don’t hesitate to hit me up.

Me: I’m going to try my best to make you proud.

Student: You already have!

The conversation did two things for me.

First, it made me realize I’m still a teacher. I know that sounds odd, but it’s been a huge fear since leaving the classroom. As confident and dedicated as I am to helping people learn, I was still mentally tied to the idea that the classroom or the official title was somehow tied to my powers of pedagogy. This lesson was just in time and just in need for my student and it showed me I am still a teacher.

Second, it made me think about what was necessary for the conversation to take place. Yes, the technology made it happen. I mean, it was a conversation about using technology as a forum for creation. It also could have happened without anything electronic. My understanding is there used to be these things called letters or missives. If my understanding is correct, my student could have sent me a letter with her questions and then I could have replied with my answers and questions. This process could have continued, similar to the one we used, interminably.

So, it wasn’t the technology that led to this learning.

I needed to know her. She needed to know me. Most importantly, she needed to know I cared and would be there if she had a question. I don’t remember making any statements as I was leaving SLA that I’d be willing to help kids with anything they needed. I’d like to think I didn’t have to. I’d like to think they knew.

Today’s conversation helped reinforce that belief.

As I continue to build systems and structures of care in my life, I will focus on and highlight the tools at my disposal for connecting and maintaining connections to people. Always and forever, I will highlight and nurture the caring necessary for community. Even if they’re multi-medium communities of two.

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Things I Know 159 of 365: I was surprised

We wasted the good surprise on you!

Big Daddy

I’m not an easy person to surprise.

No matter how diligently they tried to conceal it, by the time Christmas rolled around, I’d usually surmised what my parents had bought me.

It’s what comes from being naturally curious and observant, I suppose.

So, today, when advisory began and the advisees I saw graduate last year, after three years with me, showed up, I was impressed that I knew nothing of their plans.

Having received word that I’ll be leaving SLA, my alumni advisees organized a party in conjunction with my current crop of advisees.

They sat down with Matt, my co-advisor.

They got Diana to find out my favorite foods (mashed potatoes and sugar cookies – not usually together).

They organized themselves and threw a party today.

From all the paths they’ve taken after graduation, they returned to celebrate.

Today, I felt special. I felt loved.

I told them what is true – I’ve hundreds of former students out there in the world. I’ll never know what becomes of the vast majority of them. These 40, though, they have my heart. I was not only their teacher, I was their advisor, and that lives somewhere special in my mind. I will always count myself as their advisor.

In Cambridge or Illinois or anywhere else in the world, I will always care for and support these students.

Today, they supported me.

When talking to Bud about my day, I commented I got to experience what it means to be part of a caring community. It was a further reminder that every student and every teacher deserves to learn in such a place.

Things I Know 129 of 365: Sometimes, when we say we’re caring, we’re not

Students in a given high school say that they want their teachers to care for them, but “nobody cares.” Their teachers make a convincing case that they do care (in the virtue sense); they work hard and want their students to succeed. Here we have willing carers and willing cared-fors but no caring relations.
– Nel Noddings

Today’s faculty meeting featured an investigation of the Ethic of Care. A group of SLA teachers self-selected into a study of the EoC at the beginning of the year. Once a month since then, they’ve met to discuss selected readings and their thinking on the subject.

In the second half of the year, each group is presenting on its learning from the first semester. Today we talked about caring.

The EoC has been coming out of my mouth quite a bit lately. SLA visitors, colleagues, student teachers, no one has been immune to my verbal storm.

Such is usually the case when I’m trying to work out an idea. Today, in a small group discussion, I think I figured out what I’ve been talking about.

Much of the time when we claim to be caring, we’re really not – at least not like we think we are.

Teachers assign loads of homework or grade harshly while asserting such actions come from a place for caring for their students’ futures.

Parents punish in anger or limit students’ independence under the guise of caring.

Under the definition of the EoC, though, these don’t qualify.

Nel Noddings explains the existence of a caring relationship depends not only on the one caring, but also on the cared for recognizing the actions of the one caring as being, well, caring.

This is tough.

This is really tough.

In many educational settings, patterns are firmly developed:

  • Teacher assigns difficult homework to help push students to grow and examine complex ideas.
  • Students become frustrated with the work and blame the teacher for not paying attention to what they see as their limitations.
  • The homework goes undone or incorrectly done.
  • The teacher becomes indignant that the students have ignored or negated what he sees as his clear attempts to show his care for the students and their future.
  • The students’ frustrations grow as they continue to receive work they perceive as reinforcing their teacher’s uncaring.
  • Without reciprocation of his intended caring, the teacher’s capacity to care is diminished.
  • The negative feedback loop diminishes everyone’s capacity for caring.

Simply put, if the one caring is the only one who sees what he’s doing as caring, it’s not a caring relationship and the caring will be unsustainable.

Communicating care means taking time to check in with our students to understand how their perceiving our actions and intentions and then working from that understanding to better communicate what we mean.

Saying and believing we are acting from a place of caring means much less if those we are caring for don’t feel the care.

To me, the best piece of this is Noddings’s contention that the reciprocity of a caring relationship isn’t predicated on the cared for becoming the one caring. For a caring relationship to energize the one caring, all he needs is to have his caring acknowledged.

Last week, a few minutes after I’d dismissed class, a student returned to my room. She’s been struggling mightily this semester with some hard core procrastination and disorganization. It’s drawn a fair amount of my attention and encouragement. Things are improving, but ever-so-slowly.

She popped her head into the room.

“I want to thank you for not giving up on me when it would have made a great deal of sense to do so,” she said and walked away.

She knows I care, and that will make it easier for me to continue to do so.

Things I Know 110 of 365: She broke her self against the diatreme

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places.

– Ernest Hemingway

You don’t need to know what a diatreme is to understand this. All you need to know is that Sam cried when she got to the top.

Far from the familiarity of Philadelphia’s sirens, horns and more vocal pedestrians, Sam had hiked with our group to the top of the diatreme.

A few days earlier, she’d flown on her first plane and hiked into the Grand Canyon and out again.

She was well outside of her comfort zone. Well, well outside.

When she arrived at the summit of the diatreme and sat with the rest of the group as cereal bars were handed out and water was encouraged, one of the other adults on the trip motioned that I should look at Sam.

I turned my head to find Sam, chin on her knees, sobbing.

She had just done something completely outside of what had ever been asked of her, and it hit her.

She was hot and tired and in a foreign space eating a cereal bar.

I turned back and nodded acknowledgement.

I didn’t sit next to Sam and comfort her. She didn’t need that from me.

One of the river guides from our trip was sitting, rubbing her shoulders.

Sam knew she was surrounded by people who cared for her. She knew she was safe. She knew we would take care of her.

I didn’t sit next to Sam because that’s what caring for Sam looked like in that moment.

Putting my arm around her and telling her things were going to be ok wouldn’t have made things any more true.

What’s more, as she was pushing herself to do more than she thought she could, Sam needed to know she was there to reassure herself, that she was enough.

I will encourage students (anyone, really) as much as I possibly can and as much as they need.

In that moment, sobbing in the shadow of a 12-foot limestone boulder, Sam supplied her own encouragement.

Friday, as we floated the last few miles of our trip, Sam and I were on the same boat.

She started talking about hiking the diatreme.

“At some point, I just got angry and decided I was going to do it,” she said.

By the time the group was ready to head back to the river, Sam had composed herself. Still visibly raw, she had a look on her face that was part determination and part frustration. The exact mixture of the two parts was fluctuating as she walked.

I picked up a round, flat volcanic stone – a perfect skipping stone.

“Look at this,” I said, “Isn’t this a great rock?”

I handed it to her, and we kept walking.

As we unloaded from the van tonight after driving from Flagstaff to Phoenix, Sam was talking to another of our students and said she still had the rock, that she’d kept it with her.

I’m an advocate of leaving only footprints and taking only pictures. I’ve said it dozens of times over the last week.

More than a small part of me, though, is perfectly fine with Sam bringing that stone back with her. She battled the diatreme and some lesser version of herself. Let that rock be the trophy of her victory.

Things I Know 51 of 365: There are 100 people in the world

Do not compute the totality of your poultry population until all the manifestations of incubation have been entirely completed.

– William Jennings Bryan

I’ve spent this weekend with my godmother and her family.

Karen and my mom met in science class on the first day of seventh grade. Family legend has it they were best friends from then on.

When explaining to people I’d be down in D.C. for a Bat Mitzvah, I’ve been asked for whom. After a few dozen rounds of “my godmother’s youngest daughter,” I switched to “my godsister.”

It slipped out so naturally, I didn’t realize right away that this wasn’t actually a thing. Or, at least, it hadn’t been until now.

If you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends, these people are the family my parents chose for me when I was born.

There’s something pretty tremendous about that.

When I lived in Florida, Ricki, a journalist friend of mine, wrote a profile piece on a local resident who captained a wooden sailboat.

In appreciation for the profile piece, the captain invited Ricki and a few of her friends out on his boat.

The majority of the cruise featured the captain at the helm, me at his side and the three others sunbathing on the bow of the ship.

The captain had spent most of his life on the water, and I took my cue to sit and soak in his stories.

Now, many of them started with, “I can only tell you this because the girls are all up front,” and ended with a good-natured elbow to the ribs, but one thing has stuck with me – right to the stickiest part of my brain – as the other stories have faded away.

“There are 100 people in the world,” said the captain, “The rest are just extras.”

My understanding and interpretation of his words has vacillated and evolved in the intervening years. Always, though, the thought comforts me.

It’s easy to get lost in a world of nearly 7 billion souls or a city of 6 million or even a school of 500.

Remembering there are 100 people in my world, helps me to anchor in the tempest of data, friending, following, redditing, and stumbling upon.

I know 100 is a soft number, and I don’t have a catalog or list anywhere. I tried once to no avail. Knowing they are there proved more important than knowing exactly who they are.

Sometimes, I’ll meet someone I’m certain is a person in my world only to find central casting has sent them for a walk-on role. Sometimes, I’ve absent-mindedly ignored the first moments of what were to become some of my deepest and most lasting friendships.

Nel Noddings writes about the potentiality of being overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for everyone whom we come into contact. The 100 people in my world are the way I avoid that feeling and keep myself sublimely whelmed by the ethical imperative to care for others.

Though I’ve seen Karen and her family a handful of times in the last couple decades, I am reminded of their place as people in my world.

Something peaceful happens each time I am reminded of this.

Things I Know 2 of 365: I am not a vegan

Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly. Did you know that? They can’t even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won’t allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination. If it were only for efficiency, that would be one thing, but these animals literally can’t reproduce naturally. Tell me what could be sustainable about that.

– Frank Reese, Farmer

via Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

When I was a freshman in high school, I announced to my mother I was going to become a vegetarian.

I told her the idea of eating meat after all the dissections we’d done in biology classes grossed me out.

She understood what I was saying, but suggested there might be another reason for my dietary shift. Betsy, the girl I was trying to date at the time, was a vegetarian, and my mother suggested this might be a more likely catalyst for my decision.

I argued ardently against this line of reasoning.

Now, older and wiser, I can admit she was correct.

Almost 15 years later, Betsy is married with two children, and I’m still a vegetarian.

What’s more, I’ve watched pretty much every food documentary out there, read the best of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and the rest.

Whereas misplaced teenage lust was the impetus for going veg, the decision to stay that way has come with a fair amount of research.

I should say, because it needs saying, I’ve never been a proselytizing vegetarian. In college, after explaining the idea of eating flesh grossed me out, I claimed the notion of killing animals didn’t bother me at all.

Just typing that now helps me to see what kind of dork I was in college.

Still, I’ve never been one to spread the good word of vegetarianism. If you want to be all omnivorous with your bad self, have at it.

I’ll be at the salad bar.

Then, in October, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

It was the first time I’d read someone make the moral argument for vegetarianism that made me care.

“Food choices are determined by many factors, but reason (even consciousness) is not generally high on the list,” Foer wrote. And, it started to get to me – even as a vegetarian.

From the moral argument, to the ecological argument, to the nutritional argument, to the sustainability argument – Foer put it all in front of me.

And so, on Black Friday, I decided to conduct an experiment. For one month, I would eat a vegan diet. Suddenly, I couldn’t distance myself from the treatment of the animals producing the dairy or egg products I’d told myself were acceptable because none of them was killed.

So, for one month, I ate like a vegan.

I read about veganism.

I visited vegan websites.

I talked to vegans.

I went to a vegan restaurant.

And, I have to tell you, it felt pretty good. After two weeks, I noted an uptick in energy, and my body felt lighter.

On the downside, I was a pain to choose a restaurant with. Plus, I needed to eat. All. The. Time.

Taking the processing out of my food meant my body didn’t take as long to, well, process it.

In the last week of my experiment, I was seriously considering turning vegan. On the drive from Philadelphia to Illinois, I had a rather lengthy phone conversation with Ben who cautioned me against being fanatic about the whole thing. After we talked, I did a gut check. Nope, not fanatical.

When I walked in my house, my parents ran me through the list of vegan foods they bought at the specialty food store to make certain I’d have enough to eat throughout my stay.

The decision was getting easier and easier.

My mom even made a special dish with rice pasta to take to my grandparents’ annual Christmas Eve celebration.

At my grandparents’, I realized I am not a vegan.

I care about the effects of factory farming, and I realize my place and the part I feel compelled to play in working against a treatment of the land and animals that would set my great-grandfather rolling in his grave.

At the same time I was reading Eating Animals, though, I started reading Nel NoddingsCaring.

And here’s why I can’t be a vegan.

Faced with the corn casserole and the sugar cookies shaped and decorated to look like each of my grandmother’s grandchildren, I realized I care about animals, but I care for my family and they care for me.

In the face of the feast prepared by my family and the reasons for that feast, I realized saying, “I’d love to try a cookie, but I’m not sure where the eggs came from,” wouldn’t quite be in keeping with how I want to honor the care my family shows me.

I allowed myself a 48-reprieve from the experiment. I focused on enjoying the company and offerings of family. The day after Christmas, I picked it up again.

I’m sure there are those who would argue I’ve violated my rules. Maybe I did. When the rules are arbitrary, though, I am uncertain as to how much it matters.

And here I am, again a vegetarian.

Only now, I’m working to be more thoughtful as to the source of the eggs and dairy I choose to consume. The politics of food and what I say when I decide how to feed my body are trickier now than they’ve ever been before. The stakes are getting higher. They require, as so many things do, thoughtfulness – not fanaticism.