112/365 Play. Empathy. Democracy.

Playing the Building: Installation by David Byrne
I’ve been slowly working my way through Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. (Cataloged highlights from Kindle here.) The text began with much read-noddign on my part. “Yup,” my brain said, “She thinks what I think.”

Because of this, much of the early chapters didn’t feel challenging. Nussbaum was presenting the arguments I find myself making to others all the time. I needed her to either challenge my constructs or deepen my understandings. I saw the merits in her arguments, so I stuck with her.

Happening upon chapter six “Cultivating Imagination: Literature and the Arts,” I’m pleased I’ve kept reading. While the argument for play, creativity, fun, exploration and all their adjoining pieces is a familiar one, Nussbaum does something I’d not before witnessed.

She makes the argument for the importance of play and imagination in strengthening a democracy.

Claiming “Citizens cannot relate well to the complex world around them by factual knowledge and logic alone,” Nussbaum calls in play and imagination as skills to be prized in helping to build the empathy necessary for a democracy in which a plurality of views coexist and build a society.

We cannot get to empathy without imagination.

Democratic equality brings vulnerability…Play teaches people to be capable of living with others without control; it connects the experiences of vulnerability and surprise to curiosity and wonder, rather than to crippling anxiety.

Nussbaum calls for empathy education here. In fact, she opens her chapter quoting education authors calling for the same thing in 1916 and 1971.

I’ve made the call for empathy myself when speaking with groups of teachers. It’s embedded within the Ethic of Care. The pieces new here are the relationship of empathy to democracy and the use of play as a building block for empathy.

If I am not given way to imagine, I’ll never find the space to imagine how you are feeling or see our lives as interconnected. If I never see those lives as interconnected nor your thoughts and feelings as relevant to me, I’ll not take them into account when I think about things like school funding, civil rights, taxation, environmental issues…basically, every idea that intermingles with democracy.

I’ve valued and spoken to the value of each of these pieces – play, empathy, democracy. I’ve not had the occasion to consider them as interdependent and one leading to another. Such a relationship rearranges the furniture in my brain a bit and helps me to find a way to structure a call to action when next I find myself in front of a group of educators.

96/365 School Requires a Surplus of Goodwill

As much as we like to believe that each day teachers show up in the classroom, they are starting with a blank slate and that the fund of goodwill that was depleted through one altercation with a student or another was replenished overnight, this isn’t true.

Being a teacher, being a student – these roles carry memory with them. The student who constantly disrupted class after repeated requests to remain on task will be remembered. The teacher who failed to take the time to ask how a student was on the day when the world felt like the world was collapsing will be remembered. The deleterious effects of these actions will be felt by those who experienced them the next time a quiz grade teeters between two letters or the effort available for a class project can be expended on this class or the other.

The people in schools and classrooms remember how the people in these spaces make them feel.

Because of this, the schools we need must stock themselves with an overabundance of goodwill.

It’s a difficult proposition, but it is not impossible. Within the realm of control for schools, it can only be the adults who are expected to remind themselves of the goodwill necessary to help the children in their care navigate the seemingly impossible task of growing up.

One piece, of course, is mindfully enacting an ethic of care. The reciprocity within such an approach to teaching means that adults who reach out to their students with a drive to create a caring relation will find new energy when that care is recognized by students. In simple terms, we can increase our capacity to care for children by caring for children.

Operating with an abundance of goodwill also means mindfully avoiding playing a “gotcha” game with students. Gotcha games in schools never teach the lessons their perpetrators believe they are teaching. The teacher who has an assignment due by a certain hour on a certain day and refuses to accept the work of a student turned in after that deadline – no matter if it is minutes, hours or days – will point to an important lesson about time management.

The lesson internalized by students, though, is hardly ever, “Oh, I must remember to turn things in on time.” Through the emotions of hard work rejected, students are more likely to learn that it matters more when they do the work assigned to them rather than how well. The lesson becomes, “I should turn this in now even though I’ve not completed it or made something of which I can be proud.”

Gotcha games are improper assertions of power in the classroom. Yes, teachers are within their rights to play such games, but that does not excuse such actions.

The second depleter of goodwill or evidence of its absence is the evocation of the “real world.”

These teachers excuse their hard-nosed approach to “accountability” by explaining they are not accepting late work from an eighth grade student because “when they get into the real world, their boss won’t accept excuses for why projects are not completed.”

This is possibly true. Also true along these lines of reasoning are the idea that this hypothetical job will happen when students are expected to pay rent, worry about health insurance, and file taxes among other responsibilities. They will also be able to vote and consider finding other employment if they want to escape an employer who takes such a hard-nosed stance.

Rarely, do teachers who invoke the “real world” do so in a way that includes the democracy and choice their students will find in the real real world.

Eighth grade is real. It is difficult and confusing, and it is real. Deadlines should exist, and time management is important as a skill. So too, perhaps even more so, is the giving and generating of goodwill. Given the choice between the citizen who has learned to submit things on time and the one who has learned the value and importance of goodwill, the one who understands goodwill is surely the higher aspiration of schooling.

Maintaining goodwill is difficult. It requires vigilance, commitment, and rejuvenation. Maintaining goodwill is one thing other than difficult. Maintaining good will is necessary.

Things I Know 127 of 365: The real world accepts late work

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

– Douglas Adams

Jabiz called me out this morning.

He didn’t mean to, but I’m glad he did. Each of his assertions was incorrect. I haven’t written 124 posts. Neither have I written a post each day since January 1.

Let me explain before you give up on this experiment all together.

This is my 127th Thing I Know. I realize yesterday’s post was labeled “124 of 365,” and there’s a reason for that.

I can’t count. Well, I can’t keep count. If you were to comb the archives, you’d find two 63s and two 94s. I’m not sure how it happened, but every TIK from March 6 on has been a day or two off. I’ll be going back and correcting them, but it’s going to take some time to individually rename half of the posts I’ve written this year.

The second inaccuracy was the claim that I’ve written one post per day. There were a few days over the last couple of weeks that got away from me. From being on the river to writing narratives to entering grades to report card conferences, my days got away from me.

I’m not sure anyone would have wanted to know what I knew in those few days. At least two of the posts were begun in end-of-day exhaustion only to result in me wake finding an open laptop on my stomach after I had passed out in bed.

I counted this weekend. May 10 is the 130th day of 2011.

I owe me some posts.

They’re coming.

No matter whether anyone else cares, my brain won’t sit right until this is all back on track.

What’s interesting to me is my lack of freak out. I could be rambling on and on to myself that I’ve lost the purity of the project or that writing more than one post in a day to catch up is cheating.

I’m not doing any of that.

It will get done, and the missing posts aren’t missing because of sloth or apathy.

Life needed me to prioritize school ahead of writing and then sleep ahead of writing. I obliged.

Today, a student got to my first period class late. We were just finishing up a vocabulary quiz. At the beginning of the year, my policy was that any student missing during the quiz would not be allowed to make up that portion of the quiz.

“Get here on time if you’re think it’s an unfair policy, and you’ll never have to worry about it,” I said.

The tardy student raised his hand once he’d taken his seat.

“Can I make up the quiz tomorrow during lunch?”

“Where were you?”

“I just got to school.”

“Why were you late?”

“I woke up late and then had to catch the train.”

“You can make it up Thursday at lunch.”

Then, I walked away.

I could have lectured him on the importance of punctuality or restated the policy, but that’s not what he needed at the time. The student was visibly frazzled and stressed by getting to class late and missing the quiz. Adding to that would have accomplished nothing.

If he makes a habit of it, we’ll talk.

I’ve been late to meetings and missed deadlines outside of self-imposed blogging deadlines. I’ve felt the frustration of falling short of the expectations of others and myself.

In those moments, it wasn’t the people who lorded the hegemony over me who made me want to work harder the next time. It was those who looked closely to see what I needed and responded from a place of care.

If I ever took advantage of their empathy, they once again responded caringly and called me on my actions, helping me learn lessons I didn’t necessarily want to learn but needed to.

I once taught with a teacher who accepted no late work and allowed no make-up work, citing the real world in her reasoning.

“When these kids get into the real world, they’re going to have bosses who don’t let excuses and tardiness fly.”

I’ve been in the real world for a few years now, and it’s not nearly as cut and dry as my colleague made it out to be.

There are times when deadlines are hard and fast, not to be taken lightly. Other times, life piles up and we’re forced to make choices. Then there are those moments when we make the wrong choices and firm understanding, not berating and belittling, is what’s called for.

I am reminded of this sentiment as I catch up on my writing. I will remember it again, Thursday, as I administer the make-up quiz.

Things I Know 77 of 365: What we read makes who we are and what we do

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

To mark AOL’s consumption of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington announced Monday that “AOLers and HuffPosters (who are now AOLers!) will be volunteering in their local communities” as part of a 30-Day Service Challenge.

Aside from being a good public relations move, it’s also good work. No matter one’s political leanings, jumping in and helping the rest of humanity is a good idea.

I used to teach with a science teacher who had completed a fellowship during which she attempted a different job each week for 52 weeks. At the end of the year, she’d done it all – including her personal favorite, learning to drive an 18-wheeler.

She walked through life with a different and deeper understanding of the people with whom she interacted.

She had taken Atticus Finch’s advice and walked in the skin of others.

This gets toward the heart of why I want so badly for my students to connect with books and be more thoughtful about what they view. These stories, mostly fictitious, provide moments of connection and portrayed experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. I want my students digging deeply into texts because the more they read, the more they will archive. Their brains will become rife with archives of the “what ifs” of all the plots and characters they encounter. And this, this will prepare them for those moments when they are up against odds unknown or come face-to-face with someone diametrically contrary to who they are.

I grew up in a small town of 250 people. My school was in the next town over and educated just under 400 students. While each of us was an individual, the world our interactions created was nothing compared to the complexity of life for my students in Philadelphia or Sarasota.

While I can’t deny thoughtful parenting was the largest preparation I received for the world beyond Cantrall, IL, it was the books, television shows and movies I read that picked up where my family’s experiences left off.

Nothing can replace the actual experience of mucking in as the “AOLers and HuffPosters” are and my former colleague did. Reading, though, can serve as the primer in the absence of the physical experience – the original virtual reality.

Starting next week, my students will be spending dedicated class time on change.org. Launched in 2007, the site both raises awareness of acts of injustice and calls on readers to take action as well by signing petitions or contacting government leaders. I cannot provide my students with exactly what they will need for every possible eventuality they might face. Absent that ability, I can help them build connections with texts, read those texts closely and then ask questions about how what they can do in relation to what they’ve just read.

My mom likes to tell the story of the first time she read me a children’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m not sure of my age, but know I was still in the realm of footy pajamas. As my mother tells it, we’d finished reading the section explaining racism and it affected me deeply.

“You were pacing back and forth yelling, ‘That’s wrong, mommy! That’s just wrong!’”

Though the texts my students or I encounter may not always draw on themes as clearly unjust as racism, both they and I are missing the story if we’re not looking at how the characters are treating one another and how we see ourselves in the pages or scenes of what we’re reading.