Crossing the Divide

Laurentian Divide

Outside of Virginia, I crossed the Laurentian Divide. North of that point the waters flow toward Hudson Bay. It was at that point I felt my spirit began to flow in a direction of renewal. I’m running away – away from the non-stop busyness and always-on of my work-life. And metaphorically crossing the divide to a place that promises a refreshing drink for my thirsty soul.


I’m on a sabbatical. Due to my responsibilities as chair of the school of education, I couldn’t afford to be completely absent on a year we face our seven-year accreditation visit by the state. The compromise was to take a half-time sabbatical for a year rather than full-time for a semester
. It has its pluses and minuses, but it is what it is – and here I am at Bear Head Lake State Park outside Ely, MN.

A sabbatical. I ponder the root of the word – Sabbath. In biblical tradition, it was the Sabbath that God decreed a time of rest. Only with a time to rest, to breathe, to take in that refreshing drink to quench thirsty souls, can we enter back, back into the fray of daily living with a renewed spirit.

Folks have asked what I plan to do on my sabbatical. I have no lofty dreams and ideals to change the world through a program of research to enlighten the world. My most basic plan is to breathe. To inhale the fresh air, to find a place in nature, to seek the council of the trees, the birds, and the water. I am here at the park to listen to that gentle message the wind shares as it blows through the treetops over my head.

OK, I will also do some writing, some syntheses of my elementary science methods course I have taught for the last decade. I will also listen to the messages my students have shared over that time. And, with good fortune, it will produce an article that may shed some light on my craft.

I am ready, and so thankful for this time of rest of regeneration. Life is good.

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You do a great job of not answering my questions

“You do a great job of not answering my questions”, so wrote a student in the final weeks of the semester. A peculiar statement without a context. With the context of the pedagogy I espouse, I find this statement a strong affirmation of an adage I try hard to weave throughout the fabric of the course – “The worst thing you can do when a student asks a question is to answer it.” The pursuit of learning rests within the purview of the student. For me to answer their question deprives the student of the satisfaction gained from their own pursuit of knowledge. To answer the question strips them of the opportunity to grow.

The answer, or the means to find the answer, lies within the student. The job of a teacher is to help enlighten the path toward that answer. Doing so reinforces an internal locus of control. Seek their own knowledge, the student develops a sense of empowerment and agency. So when a student asks me a question, my typical response is to ask a question back. The careful phrasing of the question helps point the way. This lies at the heart of a constructivist pedagogy.

When I was in my fifth-grade classroom, a student would approach me and say, “I don’t understand how to do this.”

My response typically was, “What is one thing you do understand?”

“I understand …”

“What else do you understand?”

“I understand …”

“Anything else?”

“Oh, I get it now!” they would exclaim! I smiled – both at them – and deep within at the satisfaction of being part of their journey to uncover the understanding that lay within them.

My graduate pre-service teacher candidate went on to explain not answering her questions served to interest her to find out more. It kept her passion for learning alive and vital. These epiphanies of empowerment draw a smile emanating from the depths of my soul.

And so another semester draws to a close. Life is good.

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Camping Purity

This summer has been our inaugural season with the Andestuga. We set out on two trips to state parks and finished with a visit to a favorite national forest campground. It has been a delight and pleasure to go through a process of learning how to utilize this phenomenal camper exquisitely matched to our style and interest in camping. The camping life exists out of doors with hikes, bikes, and canoe paddles. The evening is spent around the campfire. It is at night that we climb into the quaint and efficient Andestuga cabin. Cool air circulates through bedside windows and out the roof assuring a comfortable sleeping temperature. Reading lights over our shoulders illuminate the evening’s foray into fiction. The use of the galley to prepare meals and wash dishes has been a delight.

After establishing camp, we typically go for a walk to observe the campground community that is growing around us – particularly enjoying seeing young families engaged in healthy interactions. The presence of a teardrop camper remains unique enough to be noticed. One caught our eye. On our evening walk to witness the camaraderie of campers gathered around campfires we returned in the direction of our fellow teardropper. Our jaws dropped as we passed by. Through the window we could see they were engaged in watching TV. It was a beautiful evening and they were watching television. They had the simplistic beauty of a teardrop and they were inside mesmerized with the pixels of light dancing across their liquid crystal display. Ugh, sigh, groan. I am something of a purist when it comes to camping. Those purist genes were planted in the summers I spent guiding canoe trips in the BWCA. Camping was meant to be a retreat into the simple pleasures found in listening to the crackle of a fire and the wind blowing through the overhead pines. Carting along the technological trappings of the 21st century feels like an abomination. (OK, in the face of self-disclosure, I do have to admit to bringing my Fitbit to track my steps, my iPhone to capture images, and my laptop to type this blog entry)

If life can follow a plan, I hope to launch Andestuga LLC when I retire. While my productivity may be limited to one (maybe two) teardrops a year – NONE will go out equipped with a TV – or an air conditioner. Whoever buys an Andestuga will have to pass my litmus test. Buyers will need to commit to my definition of camping. I’ll even sell for less if they can commit to camping purity.

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Walk alongside

IMG_4779 (1)The EAGALA method of equine assisted learning is based on the emergence of metaphor to raise and refine meaning and understanding. I just finished my second trip through the initial training. In one session, we were asked to work in small groups of four to practice and experience the role of both client and facilitator. During my turn as client, an unplanned metaphor emerged related to an issue of mine in dealing with conflict. Common to all of us was the unplanned nature of what we would do or what would emerge. Also common is the additional meaning that continues to bubble up later as the experience settles into the fabric of our understanding.

I chose a horse to work with based in part on its location in the arena – away from others offering a degree of privacy. By the time I approached, he had moved into the middle of activity. It seemed to me my first step would be to move him back to an area with a greater degree of privacy. Unfortunately, my four-legged partner didn’t share my plan – he simply stood there. I put my hand on his head in an attempt to move him forward. Something about the imbalance of strength that said loud and clear I wasn’t going to move him if he didn’t want to move. I’m not sure how it happened, but drawing on my limited FullSizeRenderunderstanding of horses, I stood next to him, my feet just behind his front feet and began to walk. To my surprise he walked with me and continued to walk in rhythm alongside me even as we passed multiple distractions. He’d occasionally stop. I stopped. I began walking again and he came along. We slowly circled the perimeter of the arena until I stepped away to let him go on his own. The equine specialists on my team shared the observation that his ears were in motion – maintaining a constant vigilance of where I was and what I was doing. For a good part of the walk, they noticed our stride was in unison – wasn’t my conscious doing.

So many places to hold this metaphor.

  • To connect to the classroom – It is my job to have a teaching plan in place, but will only get my students there when we walk alongside each other allowing them to lead, but continually uses all our senses to know where they are and where they are going. Keeping our ‘ears’ in movement, the formative data we are able to gather will help nudge them along the way to success.
  • To connect with relationships – it is not within my ability to move a relationship along from a position of power. It is only when we agree to walk in unison alongside each other, stopping now and then to check in, that we can realize the fullness that relationship offers.
  • To connect with life – I know generally where I want to go, but grabbing on and pulling hard isn’t going to get me there. It is only through stepping in close and walking alongside, stride for stride, reassessing as I go – open to the unexpected – will I be able to grow

This EAGALA work is fascinating work

 

 

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Metaphorical Tradeoffs

IMG_4693
Entering the EAGALA arena is entering the land of metaphor. It is this journey into the world of metaphor that allows me to take my Elementary Science Methods students from inner city Hamline University into a collaborative relationship with 1000-pound 4-legged partners in a rural horse arena.

Ten of my graduate students recently joined me on a crisp Saturday morning exploring the art of teaching at Cross P Ranch. The equine collaborators become metaphorical students as my two-legged teacher-candidates ventured into the arena to get to know their four-legged students. How did they behave? What did they like? What interests did they have? What quirks? How do we enter together into relationship? Their goal was to get to know their students sufficiently to plan a developmentally appropriate activity to engage them.

They found any and all early expectations quickly fell away. The student that looked approachable ran off as the teacher came near. The one that appeared intimidating came a bit too close a bit too quick. Another completely ignored them. Eventually a gentle stroking across the contour of their backsides allowed them to make a connection. Things were looking good – until the teacher candidates began to move into their (loosely) planned activity. Turns out being outweighed by some 800 pounds has a distinct disadvantage. After repeated unsuccessful attempts one teacher candidate picked up a halter on the fence, looped it around a student’s head, and established an effective communication link between them. And off they went.

SONY DSC

At the end of the session, we reflect on metaphors that emerge. One of my students shared a powerful observation. Based in an environment of trust and respect, we are willing to make a tradeoff – agreeing to a level of defined structure for access to the privilege and freedom of the larger world. In the arena, if the horse is willing to accept a halter, they are able move in graceful harmony with their human. Similarly, once we establish a learning environment built on trust in our classrooms, we ask our K12 students to make a tradeoff agreeing to a level of defined structure (the rules of the classroom) for access to of all the classroom has to offer. They have the freedom of input into the shapes and contours of their learning tasks. They have the freedom of movement around the room with access to the full array of learning materials. Living peacefully in the arena of civilized society requires us to be willing to make these tradeoffs. Works for me.

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Be Not Afraid

The Christmas Eve message at Christ the King Lutheran Church was entitled “Be not afraid”. I suspect similar sermons have been preached across the globe. This comforting message finds its ways throughout society. A search for “Be Not Afraid” pulls up a popular song, title of a book, name of an organization, and even a board game. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama made a plea to a global audience to not let the world’s troubles overcome our sense of hope. His message focused on the theme, “We do not succumb to fear.”

Being afraid – the sense of fear – shuts us down. Our energies are zapped, our capabilities dwindle, our thinking diminishes. The sense of fear is a significant detractor from learning – yet too often present in our nation’s classrooms. Maslow’s Hierarchy positions our need for safety only after our need for food and water. For our students to learn to the best of their ability, we need to shape a learning environment in our classrooms that marginalize fear. For classrooms to thrive, the message “be not afraid” needs to be paramount.

On the first class session in the semester, we take intentional time as a learning community to establish a set of guiding principles we can all commit to as a way of helping assure we maximize our learning time together. One of those principles always included is a commitment to safety. The safety we reference is more about the emotional safety inherent in learning than our physical safety.

Most nights we engage in hands-on work that provides a framework for discussions on pedagogy. These activities, while typically simple using common materials are designed to bring to light misconceptions – the kind of thinking that once examined, makes you go “huh”? A quote from this past semester’s course evaluation effectively captures the role of a safe environment: “The best parts were the ‘I didn’t know that!’ moments in which we were able to admit to misconceptions in our science knowledge. This would not have been possible in an environment that was not trusting and supportive.” We explicitly and intentionally work toward establishing a learning environment that encourages risk-taking amidst the principle of not being afraid. This does not come about on its own – enabled only through a consistent practice of nurturing safe spaces. I find great satisfaction when, as a learning community, we arrive at that space.

 

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One nail at a time

With hammer in hand and nails in my tool belt, I go out in the morning to work on the addition to our house. We’re adding a bedroom, bathroom, mudroom, and built-in breakfast nook. I hired the basement dug, cement floor poured and block walls laid. From that point, I am doing everything else – with the kind help of friends and family as they are able. I collapse into bed at the end of a long day – most often feeling success and occasionally feeling totally overwhelmed. I have made good progress, but have an astonishing long way to go.

To prepare myself for this task, I took on the Zen of jigsaw puzzles. Completing a jigsaw puzzle requires a healthy dose of patience. With the big picture in mind, I go about the work of slowly fitting one piece at a time – pounding one nail at a time. With patience, persistence, and determination, I have been able to complete many jigsaw puzzles. With the promise of someday laying my head down at night in our new bedroom and enjoying a hot cup of coffee in the morning at our new table – I go out each day to hoist a floor joist, put up a wall, raise a rafter, nail down a shingle, install a window, nail siding, run wire, tape drywall, and paint walls. The end result is a collection of pieces artfully put together to create an artful whole – each resulting in a deeply satisfying feeling of accomplishment.

Teaching is like that. One lesson, one interaction at a time, we slowly put together the puzzle pieces to open the door to new learning. It is only after hard work over sustained time that we are able to stand next to our students and enjoy the intense satisfaction of our shared work.

Putting it all together as a whole, I have learned patience and persistence. I value the help and support of others. We can all accomplish great things – one step at a time.

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Trust the Process

SONY DSCOn Saturday, I took eight students from my elementary science methods class to Cross P Ranch for a morning with the EAGALA model of equine assisted learning. We used the unique environment of the horse arena to engage in a discussion of the art of teaching. EAGALA is an on-the-ground (no riding) form of experiential learning. We use experiences conducted with the horses to initiate metaphors we can hold up and connect to what it means to be a teacher. It provides a powerful experience building from a unique vantage point to explore our craft.

An oft-repeated phrase in training for certification in the EAGALA method of equine assisted learning is the adage to trust the horses – to trust the process. With goals articulated, the facilitation team designs activities and sets up the learning environment in the arena. With a plan in place, the team steps back, observes interactions, and allows the experience to unfold. When the learners indicate it is time, we step in and facilitate the processing of the experience. That processing is done largely through questions anchored directly in the learner experience. It is our job to help the learner construct their own meaning out of their experience. “What did you notice? What was it about that (thing noticed)? How did that work out for you? What connections are there to the classroom?”

SONY DSCWeeks ahead of time we defined our goals and laid out the frame we would use to move our students through the morning. My students were to be the teachers with the horses becoming their metaphorical students. Our three-hour session would be broken roughly into three segments: (1) founded in the importance of relationship in teaching, the teachers were to get to know their students. What were they like? What were their strengths? What were their quirks? How do they respond? (2) With the formative knowledge of their students in mind, the teachers were to set a developmentally appropriate goal and create a plan of how they would move their students to the goal. At that point, they were in a position to carry it out. (3) Building on the performance knowledge gained of their students, they made next step plans to advance the complexity of their goal and instruction. Between each segment, we would stop to process the experience.

SONY DSCA plan in place – all we had to do is move through it. There is a reason EAGALA sessions are co-facilitated. During phase one of getting to know the metaphorical students, my desire to control and step in at the first inkling of unease, went into high gear. I’m grateful, at least, I had recognized it. I grabbed Michelle’s jacket and looked for her support. She quietly stated, “Relax. It’s working. We need to trust the students, the horses, and the process.” We eventually moved in and asked a few questions. They didn’t need much help – what we set up did its job. They moved into the next phase. With a goal in hand, they went about their work. One group turned “my” 45-minute plan into 5 minute lesson. Their student moved right through their goal. Once again, I had to fight my desire to control and let them work through their own experience, which they ably did. Moving into the third segment, I, again, wanted to input “my” control and make adjustments into their work, but held back. Michelle asked them, “What would you like to do next?” They put together a plan that far surpassed anything I could have directed them to.

So the metaphor — I don’t consider myself a controlling person, but I can certainly struggle with feeling over-responsible for those in my care. We/I am reminded of the need to trust – trust in the process, trust in the system, trust in my students, trust in my colleagues, trust in myself. So often, the best thing we can do is to listen, nod, ask a few questions, but otherwise be quiet and allow our students space to work. EAGALA works, inquiry works, constructivism works, relationship works, maintaining students at the center works. It is good to have those messages reaffirmed from time to time. No better way than with our four legged colleagues in the arena.


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A Holy Moment

Cradling my dear Aminata

Cradling my dear Aminata

I met my granddaughter for the first time last weekend. She was all of six days old. Arriving on the scene at a mere six pounds, six ounces, her physical presence on this earth was seemingly diminutive. Alternating between sleeping, nursing, and filling diapers, she was completely dependent on those around her. She was content to be held. Her dark, brown eyes roamed the room soaking in the colors, patterns, and textures – seeking to make sense of the amazing new world around her. When things didn’t feel quite right, she would let out a squawk. This simple utterance brought an immediate response. She was making herself known. With no experience or training, she soon had those around her trained to meet her every need.

I held her in my arms – so small, she barely extended beyond my hands. Yet, in that single moment, the world around me stopped. My entire being focused solely on that precious, delicate, little life. Moments like these – those possessing the power to bring the hustle bustle of the world to a screeching halt – are fully embodied with the holy.

In an age of texting, I had pictures on my phone within the first minutes of her young life. Proud grandpa that I was, I carried those images of my new granddaughter wherever I went – freely showing them off to everyone I met. And all would stop and look with me. There is a strange babbling that comes to the mouths of otherwise dignified adults when faced with the image of a baby. They cooed and ahhhed and declared this new little life a beauty. No argument from me.

Holding hands

Holding hands

There is something about the precious helplessness of a new baby that causes everyone to stop, embrace an inner gentleness, and breathe in the sweetness of the moment. Seems to me if a baby were to be placed in the arms of world leaders, we would soon find peace on earth. While her physical presence is slight, the power she casts on all those around is enormous. Welcome to the world, my dear Aminata. I love you, and thank you for wielding the kind of power to slow down the dizzying pace of the world enough to soak in your sweet essence.

Peace on earth

Peace on earth

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Versatile Blogger Award

versitle-blogger-bwSo why do I write? in a blog format? What is it about the act of writing and putting my thinking out there knowing and expecting that someone may read it? With the hope, even, that someone does. Does it matter if they do? Blogging is an interesting act. I write from what interests me, set it aside overnight, then click “Publish” the next day. I check the WordPress stats page to see if anyone has, by chance, found their way to look at it. I can tell they brought it up on their device, but don’t know beyond that. Occasionally someone will comment. I’m pleasantly struck when I see people from around the world have stopped in for a look. It makes me wonder how they ever made their way to the “Purple Crayon.” All makes for a bit closer world.

On occasion, there is a nice connection with another blogger that sees the world with a similar lens. And today I share a thanks to Ally from “My Little Piece of Quiet”  for nominating my blog for the “Versatile Blog Award”. While not a Pulitzer, it does point to a shared link through the expressed written word. Perhaps that is the motivation behind writing – seeking the connection of like spirits. I thank you, Ally, for listing “The Purple Crayon” as one of your nominees.

Interestingly the February issue of “NSTA Reports” (National Science Teachers Association) came out. I had a shared contribution to an article by the editor on the role of learning through mistakes.

In keeping with the “rules” of this award…

Seven facts about me…

  • I find some of my greatest pleasure in creative acts of building…
  • …tangible products in my woodshop
  • …less tangible, but equally creative – a welcoming classroom learning environment
  • Excited to be a grandpa for the third time by the end of March
  • I’ve been enjoying viewing again all the Star Trek episodes – now on “Deep Space Nine”
  • I have a well-preserved orange that dates back to my first year of teaching (forgot it in my desk to be found only after it was well on its way to long term preservation)
  • Every year of marriage finds its way to become increasingly richer – approaching 38 years in a few weeks

Selected blogs worth reading

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