Students are typically not taught about the complex nature of interpretation and the assumptions embedded in and power imprinted on all knowledge. Many political and educational leaders deem such profoundly important dimensions of learning unimportant. Indeed, many power wielders view such insights as downright frightening, as critical teachers begin to uncover the slippery base on which school knowledge rests. Knowledge production and curriculum development are always and forever historically embedded and culturally inscribed processes.
From Critical Pedagogy
I’ve been a student (through the text) of Parker Palmer for years. Scottie May introduced me to his book when I took a class on teaching and learning at Wheaton.
The book, To Know As We Are Known, was my first encounter with Palmer’s thinking. His work is foundational to the educational theory I’m developing for clinical pastoral education. He talks about prayer as a relational act. He nods to the explicit spiritual power of prayer. His subtitle is Education as a Spiritual Journey. Still, he lifts prayer as an act that can connect us to others.
It isn’t a religious act as he sees it but a relational one. Education is the same. We can relate to people and to ourselves in the learning environment.
Consider how you’ll connect to others today. What will be your prayers? The ones you utter and the ones you mutter. My sense is that we pray a lot more than we think, and in that prayerfulness may be the roots of what’s needed to relate to others.
A midwife teacher helps half-baked ideas and perceptions develop in dialogue to fuller maturity. What is important is not to begin with perfected thought, but to encourage creative thinking that is pushing the edges and discovering where novelty becomes possible. A midwife helps life come during the moment of intense labor by helping a woman focus in, to concentrate on the essential, to relax into the moment. A midwife teacher does the same by guiding one to see what needs to be focused on and attended to and creates the kind of space where one can become relaxed and be oneself.
Midwife teachers know that to bring new life and truth into the classroom, they must ask questions that do not have predetermined answers, but search honestly for the revelation of truth in a community seeking truth.
From Images of Pastoral Care, 219-220.
Last month I had the opportunity to visit my mentor and father-friend, Dr. Johnathan Alvarado, on the occasion of his 50th birthday. His wife, Dr. Toni Alvarado, invited a collection of colleagues, parishioners, friends, and extended family to a party. I stayed for the full weekend as we celebrated him. I had the chance to represent those who JEA have mentored over the years—in my case, nearly 25 years.
The weekend and the writing of my reflection ahead of it gave me an opportunity to bring to mind all the things which he’s been to me, to my marriage, and to my family. His (and their) exemplary ethic in the practice of wise, enduring, faithful, intellectually responsive, and Spirit-led ministry mark me in my attempts to do similarly. I’m part of the fruit of his life. I’m part of the estimate of his leadership.
Bishop Alvarado shares me with other people who’ve mentored me. He and they are regular parts of my growth. As I described his impact upon me, I couldn’t help but visit my own ministry, teaching, and service to the world. I couldn’t help but question my own family life when I heard his daughter (their youngest) speaking so lovingly about her dad.
Bishop Alvarado esteems others well, and to participate in a public affirmation of his life was splendid. To review–even in my own life–how his life mattered and how his effort provided a currency for our own development as a person was of double benefit. It underlined my sincere appreciation that he is alive.
Listening to earned tributes has that impact on a person. You hear and you want to emulate what you hear. I want the estimates of my leadership to sound and look and feel like those did in December. I want to be the husband, father, leader, pastor, educator, caregiver, and writer who loves well and is loved well. I want to see the estimates of my leadership as I lead and to count them worthy.
As I see one semester end (at seminary) and one unit end (in CPE) and one year end (at the church), I’m reading over a book that will likely find its way into one of my theory papers. It’s a book Dr. Scottie May introduced me to in grad school.
Parker Palmer is such a helpful teacher and guide. Here’s a taste about education but that can be said of preaching, speaking, parenting, and any other way of learning/educating:
If you want to understand our controlling conception of knowledge, do not ask for our best epistemological theories. Instead, observe the way we teach and look for the theory of knowledge implicit in those practices. That is the epistemology our students learn–no matter what our best contemporary theories may have to say.
…If this is the case, then as a teacher I can no longer take the easy way out, insisting that I am only responsible for conveying the facts of sociology or theology or whatever the subject may be. Instead, I must take responsibility for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formulative pressure on my students’ sense of self and world. I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills. I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world. That way, reinforced in course after course, will remain with my students long after the facts have faded from their minds.
(From To Know As We Are Known, pg. 29, 30)
Having been outside the mainstream for years, African American churches have learned valuable lessons that have given special meaning to spiritual practices and ideas. White Christians may be familiar with them in theory, but to know them from the underside, from the outside, and from the margins is an exercise in growing in new grace.
Silence is the anchor of speech
It’s easy for Christians to speak. We fill our ears, speak truths, and proclaim the gospel. We have good reason for our proclamation. But we hear less. It’s harder to be silent.
Silence is a corrective. For black and brown people, silence is a deepening, strengthening, and centering discipline. It is a discipline that was learned as black folks were taken from West African shores, unable to communicate in their native tongues, and pushed to find a way of hearing themselves, hearing their God, and, eventually, speaking about their pain.
It is learned still when life in the United States is unfair and unjust and when the rules for black and brown people are set to maintain injustice. In her book Joy Unspeakable, Barbara Holmes says that silence and contemplation bolster the interior life of a community, and ultimately sustains it.
Silence doesn’t remove the power of speech. It anchors it. The quiet is constructive because it narrows the focus on what needs to be said. It opens us to seeing what is real. It enables us to say what is wrong and, of course, what is right.
When we’re quiet, we have an opportunity to confront the pain of another. We learn to openly and realistically face our losses. We hear, reflect, and see what has set us apart from our Christian relatives.
The black church is instructed by the presence of God through other folks and notices in the silence those who are as concerned about speaking truth as we are.
I’m thankful to the folks at Leadership Journal for publishing my piece and for David Swanson’s earlier framing and partner essay. Read the full piece here.
An epistemology is a way that we know. It is about how we know what we know. The Reflective Practitioner focuses on the ways in which professionals of varied sorts know and do. Schon is offering an alternative to the “traditional epistemology of practice.”
It’s worth pointing out that the language is a little distant, the examples stiff; the book was published in 1983. Still, his broad attempt to get “professionals” to think about how they think and how they perform is critical for anyone who wants to work well. His book opens by naming the “wavering confidence in professional expertise,” a seemingly dated observation now where the world is nearly if not entirely postmodern, where most work circles are touched, shaped, and impacted by millenials who always and already suspect things like professionalism however defined.
He puts forward reflective practice where professionals are aware of their “frames” for problems, their particular ways of viewing problems and, eventually, their unique theories (i.e., ways of seeing) for addressing those problems. A lot of what he says assumes that you can solve problems without knowing how you’re solving them. Your epistemological structures would be, in a word, weak. You’d be less reflective. He wants to suggest that there’s merit and strength in learning about our theories, in becoming aware of them, and in our making them public and, therefore, open to criticism.
He advocates for professionals turning their knowledge-in-practice into a public display of that practice. Knowledge that people go get in schools and specialized training programs, for him, becomes subject to inspection. Professionals become accountable in their openness to the public. They become more capable of expressing their “artful competence,” transitioning from not knowing how they do their work to examining how much they know, how they solve problems, and how they know what they’re doing.
Re-reading my sentence, I’m struck by the heady nature of those words. The book is somewhat heady; he explains the influence of “positivism” for example, a word that makes me question my own intellectual capacities. But the examples are concrete and helpful. His goal is entirely practical. The subtitle is “How Professionals Think in Action.”
He writes about action and response, thinking through a theory of response, a knowing-in-practice, which seems different from knowledge. He says that “A practitioner’s reflection can serve as a corrective to overlearning” (p. 61), and he works throughout the book to illuminate the gifts of appreciation, action, and re-appreciation, concepts that are at the bottom of clinical pastoral education, an environment I’m swimming in currently. I can definitely see why it’s a recommended text for the supervisory education students.
Back to the emphasis on practice–in CPE language, it’s action-reflection-action, Schon points to use of self in our work. One quote captures how Schon says our experience is worth our using in our work (p. 140):
It is our capacity to see unfamiliar situations as familiar ones, and to do in the former as we have done in the latter, that enables us to bring our past experience to bear on the unique case…
He lifts up the powerful way we inspect the “materials of a situation” and use the examples of others in order to grow, “thinking from exemplars.” He’s all about having reflective conversation with the situations we find ourselves in, a particularly striking way with words.
For those interested in language, he talks about the idea of generative metaphors and how they generate new perceptions, explanations, and inventions. He is pressing his reader to reflect. For those who “cannot easily make his assumptions public or subject” to public testing, he says, that that person’s “sense of vulnerability discourages reflection” (p. 229).
I kept thinking that I want to be the kind of person whose vulnerability doesn’t discourage me. I identified with him there, the resistance, the pain, the problem of vulnerability. I kept hearing the words of my clinical supervisor and my readiness committee as we discussed fragility which has been a guiding and problematic metaphor for my ministry lately.
Even while he presses his reader, his approach is invitational. He’s writing as a scholar and consultant more than an evangelist of his theory. He says that “An individual is more likely to feel internally committed to a freely made decision.” In his writing you sense his conviction to what he says and you sense softness.
Finally, he writes about theory, something I know I’ll come to appreciate in upcoming months as I think, draft, present, and revise my theories on theology, education, and personality. He says that “an overarching theory does not give a rule that can be applied to predict or control a particular event, but it supplies language from which to develop particular interpretations” (p. 273). I think about these words in terms of educational theory and teaching but also in terms of how we engage in the work of the church. How much of what we say is about giving a rule for predictive or controlling purposes? How much is about supplying people with language from which they can develop interpretations which may or may not mirror our own?
He says that bureaucracies and stable organizations resist reflective practice. My spiritual director said something like that to me years ago. We were talking about contemplation but the same principle applies. For Schon, reflection-in-action threatens stable systems. In church language that means that contemplatives and prophets are always on the periphery, usually subject to soul-torn isolation, and generally fighting against some solid resistance. “The freedom to reflect, invent, and differentiate would disrupt the institutional order of space and time” (p. 333). And it’s true; the order a system needs is completely threatened when the people in those systems consider.
I asked a friend, Sonia Wang, to comment on the current moment with a particular view toward our teachers and what she’d say to them. As she has before on this blog, Sonia gives us clear, translatable instruction for which I’m thankful.
Our job is a complex tapestry of nuanced roles that impact and influence the young people we engage with on a daily basis. We teach, we counsel, we push, we heal, we redirect, we advise, we feed, we hold hands, we remain present. All the while, we ourselves grow in who we are as men and women because of the amazing young people who walk through our doors each day.
In the current state of affairs, where the lived lives of many of our students are marred by injustices from the minute they awake to the minute they rest their eyes at night, we have to ask ourselves, how do we best honor our students and their families? their lived experiences? And we make difficult decisions – what realities do we bring into the classroom, provide platforms for or safe spaces to come into? And how do we preserve our commitment to the words we say to each child through our own words and actions – that, when the going gets tough, we remain present?
We must anchor ourselves in aggressive honesty and expect nothing short of the most rigorous achievements of our children.
Our black and brown children are living in a time where they are seeing themselves in the media, and the message tells them clearly that they don’t matter. They may have learned about or been exposed to historical events or literary works that resemble their current lived lives.
As teachers, we need to first be honest with ourselves, in a “Come to Jesus” and aggressive manner that this is the reality. For some, it may not be our reality, but it must be part of our known reality, because it is our students’ reality. And thus, our curriculum, our language, our classroom structures, and our approach to relationships building must honor this reality. Now.
Why aggressive? Because our students don’t get back those eights hours from their day in school of being overlooked or denied of their lived reality. The time is, and must be, now. When we are honest with ourselves, we can be honest to our students in the choices we make. How awesome that we have the agency and power to impact students as they enter our classrooms.
And how much more awesome that we honor their voices in the very realities of their lives in their learning. (And yes, I’m thinking of all grade levels, considering what is developmentally appropriate at each grade.) You, teachers, do this. You can do this. Your students learn from you; we must learn from them to best teach them.
most rigorous achievements
Yes, our students come from broken streets. Violence pervades their walk to the bus stop. They see children who look like them being oppressed and wrongly persecuted. They belong to a city, a world in fact, that is comprised of too many broken systems that perpetuate privilege that does not bat an eye towards them.
Yet, our students are Poets. Mathematicians. Architects. Actors. Critical thinkers. Debaters. So, why do we succumb to the second class curriculum of drilling reading and math skills into their hungry minds in the name of closing the achievement gap? We don’t. Because we know who is in front of us.
We set high expectations for our students, and we make it clear that they are going to reach those goals with soaring achievements. We create inquiry and comprehensive units that explore themes and questions that are interesting. And we ask our students to think for themselves to get to your final objective for that unit. And then we scaffold the concept and the skill, we confer with our kids, pull small groups to re-teach, and we continue to push and honor their achievements when they have achieved them.
And we continue to do this complex job because we know from our own lived experiences in our schools and classrooms, the deep joy that comes when our students gain those understandings, master the objective, show kindness to a peer, and stand up for an opinion of theirs.
Teachers, we are in the beautiful position to impact and influence. Which I often find immensely scary as well. But it is in this tension that we must remain: the tension of all the roles we play, being warm and demanding, of recognizing yet safeguarding from realities, of supporting through and pushing towards high expectations…
Our students deserve the empowerment that comes from knowledge. To have agency to make informed choices. We play a role in shaping these young minds and characters. And we must remain present to them – knowing that the strength to do so does not come from immediate evidence, because we know all too well that sometimes the fruit takes a few years.
And we also know it doesn’t necessarily come from our system in regularly honoring the amazing work of teachers. But my hope is that the strength comes from the deep understanding that we are part of a much larger tapestry – one in which the beauties we only get glimpses of are more perfect and frequent.
And so we persevere each morning, welcoming back each young person into our lives to reaffirm to them that they absolutely matter.
One of the greatest tributes that can be paid to a parent, a teacher, a physician, a pastor, or anyone else who influences, instructs, and guides other people is that this person never taught a given individual something he or she had to unlearn.
From Behind the Masks (by Wayne Oates, pg 119)