Teaching for modes of being — play and monasticism

I was pretty ambitious, and notably abstract early on. And come to think of it, I will continue to be. BUT, now I have something a little closer to experience.

I spent much of the day thinking about a test I was giving my seventh grade class. It was at the end of the day, but there were so many related considerations to pursue while also doing the rest of my job. A handful of students need extended time, and we couldn’t do it after school, so I had to meet them during lunch and recess. Some students have additional half-time, some students have additional full-time, and some students don’t officially get anything but often they take so long that I feel obliged to accommodate them anyway. I had to find a space in our very cozy middle school — as it turns out, the 6th grade room I chose was going to host a meeting for the sixth grade. Luckily they could do it next door, but almost the entire sixth grade had to walk through our room to get there. With lunch trays. After that, I decided I wanted to make a second copy of the test with slightly different numbers, because our math room leaves little room for spreading out and they’d be right on top of each other. I needed to prepare everything ahead of time, so they could use the full 45 minutes (and then maybe a little after that for stragglers). I often felt some concern and stress, because my students so often feel stressed around any kind of test that I take it on too. I was also feeling a little competitive and jealous of my humanities colleagues, who see my students more hours per week than I do, and how I’ve felt that I’ve lost time to their events over the course of the year.

All this made for quite a stressful day! Luckily, once I’m with the kids, it gets better, because then I’m responding to real people and not just my imagination and projections. I can respond to them and balance their stress with cool, rather than internalizing it. And finally they started to settle in as they took the test — a little anxious, but focused and largely okay.

Then a trumpet lesson started next door.

Now, the students who are easily distracted (a set of students that overlaps significantly with the extended-time students) were quick to cringe and moan over this new circumstance, but I acknowledged that things happen and we can still focus. When other students with a better capacity to center themselves started to appeal to me for action, I knew it was time to do something. So I poked my head into the other room and asked that the lesson move or perhaps be a little quieter — which they were able to do without much hassle. (Of course they had the same problem with space that I did at lunch with my extended-time students — and in fact I had been asked NOT to use the math room for that purpose because teachers would be in the next room discussing class placement for next year!).

All day, while stressing about things, and even through this situation during the test, I was haunted by this concern that I was worrying a lot over something that did not actually mean anything. Testing, of course, draws a lot of criticism these days, and much of it valid, but it has its place in a classroom — still I was feeling like I was spinning my wheels for no kind of good reason for my students. What value was any of this? Why was I so stressed about something that really didn’t have much benefit for my students?

Well, as I returned back from the trumpet situation and the kids got back to work, I saw my whole day like this: I had been fighting like hell to secure for my students a quiet place to struggle a little on their own with mathematics. And once I saw things this way, it felt much better — because I DO find value in that!

I love our little progressive school for its restless activity. There is usually a din in my classroom and in the hallway and in other classrooms and so on. Students are moving, building, painting, drawing, typing, and writing in a variety of configurations that most people don’t see until they live in college dorm. They are talking to their peers constantly, making plans and recording things on iPads and making lists on whiteboards — it’s all very collaborative and often based on something that they are interested in. In my previous placements, that buzz of learning is actually quite a rare thing to hear, and it impresses me every time. I’m trying to think of a name — it’s the discursive model, the dialectic model of learning. Talking, listening, oohing and ahing, playing, creating, moving, sharing. Maybe the play model is better? Or the communal model? Anyway, very important.

But sometimes, you have to be quiet, you have to sit in one place, and you have to struggle with the math — which means you have to struggle with yourself, alone. This is in my mind a monastic model (which is bollocks, monks and nuns are far better defined by their community than their solitude, but the image has power). I think this is the place where one develops focus and a personal relationship with whatever they are learning, and come close to Simone Weil’s discussion of studies and prayer — Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, in which she says, among other magnificent gems:

The Key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it….

Although people seem to be unaware of it to-day, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary….

Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one’s pupils: “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles….

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it….

Every school exercise, thought of in this way, is like a sacrament.

Oh could I go on. This article very near destroyed me when I read it in seminary — I was almost sick with the idealism of it, having been a math teacher in America in the early 2000’s. I could not imagine how this could even be possible.

But I was young. It is possible. But you have to fight for it. The God part is a distraction, don’t get hung up on that — we’re talking about the attention here. If you’re interested in the God part, God’s in the attention. If you’re not interested in it, there’s only the attention.

It is attention of course that so many young people will struggle with today. I am not as bleak about digitalia as many commentators, but it’s clear it has a pervasive affect that students not aware of at all. But all student maintain the capacity to attend to some valuable effort if it speaks to them and challenges them, but not so much that they feel like it’s out of reach (c.f. the zone of proximal development).

This mode of being has value for young people to achieve and it is right that I fight to make it happen. Likewise the play mode, though I don’t have to fight so hard in that institution to make that happen.

It is intriguing to consider structuring my classes so as create these modes of being as often as possible for my students. The usual approach — of creating a certain knowledge or habit in a student — will obviously inform the content that fills the forms of these modes. But the focus on modes brings all the relevance into each day, and brings my attention to my students right now — it make education about the present experience, and not some idea of a future condition or requirement (like: high school, college, employment). It suggests a constellation of questions that a teacher can always pose to him or herself: Are they learning? What are they learning? How do you know? What are they doing? Are they receiving, creating, sharing? Or are the checked out? This kind of attention, I think, share elements of both the play mode and the monastic mode — it suggests a parallel process, where the teacher shares in the experience of the student while also structuring and guiding it. Quite frankly, I think a teacher should be able to enjoy doing whatever he or she is assigning to students. I think this allows a certain psychodynamic permeability, wherein students start to absorb (introject) the guiding qualities of the teacher, while developing their own capacities — but that’s just a theory! I’ll develop that more when I write about chaplaincy as a model of teaching.

But modes of being as the lens of structuring my class! That’s an idea that’s got some life. Play mode and monastic mode are two that are immediately relevant to math education.

What are some others, I wonder? What other modes of being have value for my math students?

Performance mode? Exploration mode (allied to play mode, I think)? General Assembly mode (thanks OWS)?

The question is: what practice (or is it praxis?) do we seek to create for our students, in this very class, at this very moment?

Praxis might me the right word for all of these.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *