Monthly Archives: March 2018

not-knowing is welcome here

not knowing

For today’s Morning Pages prompt, we marked up a page entitled “Not Knowing” from Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He suggests (and this is my favorite line) that “new discoveries and realizations happen at the interface between what is known and what is not known” (p. 73).

Dwell in that for a minute: all the things that we say we value in schools as English teachers–“creativity or imagination or poetry”–come from hanging out in that “interface.” What a lovely, terrifying thought.

So why isn’t “not knowing” more valued in school? And what are the benefits and pushbacks that occur when it is? I have to say that one of the scariest things for me now, even as a teacher with three decades in the profession, is the fear of what students will write on my course evals if I model “not knowing” as an essential part of learning and teaching. In the past, a handful of students have implied that “not knowing” means I don’t know what I’m talking about. Hypothetically, I hope they’re right because that’s the point that I should hang up my hat, but I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t associated costs. Students write evals –> committees write evals of professors –> professors receive (or do not receive) raises, earn (or do not earn) tenure, get (or not get) promotion, etc. Furthermore on course evals, there’s no question that asks to what degree an instructor successfully models curiosity and uncertainty (i.e. not-knowing); rather there’s just the question that rates whether or not a professor is knowledgeable about the subject.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive. Still, the absence of the former question seems messed up.

JKZ’s claim, though, comforts me. If we don’t dwell in that “interface between what is known and what is not known” for at least a while, we don’t get poetry, we don’t get creativity, we don’t get imagination. Have we failed our students then? Have we failed the world?


“welcome” to the 80% club

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Speaking to a crowd of teachers, Brene Brown explains the intersections between shame, vulnerability, and learning. She says that 80% of the folks she’s studied over the years can remember a shaming incident by a teacher that occurred to them in school. The good news is that 90% can remember a teacher who has made a lasting, positive impact on their lives by coaxing them toward the positive vulnerability that’s essential to learning. Today, I want to focus on the 80% club and the moment that popped instantly into my mind when I considered whether or not I had earned a membership.

I’m in a small-town high school gym, and Coach Keith is choosing the team for tomorrow night’s game based on what he sees in this practice. I am diving for a loose ball when we collide at half court. My teeth jar together as Sherri Linihan’s chin comes down hard on the side of my head. I’ve run into a cinder block wall. My ears are ringing, but we are deadlocked, and I am not letting go.

Not doing it.

I see red, I feel it surging up inside, but I am not letting go. Not doing it.

Out of my peripheral vision, blurring now, I can sense more than I can see Coach Keith striding toward us. His thick white shoes, his long, long legs in royal blue polyester coaching pants, just like the ones hanging in my Daddy’s closet. He crouches down beside Sherri and me still squirming together on the floor. He leans in close and says, “Don’t you cry, you big baby. Don’t you do it.”

And you can better believe I don’t. And I don’t let go of the ball either. These are battles you do not lose if you want to make the team. I am not losing. I am not doing it.

Looking back still disorients me. My ears still ring.I still see red. I feel my fingers on the rough rubber ball (grasping grasping) trying to scoop it in close to my body so that I can get the upper hand and roll away away (gasping gasping).

I remember now what I still want to forget. Letting go.

Rolling to the side. Reaching my hand to the top of my head, feeling the stickiness before I see it. Seeing red, on my hands this time, streaming through my fingers after I pull my hand away.

My head throbs, my jaw hurts, it hurts it hurts, but I do not cry. I do not worry about blood or stitches or slipping down the grey tunnel as the harsh fluorescent gym lights flare away. I worry about being a big baby and what my dad will think if I don’t start in the Friday night game.

This is what it feels like to belong to the 80% club. The power of shame does not dissipate. It does not lead to learning.