Monday, September 22, 2014

My Core Curriculum: The Three Ws

My niece, Abby, was visiting last weekend and talked about her issues with the core curriculum in her daughter’s Los Angeles charter school. 

To me, core curriculums contradict my idea of charter schools. I don’t object to schools separating what is core, and what is not, but I do not like the idea of “core” being suggested by outsiders. Are we sure enough of what is “core’ to impose our beliefs on others?

One of my retirement projects is to figure out what I will teach the next time around. I have little evidence that I’ll be 23 again, with the opportunity for another lifetime in education, but still … it is an interesting pastime. And I’m grateful that I was never presented with many, if any, guidelines as to what I was supposed to teach. I hope the next time around I’ll have the same luxury.

The stuff we teach isn’t always what people need to be learning. We prepare students to work (though many businesses reeducate their employees to make them productive). We sometimes prepare students to think (though that’s hard to show). How well do we teach them to move through life, to observe clearly, and to be patient? That question prompted me to replace the 3 Rs with the 3 Ws (walking, watching, and waiting). 

Yesterday I was fortunate to have a private qigong lesson because the others in the class didn’t show up. We mainly focused on tai chi walking which morphed into walking in general. There is so much to be learned about walking. Where is our weight? How does our weight shift from one side to another (like water, like sand)? How is our core involved? How do we hold our head? Are our feet pointing forward, to the inside, or to the outside? What about our arms—where are they? How are they moving? But walking is much broader than that? How do we move through the grocery store in a way that is respectful to others, so that we aren’t a jerk. How do we move from one station in our lives to the next? Are we able to leave one thing as we go to another. Some teachers have their students meditate for five minutes at the beginning of class. That helps the students' mind to catch up with their body. In the Kung Fu series, Caine, the Shaolin Monk,  remembers how his teacher told him he’d be ready to leave when he could walk across the rice paper without making a sound.

Listening and watching is another skill that I’d place in a core curriculum. Ernest Haas, the photographer, distinguished between “looking” (merely orienting yourself), and “seeing” (really getting what is in front of you). The challenge of learning to draw to mark on the paper what is in front of you. Our minds fool us. Tennessee Williams never graduated from college, but he could listen and depict how people behaved. A classmate, Jon Boorstin, got started in the film industry by patiently watching what was happen on sets. His observations indicated that he could see. Without inhaling you have nothing to exhale.

The third “W” is waiting. Siddhartha talked about waiting as one of the three skills he could do. Events occur at different times. Sometimes we don’t like to wait. When we are twelve we want to be sixteen. Often we have to wait. When I first started to meditate I would wait for the bell to ring, indicating the end of that meditation session. That eventually wore off when I realized that the job at hand, coming back from my thoughts, was a full-time job. There is a lot of waiting in the photographic darkroom. Every process is timed. Even getting a good print takes waiting. You analyize your first print and go from there. The most challenging is “waiting for death.” If you do it hard, your eyes will be glued to the window, watching for the grim reaper. But softly, you’ll realize that your breaths are limited, and then embrace and let go the breaths one by one. Like letting birds free, one by one. It was found that when you present six year olds with a choice of one cookie now, or two cookies in 15 minutes, that the kids who choose the two cookies will do better in school. They have learned to wait. 

Like waiting,  we think that walking and watching are all a matter of trying harder (Avis’s motto—We Try Harder). I suspect the opposite is true. An American Indian knows that it is a soft gaze that lets you know when some prey or an enemy is coming into your territory. Maybe the phrase, “trying soft” is more like it. 

In any case, those are my three Ws. It takes a lifetime to learn these (or maybe two…I’m not even close). Yet they seem essential before you can tackle any other task.

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