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What Ought We Do

One of the questions I struggle the most with is the idea of the place of contemplation within the classroom. Contemplation and meditation can and have found a place in the select, elite colleges and universities, a place that is slowly expanding and creating a proper Western discipline that can be taught. But the students at such schools are already the best of the best. We have been culled from thousands of applicants for our willingness to learn, as well as our willingness to please. We want to do well, and we are never satisfied with a B. Graduate programs and law school are our finishing schools, our undergraduate degrees a box to check off for our resumes.

To borrow some terminology, we are the 1% of educational attainment. (Well, actually, we are 7%, worldwide [1].) We are the lucky ones.

That’s all and good, and I’m not suggesting that the best and brightest not be taught these methods, but I wonder how we can bring this type of thinking to a very different type of classroom. There are plenty of classrooms, after all, where classroom management is a daily struggle that never quite gets beyond, “Because I told you so.” There’s certainly something powerful to be said about the use of contemplation in such a classroom. But how does a teacher, particularly a new teacher struggling to maintain order, instigate such inquiry? In a world of dedication to the Test, this seems particularly daunting.

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Studies have shown that students who learn to meditate do well, do better. Like meditation in other circles, it is the cure to what ails ya. Stress, concentration, bullying, this is the remedy. And maybe it is. I found the way that Hart phrased it to be curious.

“Bringing contemplative practice to the classroom is not exactly bringing something new to children. Children—young children especially—are natural contemplatives. They ponder big questions, they daydream, they fall in woner with nature, they reflect on their own existence and find silence in their “special spot.”[2]

Perhaps teaching contemplative, he suggests, would not be a completely foreign concept. To adults it feels strange, like teaching a new language to our bodies and minds long after the old ones have become ingrained in us. A child experiences a world very different than that the adult sees. Meditation and contemplation may only give words to phenomena that children already know.

Tobin goes on to write a reason that we should take contemplation seriously pedagogically as well. The entire paper argues that there is a practical reason to teach contemplation, and he now concludes it by saying:

Long dormant in education, the natural capacity for contemplation balances and enriches the analytic. It has the potential of enhance performance, character, and depth of the student’s experience. Perhaps most important, the contemplative helps to return the transformative power of wonder, intimacy, and presence in daily learning and daily living.[3]

As I see it, cutting out meditation is a bit like cutting out art or music, except in the fact that mediation was cut long before the other two found their designated time sacrificed at the altar of accountability. It is not an either/or decision because we do not have compartmentalized brains. We make connections between subjects, but we can only truly see the links if our minds are uncluttered. Contemplation helps to open up our minds in a more literal sense than the simple idea of moving towards tolerance. Rather, it opens our minds like a mechanic opens the hood of a car, to understand the processes that make up all of the higher level functions that cause us to move forward each day. It allows an understanding of not just the material, but the mind itself. We hope.

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It is encouraging to know that there are people who are making meditation in the classroom work. In Oakland, for instance, Piedmont Avenue Elementary School brought in a specialist to teach the children for a total of thirty minutes a week. They interview professors and principals who all agree that the program has done wonders, but what strikes me as a more truthful statement comes from the author of the piece, Patricia Leigh Brown. She writes, “It seems alternately loved and ignored,” a sentiment that rings truth of any classroom[4]. A child can be lead to the water but not forced to drink.

In my soon-to-be hometown, Detroit, a similar program was installed a middle school. However, when watching the interviews, I was struck by something Jane Pitt, a coordinator at the school, said. “It’s not a philosophy, it’s not a way of life,” she reassured the camera. “It’s simply a mental technique.” The video goes on extol the various virtues of the program, the quantitative results. Grade improvements are noted. Even though the principal seems to genuinely be concerned with the students’ stress, she also uses that word, technique[5].

It’s a clinical word, defined by the OED as, “the formal or practical aspect of any art, occupation, or field[6].” Though I have no doubt that meditation is helping children in these kinds of programs, I think they have also missed the point. As an outsider, it seems like the program has become a box to check off on a list. There are even kits and procedures for the willing teacher, with readymade lesson plans and links to other guides[7]. This paper itself is looking for a way to teach the concept to children in a way that can be replicated from class to class and year to year. There is a paradox, the conflict between wanting to teach the technique and wanting a student to own it.

The kind of results-driven meditation is not quite right. Gunaratana writes, “The benefits start right away, and they pile up over the years… the more hours you spend in meditation, the greater your ability to calmly observe every impulse and intention[8].” Meditation is a way of life, in as much as it requires a commitment. It is a discipline, one that can be taught in schools, but one that must also be allowed to be what it is. Gunaratana also writes, “While many people are drawn to meditation because of its wonderful benefits…, in the context of the Four Foundations, it’s important to keep another set of goals in mind[9].” Meditation may not necessarily be a religion, but it is certainly a philosophy, insomuch as it is a love of knowledge of oneself, a quest for self-awareness.

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I am perhaps asking the wrong question. I had a professor who once asked, “What ought we do?” He clarified when the answers he was getting didn’t meet his criterion. “Not what we can do, what we should do. What ought we do? What do we have a moral compulsion to do?” The question wasn’t about the what or the how, but the why. It is a question from the land of theory, but it is a very useful one. Ought we to teach contemplation? I think the answer is yes. The rest, of course, must follow.

_____________________________

[1]Wilson, David. “College Graduates to Make Global Economy More Productive: Chart of the Day.” Bloomberg. 18 May 2010. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-05-18/college-graduates-to-make-global-economy-more-productive-chart-of-the-day.html
[2]Hart, Tobin. “Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom,” p 43. Journal of Transformative Education 2004 2:28. : 10.1177/1541344603259311 (accessed November 17, 2013).
[3]Ibid.
[4]Brown, Patricia Leigh. “In the Classroom, a New Focus on Quieting the Mind.” The New York Times. 16 June 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/16/us/16mindful.html?pagewanted=all (accessed November 17, 2013).
[5]“School fights end at Detroit school thanks to meditation.” As originally aired on NBC. David Lynch Foundation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbgCK8pUED8#t=76 (accessed November 17, 2013).
[6]”technique, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/198458?redirectedFrom=technique (accessed November 17, 2013).
[7] Nobori, Mariko. “How to Start a Meditation Program in Your School.” Edutopia. http://www.edutopia.org/stw-student-stress-meditation-school-tips (accesssed 17 November 17, 2013).
[8] Gunaratana, Bhante, Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
[9]Gunaratana, Bhante, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English. 2012. Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition

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Paper, Part One

As one of the most important areas of public policy, it is only natural that there is a deep interest in the mechanics of a classroom. What makes a “good” teacher? How do we measure success? And perhaps most controversially, what will be taught? Every year, thousands of books are banned by parents and family groups who wish to interfere with what goes on in classrooms and libraries across the country. There are many real world consequences for picking a book that is deemed inappropriate.

To avoid this, we create lists. A Hundred Books Everyone Should Read Before College. The Greatest Children’s Books of All-Time. The Best Books of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). If you can get it on a list (any list besides the Most Challenged Books), the book is safe. It is praised. It is canonical.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word canon entered the English language in the ninth century, Old English via Latin and Greek, but the word in the sense of “The Canon” is relatively new, cropping up first in 1929[1]. It is a retrospective device, a twentieth century word describing a much older phenomenon–the human desire to separate the good from the bad.

This canon has been developed over the years, culled from the very best novels and treatises and plays and essays and speeches of all time. It has been adapted to suit many agendas. It must be representative, and it must be comprehensive. The list of authors must include every group that could possibly be offended because, in this inclusion, centuries of marginalization can be wiped away (when rather, this perpetuates the cultural trope of the Exceptional woman/minority, great in spite of gender or race). The canon, too, is not immune to censorship. Rather, it is censored in a subtle way by the use of levels. As if someone becomes magically more mature in the three months between high school and college, and then makes another huge leap when they make a decision about their major. Maybe, when you hit the PhD level, you will be allowed some experimentation, but at that point, it’s important to realize that your research will mean very little to most people because high schoolers, undergraduates, and their teachers and professors won’t be able to use it.

But this approach to pedagogy fundamentally takes away from the capacity of students to think for themselves. By putting books on a pedestal, saying, “These books will unlock Western thought for you,” we are bleaching them of all meaning they could possibly have. The canon has become a laundry list. Furthermore, we have become more and more reluctant to add other voices to the canon. We call the beginning of the twentieth century the “Modern” period, and then after we ran out, it became the “Contemporary” and the “Post-Modern.” These days, the term “Post-Post-Modern” only sounds ridiculous if you haven’t read some of the literature out there on it. We’re trapped in this idea that, sometime before WWII but after the Victorian era, humanity stopped writing lasting literature. Sure, it matters to us here in this moment, but what is this moment if not fleeting? A thousand years after the first university, we are going through our moody teenager phase.

The purpose of this paper is not to create a new canon, though certainly it contains suggestions and examples. Rather, this paper seeks to study why canonical books are so important and how best to capture their essence in the modern classroom. It is my conviction that, rather than reading words on a page, we ought to understand why a book is considered important to intellectual tradition and wrestle with the ideas that come out of these works, even if that means sacrificing quantity for quality. We already make that decision anyway, for the whole goal of the canon is to skip the “boring” or “unnecessary” parts of literature. What we’ve lost, however, is the way to articulate why these books are important, and why they changed the world. What I aim to do here is explain that phenomenon, and articulate how we might capture it in the classroom again.

[1] “canon, n.1”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/27148?rskey=gcKaqP&result=3&isAdvanced=false (accessed November 04, 2013).

In Defense of Reblogging Myself

I’m trying to write a post a day this week (in case that wasn’t yet obvious), but I’m working on a separate project for class tomorrow and so my facilities of writing are focused elsewhere. So I present you with a post that was published on the Quest Scholars Network official blog site today. I wrote it awhile ago, but I think the topic is at least topical, if not to the class, to this week.

Oh good, I’ve found you. I hope it’s not too late. I’m here to make a passionate plea for you to dress up for Halloween, and I hope you’ll take it seriously.

Atwood and Fronts

There’s a sense, at least when I read Atwood, of a separation between the world she is creating and the world in which we live. That could never happen here. We’re enlightened (whatever that means).

But earlier this week, I was at a meeting with a friend. The details of the meeting aren’t quite important, though they do shed some light on my life choices. However, this particular friend (her identity is also protected) also borrowed my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale at the beginning of the term because I recommended the book.

She said, “The whole meeting reminded me of Handmaid’s Tale.” I knew immediately what she was thinking, even though I hadn’t come up with the idea myself. She was talking about that very fake, very guarded attitude that Offred and Ofglen display when they meet each other. “Yes, this organization is great. I can’t imagine anything else.”

I know that you know that we know this isn’t right.

It’s the same thing we see on social media, but it’s definitely a phenomenon that predates technology. We see it in Atwood, and we see it in children who have learned how to lie. We see it in Merleau-Ponty, and we see it in academic papers that get simply vicious in the footnotes. It’s part of being polite. Being an adult. Being afraid of the consequences of telling the truth.

But the thing is? We’re not actually in a life-or-death situation in a theocracy/oligarchy. I’m not saying that honesty is always the best. But I think the layers upon layers need to stop.

Sight

Fun fact? Our eyes actually see the world upside down. The way that our eyes refract light means that the signal literally coming in the wrong way to our brains. Our brains “correct” the signal to make sure that we see everything the “right” way. Without the mind, we would be walking on the ceiling.

So, naturally, someone wanted to see if there was a way to reverse this. Theodor Erismann (to be precise about the name) and his student  Ivo Kohler gave people glasses that flipped their vision again, so that for days they were viewing the world upside down again. But the funny thing? Their vision adapted–that is, around the fourth day, the image coming from the upside-down glasses and the upside-down eyes was turned right-side up. Their brains shifted.

Through all of this, “reality,” that is, the external world, didn’t change. Perception did.

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Maureen, Part Two

It’s been my luck these past two years that I haven’t been able to have a good St. Patrick’s Day. Today, I have a major cold, but I thought I wouldn’t let the day go without some sort of post. Since Uri brought up naming in her post today, I thought I’d go back to the topic of my name, which I already started writing about a few weeks ago. After all, names are such an important part of storytelling, and our own stories are defined by our names. It’s why last year, in my memoir class, our first assignment was to tell either the story of our birth, or of our name. Names are a beginning, just like Genesis. Eve is named for life, after all, but there are suggestions that her name could also be a play on the Aramaic word for snake (Alter’s notes, Genesis 3).

My name has a similarly murky, if not quite as sinister meaning. Maureen is an Irish name, in case you didn’t catch that. Or, rather, it is the Anglicized spelling of the Irish name Máirín, which is in turn a form of the Hebrew name Mary. What does it mean? Well, the jury is still out, but it generally translates to “bitterness” or “sea of bitterness.” It can also mean “wished for child” or “rebelliousness,” according to Behind the Name. Not exactly the most positive collection of meanings there could be.

Elizabeth is another Hebrew name, this time meaning “my God is my oath” or “my God is my abundance.” In the New Testament, Elizabeth is the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary is the mother of Jesus, though I was named for neither.

As for Nalepa? Well, it is a town in Poland. And by town, I mean a loosely populated administrative district. It can mean “fireside corner” or “ingle nook.” It’s a very, very uncommon last name. I don’t remember my source, but I recall reading once that there were 800 of us.

This, incidentally, means that I am the only Maureen Elizabeth Nalepa in the world because only my parents would combine an Irish first name and a Polish last name. This blend says a lot about my family, actually, but I feel I can go into that at another time. After all, there are special complications to “owning” a name completely, even though I’ve already expressed my doubt that I actually have any ownership at all over my name.

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