Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"I love it when a plan comes together!"

I think it was Hannibal from the A-Team that said that. He had a good point. There's something encouraging about seeing things fall into place the right way. I was particularly reminded of this yesterday in my Logic class when everything we had been talking about for a couple of weeks now was able to come together to help address an issue among the students themselves.

The last several weeks we have been talking about why you believe what you believe, and why you do what you do. We have looked at the fact that behind every idea there is a person or group of people propelling that idea. That every belief they have can more than likely be traced back to a point in time when someone shared that belief with them and it became their own. Similarly, why you do what you do is a direct result of why you believe what you believe and is thus often springs from the influence of an individual as well. Over Thanksgiving break I had my students create a "Memory Board". Basically, I wanted them to come up with a timeline, a creative representation of each year of their lives—from 0 through to their present age—and attach one or two people to each year of their lives. The person that they remember most at that point in their life and what they remember about them. Obviously they had to dig deep and ask family members about their early years, because who could remember what person influenced you the most at age 0! So I told them a good place to start was to ask who all changed their diapers in addition to their parents!

Yesterday the memory board projects were due. At the beginning of class we have a "Pensive Session", a.k.a. journal writing time. I gave them this assignment, "Write all the good things you know about the following people," and then listed 4 members of our class. My reason for doing this was because there is one student in particular in our class who gets picked on quite a bit because he is “different”. I threw in his name amongst one popular, one quirky, and one shy student to force the kids to stop and think about the good qualities they saw in this young man. Two minutes into the assignment, I had several students ask, “What if we don’t know 2 or 3 of these people?” My first reaction was, “Wow! We have been together in this class from August until November, the students share more than just this one class, and we can’t come up with a few good things to say about 2 or 3 specific people.” It made me wonder about the people they didn’t share a class with. I told them to use the great skills of logical observation and come up with at least one thing per person. That gave me some time to stop, pray, and think about where to go next.

When they were done I told them that in my English class the previous period we had talked about being observant and how that often requires effort. I told them that there are times when I can be half way through a day and not be able to recall what I did up to that point. There are times when I am driving when I have gone several miles and couldn’t recall a single thing I passed and barely remember where I’m going. I told them that I started an exercise to help me be more alert and observant. For instance, when I am driving I look for VW Beatles and point them out in my mind. They serve as markers for what I am driving by, and points to notice my surroundings. After doing this for a while, it’s hard not to pass a VW Beatle and not shout out—whether mentally or audibly—“Punch-buggy!” So it is with people. We can walk through the halls at school every day for months and not think about the people we are passing by. The fact that they are people. The fact that they have a story. It takes effort to get beyond that. But often it can start with a little effort, like stopping to ask someone how their Thanksgiving break was. Even if all they say is, “Great! My family from Wisconsin came to visit,” then that’s one more thing about that person that you didn’t know before—that they have family from Wisconsin.

Then we had our project presentations. I’d like to think they were more attentive than normal as each student shared parts of their past and pieces of their story. Maybe they were. But I do know that when that one particular boy who stated all my thinking and praying in the first place got up to present, there was a change in the class. Not dramatic, but it was evident. There was slight snickering at first when he got up, then an occasional perking of ears when the boy said something about his father’s “period of indifference”, and then inquisitive glances back at me when the boy mentioned that his name had changed after his mother’s second marriage. His was the longest presentation of the day. I let him talk. I let the class listen. It was a moment that cannot be written in to lesson plans, given as a homework assignment, or conjured up through brainstorming. It was a moment when their lessons and learning were applied and embodied in something, in someone, tangible. And that kind of lesson no teacher can take credit for, however good his or her teaching techniques.

My goal for next semester is to move my students towards being able to debate. But before I teach them the structure of debate, the fallacies, the art of argument, I want them to realize that behind every position there is a person. While they should not attack the person, they should seek to know the person. And while some event or circumstance of a person’s life cannot be an excuse for their belief, it sometimes can be an explanation. The better you know the person, the better you understand where they are coming from on an issue.

Behind every idea, behind every belief, behind every action there is a person. Behind every person there is a story.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Excuse v. Explanation

A good friend and mentor once taught me that there was indeed a difference between an excuse and an explanation. The Oxford American Dictionary says:

ex-cuse—an attempt to lessen the blame by attaching a fault or offence; seek to defend or justify

ex-pla-na-tion—a statement or account that makes something clear; a reason or justification given for an action or belief

I can read those definitions and still not get it. I had to experience the difference myself, get caught in the act of trying to come up with an excuse when all I really needed to do was give in and point to my explanation.

I’m a control freak. I’ll admit that from time to time. I’d rather “attempt to lessen the blame” by attaching my own fault so that I can see that there is something different and better I can do the next time to make the outcome change. It’s easier for me. So naturally defending and justifying my actions fall easily into place when I hand out an excuse.

I had no control. But I wanted it desperately. I was just trying to be with my family during a time of unrest and upheaval, and I couldn’t manage to get my schoolwork done. Nothing was clear to me. I wanted to justify, show that I could do better. That’s when I was told, “Amy, there is a difference between an excuse and an explanation. What you have right now is an explanation.” I suppose the part I couldn’t grasp was the “reason or justification given” part. The reason was already there, the justification already given: I didn’t have to make it up.

Suddenly it was clearer. My family situation was no typical, “My dog ate my homework” excuse. It really was different. For all the effort in the world, sometimes circumstances hinder you from working out what you know you should—or what you think you should—be doing. And there is no amount of control you have over the situation apart from acknowledging and putting the next foot in front of the other.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Letter Art