Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Truth & Nonsense

When Leslie Marmon Silko opens Ceremony with the invocation, “I will tell you something about stories, they aren’t just entertainment,” she marks a key distinction of “teaching-narrative,” a compound noun for a particular kind of performance text (similar to teaching-stories used by Idries Shah).  I was not really attracted to storytelling until around mid-life when I experienced the phenomenon in the presence of Gioia Timpanelli.  All narrative text that went before had been comparatively one-dimensional: entertainment, instruction, or preaching (rhetorical).  Story in each of these categories, whether told or read, certainly has value; but when the text is translated as teaching-narrative, a special and distinctive quality imbues the work.
            Gioia’s live translations of Arthurian legend, Grimms tales, and other traditional lore compelled me to return many times to Robert Bly’s summer conference where she was the featured storyteller.  After the conference, I’d transcribe her telling, word for word, from tapes of the conference to see how she interwove the story line with her “asides” that opened the teaching of the narrative.  A third step involved telling my way into teaching-narrative through at least a decade of dedicated practice. 
            My immersion in teaching-narrative was also guided by archetypal criticism, especially in seminars led by analyst Tom Peterson combined with study of Jung, von Franz, and others.  Disclosure of credits must also include the teaching stories of Rumi, Idries Shah, and other gnostics.  My capacity to articulate the dynamic of teaching-narrative also advanced through the opportunity to enact and to make sense of four-track story (as explicated by Brian Boyd in Origin of Stories) to undergraduates and graduate students at the University of Maryland and with colleagues in the National Writing Project.           
            Because teaching-narrative is best known in articulated experience (cf, E. Gendlin; S. Perl’s Felt Sense), these words offer only an approximation.  What’s needed is a bridge between raw experience and overly wordy education.  Workshops do this better than direct instruction.
            For example, in our University of Maryland Writing Project’s Summer Institute 2012, my Teacher Inquiry Workshop engaged us in “nonsense tales.”  Although this sub-genre of story has been noted for a long time, our age of disillusion seems to be particularly ripe for consideration of translating nonsense into meaning.  The Workshop begins with an overview of Boyd’s four levels of explanation that enable our capacity to “turn ideas around through a possibility space enlarged by the dimensions of the hypothetical and the counterfactual.”  Following the introduction, we move quickly into the experience of two oral narratives: Lazy Jack & Epaminondas.  Each telling was followed by our noting of “hits,” particularly by sketching a resonant image and recording words that called out of memory.
            In retrospect, I’m aware that I left the story text relatively un-elaborated; I hadn’t added the Gioia-style asides that I often do in the practice of teaching-narrative.  For example, when I tell the “Water of Life,” I often step outside the story line to layer the archetypal superstructure of the missing feminine (Queen & Princess) and the dying masculine (King & older Princes).  Perhaps I wanted to see how we would manage with the opportunity provided by two similar story lines representing the same thread of the “noodle-head” who acts in a “simple-minded” (literal replication of directions) with significant consequences.  The two variants show opposite directions in the consequences, one extremely positive and the other seriously negative.
            Responses to the workshop evidenced significant turning of nonsense into meaning.  Megan Callow commented:
Today I learned from the Jack and Epaminondas tales that adults do not bother to see the world from the perspective of children. As I wrote in my Level 4 writing, “Kids spends a lot of time wandering the earth in confusion, often eager to please. And adults, whether consciously or not, exploit that confusion. They forget what it’s like to be learning the world anew. There is a strong cultural fear of being child-like, I think, so adults avoid it at all costs, even at the expense of the kid, who is just doing to best he can to get along. The best he can, that is, until he realizes that the world is an exclusive club that does not want him as a member.” This was a hugely insightful moment for me as a teacher; it was a reminder to NOT fear the child-like. And as the young sailor reminded me in her own terminology (water, boating, the place between land and sea), this visceral, child-like wonder is the real way to knowing. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

“The Sense You Were Born With”


"You don't have the sense you were born with!"  This line drags or entices and probably does both simultaneously or alternately.  The specific phrase drives the story of Epaminondas, as well as the parallel predecessors of Lazy Jack and a subsequent Appalachian version; all these “nonsense tales” playfully challenge us with responsibility for cognitive and ethical development of “the sense we were born with.”  If we pick up the gauntlet successfully, the nonsense alchemizes to serious consideration, and we take on the weight of providing guidance in developing nascent sense. 

The presumption of the profession of teaching, that one person can tell another what or how to think, puts us at risk of the consequences of hubris and thus deserves closer examination than usually given.  To presume to tell anyone anything endangers personal authority, the sense that the other was born with; yet failure to provide needed guidance spells trouble as well.  In this way, making sense is serious business; and good teachers support meaning-making from within the individual without overdependence on external forces, especially the authority of the teacher.

The line, “the sense you were born with,” links directly to Blake’s golden string leading to the city of God and to Rumi’s gnostic search for the Lost Camel (Mathnawi, Book 2, ~line 2970-).  I also believe it’s at the heart of purposeful, passionate teaching; and, more broadly, it’s the key in living to the max.  Who wants to come up short at the final question: Did you fulfill your destiny to the best of your ability?  In other words, what did you do with the sense you were born with; in Machado’s words, how do you account for the “garden entrusted to you?

The question is not for the faint of heart.  Our cultural norm or the normal level of consciousness and of conscience looks robotic, as if we assume that we are hard-wired to enact our destiny, to fulfill the sense we are born with.  Not so.  It ain’t going to happen automatically, not if William Perry’s research on intellectual and ethical development holds up, and not if C.G. Jung’s case holds true that the ecstatic comes in the hard work of developing the inferior function.  Personal responsibility is required and cultural commitment to providing good teaching is equally so.

One particular urgency related to this question comes in the crisis of USA’s public schooling.  The exigence is detailed in a recent blog on “Why I Left the Classroom” with compelling links to personal stories.  In the year since I participated in last summer’s Save Our Schools march, the situation has steadily deteriorated as evident in the demoralized state of the best of our teacher interns.  They were beaten down by the prevailing conditions of stupid-stakes testing and impoverished children, emotionally and physically, in a nation that has sufficient evidence of NCLB’s failure and more than enough material wealth to do so much better.  In other words, we’re not developing the sense we were born with. 

My earlier comments might lead one to believe that I support teachers who choose to leave the classroom.  For some, that’s a good decision; sometimes I wish we’d all get out and allow the over-bureaucratized system to implode.  Yet, I cannot fail to hear the story of Jonah and wonder about the whale that swallows persons who are called to teach and who try to escape.

In my judgment, the profession of teaching means that we regularly ask if we are called to teach and if the conditions in which we work support the making of meaning.  Are we developing sense, the knowing carried by each individual? Responsible citizens who support the education of our children must realize the burden of teaching and support teachers in the necessary renewal of life force.  The best model of professional development that I have found to do this is within the National Writing Project and particularly in the teacher’s dedication to exploring his or her best practice in our teacher inquiry workshops.  With commitment to the ongoing process of inquiry, the teacher balances the presumption of authority with the humility of searching further into knowing and at a deeper level into the development of the sense to construct situational truth.

While this community is essential, it does not replace the personal.  Children and older learners are born with a scent for life, and the teacher who is worth following carries the life force, vibrancy, a joy of learning, all that animates and inspires.
My friends know that my life force renews in riding dressage; it’s where the disciplined practice contacts ecstatic joy with the unified resonance pulsing through all levels of knowing including the head, the heart, social truth and gnosis.  Getting to this life spring didn’t happen automatically; discovery came by grace and by searching hard.  In today’s crucible, good teachers must have a similar source of sustenance.   Teachers must be supported in making regular communion with the spring of vitality, of renewal. 

At the apex of professional action, the teacher acts in harmony with situated truth that creates hope and joy in the hearts and minds of the particular individuals in that specific moment of learning and living together.  The individual teacher’s professional knowing involved in this construction far surpasses the sum of Common Core Standards, high-stakes testing, and external evaluation.  Developing the personal feel for situated truth takes careful nurturance.  Professional educators and all who care about the well-being of our world’s children must hold fast to developing and defending our capacity to drink at this well spring because this is the sense we are born with.

And if we do not, we all fall into the maw of the great fish at the bottom of the sea.