Friday, July 2, 2010

Where have all the scholars gone?

In my desktop version of the Random House Dictionary, scholarship is defined as, “the qualities, knowledge, or attainments of a scholar", and scholar is also defined therein as, “a learned or erudite person.” (“Random House Webster’s Concise Dictionary,“ 1993). In attempting to synthesize these definitions, perhaps a reasonable summary would be that a scholar is a person who has acquired knowledge through research and learning. If attainment of scholarship were this simple, the relative value of scholarship would be drastically reduced, for there are many in my opinion who have researched and learned without acquiring the qualities of a true scholar.

To be a scholar is much more than simply possessing knowledge. In addition to being learned, a genuine scholar believes in the absolute value of pursuing truth, beauty and goodness, and because of this, has more questions than answers.

A scholar must be learned to be sure. To have knowledge creates powerful possibility. What of the scholarly person, however, that possesses knowledge and doesn’t use it in any valuable moral service? Can this knowledge be considered beneficial other than for the sake of knowing? It is the understanding of true, beautiful and good things that provides a purpose to impart, share, and utilize knowledge in pursuit of excellence in the essence of Plato’s theory of knowledge. It is through reason and the science of Dialectic that the philosopher in any scholar will attain a purpose for knowledge.
Dialectic identifies the entire range and variety of forms- from forms of artifacts such as beds and chairs; lowly things such as apples and dogs; relations such as equality and similarity; values such as beauty and goodness and justice. By the power of dialectic the philosopher not only identifies all these forms and establishes their truth, but also moves toward organizing the forms into a single structured order of truth and value. The forms tend to constitute a hierarchical structure, a pyramid, from the many least universal to the few most universal, from the most concrete to the most abstract; from the forms of inanimate physical things to the Idea of the Good... the Idea of the Good is the end or fulfillment or purpose for which all things exist, and thus it alone gives intelligibility, truth, and goodness to all other forms, which are dependent upon it, and it alone provides their coordination and unity.” (Lavine, 1989, p.41).
The synthesis of forms in Plato’s Idea of the Good encourages students to define their own intellect. If the foundation of teaching is the truth, beauty and goodness that can be found in the world, those that are exposed to it are encouraged to seek and understand the same. As a teacher, I am constantly aware of this and strive to dwell on those wondrous positive elements of our world that are universal, abstract, worth knowing and pursuing. In furthering my study of how to be a better teacher and leader in the field of education, I aim to ground myself in whatever action I choose by remaining true to this principle. The Idea of the Good is strongly reflected in the art of teaching, undeniably a most scholarly endeavor. I want to emphasize this in my pedagogical leadership. In pursuit of a scholarly existence, I aim to align myself with people who share my faith in society’s ability to recognize the capacity in everyone to pursue their own intellectual growth, to synthesize Plato’s many forms in the essence of the Idea of the Good.

Webster’s defines intellect as, “the faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands.” (“Random House Webster’s Concise Dictionary,” 1993). I would argue, however, that this definition is also flawed as it applies to scholarship. Intellectual capacity is without question a necessary trait of the scholarly person. I believe however, that not knowing, or understanding, but wondering is the most natural state for a scholar.  The innate desire to question, to challenge and reflect on what is not known is the basis of scholarship. Scholars are perpetual learners willing to be immersed in the challenging pattern of learning that produces more questions with every bit of intellectual progress made. Lines 1 - 4 in chapter II of the Tao Te Ching as translated by Thomas Cleary state that:

“When everyone knows beauty is beauty,

this is bad.

When everyone knows good is good,

this is not good.” (Cleary, 1998, p.9).
“When it is forgotten that conventional conceptions are conventional conceptions, and they are taken for objective facts that everyone knows and no one questions, then narrow-minded bigotry and blind prejudice can develop unopposed.” (Cleary, 1998 p.133).
I agree with Cleary in my belief that complacency in the acceptance of ideas and theories as if they were objective facts is unproductive and damaging to a scholarly existence. In pursuing personal scholarship, I aim to produce opinions that respectfully challenge convention, and to never allow an accumulation of knowledge to contribute to a complacent state of knowing.

In synthesizing Plato’s Idea of the Good and one small teaching of the Tao Te Ching, I believe I have created a framework with which I can pursue a scholarly existence in the domain of educational leadership. I pledge to never lose sight of the truth, beauty and goodness in the world, and to accept in the accumulation of knowledge that I am not looking for answers, but really for more complex questions.


Cleary, Thomas (1998). The Essential Tao - An Initiation into the Heart of Taoism through the Authentic Tao Te Ching and the Inner Teaching of Chuang Tzu. New Jersey: Castle Books.

Lavine, T.Z. (1989). From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest. Toronto: Bantam Books.

(1993). Random House Webster’s Concise Dictionary. New York: Random House.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Defining Self-Esteem...

"You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
-Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.
'Self-esteem' is one of those terms we use so often without really knowing what it means... try defining it right now without thinking about it- not so easy, eh?

As an educator, I passionately believe kids need to possess self-esteem if they are to accept and conquer the learning challenge successfully, but I can't support my belief if I'm unable to define what self-esteem is. Not unlike irony or respect, self-esteem is something we know when we see it, but find it hard to wrap words around. We have to do this if we're to effectively promote it. 

So many programs, therapeutic models, school curriculum and other people themselves claim to be able to increase our self-esteem. This is one of the big lies... self-esteem must come from self. If it could be derived from any other person or program it would have to be referred to as something other than self-esteem. How then do we contextualize the concept of self-esteem in order to support its presence in our students?

For me, the answer is rather simple, (although it's taken me a long time to formulate it- ironically, the simple things often really are the most complex.) Self esteem is grown in two ways, and both must be evident or it doesn't grow at all.

First, a person must become good at something, (understanding that 'good' is a relative term.)

Second, and most importantly, a person must have an opportunity to share what they're good at with others.

For me, it's that simple. As an educator, my primary role is to focus on children's strengths by holding up a metaphoric alternate mirror that reflects a positive image back at every child I encounter. The next step is to seek any and all ways for that child to share this positive image with others. We need kids to say to themselves,
"I'm good at this, and I'm going to show everyone I know!"
No matter where on the spectrum of development each child is, saying these words to themselves empowers them to be confident and capable at every incremental step along the learning journey.

Self-esteem must come from self, but receiving positive messages and reflections from others will never hinder the process- that's for sure.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kids From At-Risk Environments

It's been a while since I started blogging, and today another person asked me why I call my blog 'KARE Givers' ... I thought I should explain the origin of this acronym (no, it's not a misspelling.)

Before my one-year counseling career last year and first administrative appointment this year, I spent fourteen years teaching and learning with some most worthy, but very damaged children. The literature said these kids were "at-risk", but I never accepted that. To say the kids I taught back then were at-risk seemed to unfairly place the responsibility for being that way on them, and I didn't agree this should be the case. After some years of deep thought on the issue, I developed a perspective that these kids were not at-risk, as the literature suggested, but that they came from at-risk environments, a slight, but critical distinction... hence the acronym KARE- Kids from At-Risk Environments.

As our epiphany evolved through our working experiences and our research, my colleagues and I began to focus on student strengths as opposed to their weaknesses, and before long our optimist's lens allowed us to see what we believed... that under their tough outer shells of defensiveness, anxiety and angst, these kids were worthy, competent and caring young people who just happened to arrive at our door dealing with a litany of emotional and behavioral problems, and each case was totally different with the exception of one element... to a student, they all arrived from a place that did not serve their needs effectively; an at-risk environment. In every single case there was an environmental dynamic in the child's life outside of school that prevented positive development... they truly had bigger fish to fry, so to speak, than anything school could throw at them.

We read like fiends everything we could get our hands on that would provide any insight into what we and our students were dealing with. In Reclaiming Lost Youth- Our Hope for the Future, (what would become our bible in the early days,) Dr. Martin Brokenleg, Larry Brendtro and Steven Van Bockern introduced the concept of reclaiming kids. The authors describe the reclaiming environment as "one that creates changes that meet the needs of the young person and the society. To reclaim is to recover and redeem, to restore to value something that has been devalued." Many refer to this sort of plan as a "win-win" situation, and undoubtedly it can be when focused in the right direction. The authors indicate that reclaiming environments feature:
  1. Experiencing belonging in a supportive community, rather than being lost in a depersonalized bureaucracy.
  2. Meeting one's need for mastery, rather than enduring inflexible systems designed for the convenience of adults.
  3. Involving youth in determining their own future, while recognizing society's need to control harmful behavior.
  4. Expecting youth to be caregivers, not just helpless recipients overly dependent on the care of adults.
We worked hard to construct teaching and learning environments that displayed these characteristics, and our efforts payed off in spades. Like so many things that seem too simple to be true, adhering to these four principles created focus on the right, restorative and logical elements of what our students needed from us, and the reclaiming culture we needed to facilitate. We realized over time that it's all about perspective... we needed to see what we believed.

In more recent years I have had the opportunity and pleasure to share tales of my experiences with other teaching and learning professionals as a workshop facilitator and lecturer. During these presentations it is inevitable, (and I've done dozens of them,) that one of the audience members will state rather matter- of- factly to me that the kids in her school don't need to be reclaimed because they don't have the sort of severe problems that I describe as part of the session. Let's remember, it's all about perspective...

At this point I pull up my picture of a dandelion, and often share this poem...

Lucien's Birthday Poem
Yes, a dandelion
because they are the flower
of wishes. You blow that ball
of seeds and the wind carries them to the one
assigned to grant or reject.
And it's a good thing
that it's the dandelions
who have this power
because they are tough
and sometimes you have to be tough
to even remember
that you have any desires left at all,
to believe that even one
could be satisfied, would not turn
to an example of
"be careful what you wish for,
it might come true."
Maybe that's exactly why
there are so many of them -
the universe gives us extra chances
to keep dreaming.
Each one an uprising,
a burst of color
in the cracks of our hearts,
at an unexpected time,
in an unexpected place.

Ellie Schoenfeld

After this, we talk about perspective. To a young child, dandelions are flowers. To the vast majority of adults, they are weeds. It's all about perspective...

Now that I've been away for some time from the alternative teaching and learning environments that changed my life, I find that I can't identify anymore what an at-risk environment is. As a counselor, (and every teacher wears that hat whether they like it or not,) and a teacher in what we refer to as a mainstream educational environment, I have come to believe that if any child feels anxiety, fear, isolation or any other debilitating emotional state as a result of the environment they endure, they come from an at-risk environment- it doesn't matter if we think their feelings are justified... if it's real to them, it's real. In this sense, every child is potentially a KARE kid- a kid from an at-risk environment.

There's only one way to begin to associate with the often unknown environmental factors affecting the children we work with every day in school; learn their story. Not until then can we truly be present for the kids we serve- not as a teacher charged with teaching, but more importantly, not as a person who genuinely cares; a KARE Giver.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Great "stuff" doesn't make a great teacher...

After reading Andrew Churches' wiki post regarding the characteristics of 21st Century teachers, and while still thinking about a tweet I posted a while back, I want to share some evolving thoughts on effective teaching in today's complex educational world.

In my Twitter #edchat conversation a while back I said that "many new teachers think success comes from 'stuff'- resources, programs etc. Success will ONLY come from them and sound personal philosophy." Hey, let's face it... many teachers, new and old alike, are feeling a bit like Inspector Gadget lately; we are being pulled (the pessimists among us may say 'pushed') in many different directions as time marches on in education, and in the broader society we reflect. So how do we navigate these turbulent waters?

Relax. There are no emergencies in education. This personal maxim has served me well for a long time since adopting it from a former principal I had the privilege of learning from. True, there are a number of roles teachers need to play in order to keep up with the evolving disposition of the new-age learner, but rather than rue this challenge, why not accept it with excitement and enjoy the ride?

I agree with Andrew's above vision of the 21st Century Educator. Although today's teacher is most definitely all of these things, I believe contemporary teachers need to consider themselves primarily as collaborators within the learning process... a stark removal from traditional teaching perspectives where the teacher was first and foremost a provider of information. We are (need to be) much more than that for the brilliant young people evolution has provided us the good fortune to work with.

Teaching is about relationships... great teaching is absolutely not about the "stuff" (those resources, technologies, programs, textbooks etc.) that many associate as representing a good educational environment. Next fall as thousands of new North American teachers scramble to find the latest and greatest classroom tools to make their first year of teaching manageable and successful, let's reflect seriously on the fact that positive and effective educational environments aren't about teaching tools; they're about relationships... people working with people to establish the trust and commitment necessary in any successful relationship. Teaching and learning is a collaborative effort that we should be making together with students as opposed to a deliberate attempt by the teacher to contol, dictate and disseminate information.

We're hearing much about authentic learning lately, and we all know what Mr. Bloom would say about some of the transactional practise evident in today's classrooms... why can't we lighten up a bit and enjoy the ride as much as we would like our students to? I believe that when we make positive and authentic connections with students first, that the control many teachers crave will happen authentically and automatically. In the wise words of Nel Noddings, "it is obvious that children will work harder and do things — even odd things like adding fractions — for people they love and trust."

Let's stop worrying and concerning ourselves so much about the tools of our trade, and return to the roots of our craft. Let's tap into our higher order thinking skills and start working on regaining the creativity and optimism that comes from ideas, understanding that ideas can come from anywhere, including our students. Let's collaborate on the learning process by adopting an attitude of inquiry and discovery and getting on with Fourth Way ideologies of the future.

Let's relax and have fun doing what we have the privilege to do...
Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog


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