Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Cultural Tails (Tales) - The Story Everyone Tells

de·us ex ma·chi·na
/ˌdāəs ˌeks ˈmäkənə,ˌdāəs ˌeks ˈmäakənə/
  1. an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.

Our lives are a series of stories that evolve in quantum ways every second as we are affected by the realities in our environments and the decisions we make surrounding them. Much of what goes on around us is beyond our control. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology, it's phenomenological in the sense that,
the discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.
How capably we are able to engineer our own stories depends on our ability to accept that the phenomena that surround us is essentially beyond our control. Sometimes, as in literature or theatre, a deus ex machina is helpful in resolving the seemingly hopeless life situations that are ultimately beyond our control, but not beyond our personal influence and ability to internalize and accept. Partly as a response to what I wrote recently about how the path of teaching chose me, and also just because it's front of mind, this resolve is what I want to talk about today. 

Essential to the stories of our lives, recognizing deus ex manchina that have unexpected power to resolve a sense of hopelessness, or what Victor Frankl would characterize as a lack of purpose, is critical to our resilience and happiness. Viktor Frankl's (1946) Man's Search for Meaning chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question "how was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" He observed that prisoners who found something to do every day appeared less vulnerable to the guards, and subsequently were judged as useful in one way or another; not as expendable. I simply cannot even imagine the horror of that reality, but nonetheless, it was documented by Frankl, (perhaps that was his purpose in attempting to make any sense of the horror,) and it makes sense to me.

I took away from this book the notion that without purpose, there is nothing. I think I already knew this on some level, but not to the point where I was considering the concept as part of my minute-by-minute navigation of daily challenges. I have come to realize implicitly that purpose needs to be at the core of everything I do. Purpose is a deus ex machina that resolves nearly all hopeless situations in life. It's a very critical one and we may need help finding it sometimes, but we have to have it. Hope is an action word.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The making of a teacher...

During the COVID19 crisis I've been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting... the gift of time has been nice if I'm being honest; a silver lining if you will amidst the chaos of what's happening right now. I'm one of those who have continued to go to school every day just for myself to keep that routine present in my life and so not to go stir crazy at home. Spring break has me at home today though, and for the rest of the week so I've become reacquainted with KARE Givers, (I hadn't written anything at this blog before last week since summer of 2016,) and some other things that I haven't done in a long time. I even participated in a Twitter chat last evening, something I haven't done in 8 or 9 years. It's been at least that long since this post has been sitting in my list of drafts.

I first told this story in front of an audience in 2006 to about one hundred teachers at the Central Alberta Teacher's Convention. A few years later I used it twice as an opening to a couple of lectures I gave at the University of Alberta. Later again I used this story as a narrative to open workshop sessions for the Alberta Teacher's Association Corps of Professional Instructors during professional development sessions I wrote and offered as an instructor.

In every case the theme of my presentation, lecture, and workshop was resiliency. The topic of resiliency is largely what KARE Givers is all about in one form or another, most of the posts within this blog have some reference to resiliency as a construct.

Probably as a result of all the thinking I've been doing about life and teaching, I've been brought back to my core and I'm finding myself looking for ground as I introspectively reflect on what brought me to this place in life where I feel like in some ways I know what I'm doing, but perhaps in others, I'm still trying to figure it out. At any rate here is where I am, and I guess I just feel like finally writing this narrative down. Maybe it will help me understand better where I need to go from here.

What is Failure?

I don't believe in failure, only relative degrees of success.

Despite what some may say, learning is defined in more than one context. The lessons we learn come in many shapes and forms, and I'm not sure I understand failing them. I suppose in a quantitative context, if we establish a benchmark standard, then technically everything that falls below this is a failure. Let's explore failure in the context of how it's typically defined in education...
failure [ˈfeɪljə]
1. the act or an instance of failing
2. a person or thing that is unsuccessful or disappointing
3. nonperformance of something required or expected
4. cessation of normal operation; breakdown
5. an insufficiency or shortage
6. a decline or loss, as in health or strength
7. the fact of not reaching the required standard in an examination, test, course, etc
8. the act or process of becoming bankrupt or the state of being bankrupt
failure. (n.d.). Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved January 04, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/failure
In education, failure is often defined by number seven above... The fact of not reaching the required standard in an examination, test, course, etc... So we set standards for students to aspire to, and everything below that is a failure... but what if we defined failure in a system's context...
From Wikipedia-
Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole... systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific part, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.
I am so intrigued by this concept. What if we were to think of students as systems unto themselves with many components (variables) who could best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation? What if we just thought of failure in a system's context as the act or an instance of failing; the first definition above? Could we then accept that failure doesn't have to have a negative connotation, nor does it have to be defended through some sort of rationalization... it would be just what it is- the act or instance of failing.

If we were to think of failure in this regard when a student fails it would be perceived as a breakdown somewhere in the system (student) that affected the students' overall ability to perform as expected. It would be assumed that some part of a relationship within the system (student) or in the way the student relates to another system (person, concept, teacher, content, schedule, organization, etc.) is malfunctioning, and as a result, support is required. Reflective analysis of how the system broke down would be the default reaction, then action could be taken to restore the system's interactions to purposeful and functional states designed to mitigate the failure.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

One of my best teachers...

The United Church built by two of my great grandfathers
in my grandfather's "home town" of Sovereign, SK
Some time ago I wrote this about my grandfather; one of my best teachers. On March 30, 2013 at 4:00 in the morning, exactly ten years to the day after my grandmother passed away, he died in Nepean, ON. I always reflect on his life and his passing at this time of year, but particularly this year I've been thinking a lot lately about how he'd react and respond to the current state of the world amidst the global pandemic. It's interesting to also reflect on the fact that I am now the age of my grandfather when I was born. He lived through several humanity threatening conditions in his days, and I wish I could talk to him about all that. Anyone who knows me really, really well will know that much of what I am as a person and a man came from him.

Born near Milestone Sask. in 1918, my grandfather moved to a farm near Sovereign, Sask. with his parents, eventually taking over the farm and marrying my grandmother, Emily in 1939. In addition to farming my grandfather also taught himself how to be an electrician and wired almost all of the homes in the immediate area around Sovereign. I actually have the Devry Institute distance education electrical manuals that he used to study for his electrical ticket way back in the 50's.

In his spare time he worked as a mechanic, curled, coached a woman's hockey team, dabbled in amateur theater, built two homes and even sold, installed and repaired the first televisions in the area. He was an active member of the Sovereign Masonic Lodge #192 and was a Life Member. In 1956 he took his family to Saskatoon where he soon found permanent employment as a Control Room Operator and subsequently a System Dispatcher with Saskatchewan Power. The next 29 years saw him move from Saskatoon to Squaw Rapids, then Estevan and finally back to Saskatoon where he eventually retired.
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