Interrupt the Process

The last two weeks of school have been unusual and hectic. First was homecoming week, in which the days are themed and the students are in costume and there’s a powder puff football game and skit practice, float building, door decorating, and a parade. That week was followed by a Monday holiday and then testing – PSAT and Practice ACT for two days with community service thrown in the mix. Even though class must go on, a realist knows that not much gets done after hours, and students’ attention is not at its best in class.

You can only imagine my students’ frustration when in the middle of that chaotic two weeks, I assigned a timed rhetorical analysis essay in class. Some were resolute and resigned; others were complaining; but none was optimistic. Still, I pushed on, handing out the passage to be analyzed and the ‘practice AP’ paper upon which I make them write.

The room went quiet and then they dug in. Fifteen minutes went by as they read and annotated the passage. Another five passed as they began to formulate ideas and outline how they might tackle their essays. Then suddenly with no warning, I stopped them and assigned them a partner or group with which to meet.

This technique, compliments of my APSI instructor, Valerie Stevenson, is called Interrupt the Process.   Here is what it looked like:

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IMG_1467The relief on their faces was obvious, even though they didn’t know where I was going or what the outcome of this assignment would be. They didn’t yet know I wouldn’t take them up for a grade when class was over. All they knew was that in this moment, they got to collaborate with a friend, get another’s perspective, share the burden and the stress of this difficult writing assignment, and not have to face it alone.

This look on their faces was priceless to me, and then even more valuable were the conversations I began hearing once they pulled their desks together and began talking and exchanging ideas. That’s when I grabbed my phone and snapped the pictures. I wasn’t even sure why at the time I was doing it, though I figured I’d feature them on my blog somewhere.

Later that afternoon, as the blog post began to write itself in my mind, I realized the importance of “Interrupt the Process” as a metaphor in my own life. Where would I be without community? When life gets crazy or difficult, I need a friend to ‘interrupt the process’; to speak up and give me a new perspective, or reach out and tell my that the idea I’ve come up with is actually not bad! Both intervention and validation come from the mouth of another. When I’m stuck in something difficult, I need to turn my chair and my face toward a friend and get help.

The value of the technique in my writing class is to give the students practice in timed essay writing, insuring they take the practice seriously, yet not turn every writing assignment into an assessment. It also enables them to learn analysis techniques from their friends and helps them see in new ways and gain multiple perspectives.

I had surgery a few years back and remarked to a friend a day or two after that I was trying not to take the pain medicine that the doctor had prescribed for 10 days post-op. “Why not?” she asked. “They aren’t going to give you badge for not taking it.”   (She has her doctorate in education!) “Doctors prescribe medicine for a specific length of time after surgery because people generally need it for that length of time,” she said.   Why was I treating recovery from surgery like some test on which I would be scored according to my teeth-gritting endurance?

Most days don’t end with a gold star by your name. Most of them are ‘just practicing’. Most of life is not for a grade. By design, it is intended and necessary to “interrupt the process” and get all the help that we can.

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Honor the Edge

Different teacher. Different class. Same word. 

Last week I wrote  about honoring the transitions, inspired by a phrase I heard in a yoga class that week.  This week, in a different studio with another teacher, I heard a  similar phrase: Honor the Edge.  The teacher went on to say that the whole class was going to be about edges.  Turns out my whole week was going to be about them.

To honor the edge in yoga is to stretch to the point of discomfort, but not to the point of actual pain, a ‘good hurt’ as the teacher described it.  You want to go to the edge, to the place where the muscle is stretching and working and pushing the boundaries of what it normally does for you.  You stay there, breathing into that place, trying to create more space and elasticity.

I couldn’t help but think of this phrase when I read Donna Lamberti’s blog  about remaining silent and letting her students stumble and be frustrated because they’d refused to follow directions on a project.  She disciplined herself not to step in and rescue them, going for the larger life lessons and seizing the opportunity to help them grow.

I watched  “honoring the edge” play out again at my school with a student who struggled on an initial assignment in a rigorous course.   Because of a scheduling problem this student is taking a class normally reserved for students an entire year older, thus she finds herself sitting among students with an extra full year of knowledge, practice and experience in that subject. She has heretofore been a straight A student, but the rigor of this class is challenging her and she is not having the instant success that she, her parents, and her previous teachers are accustomed to seeing, rather she’s playing ‘catch up’ to her peers for a few weeks or months.   This challenge actually should be expected and is a good thing…if you can stand the stretch at the edge.

To push to a point of discomfort, not to pain or shame, just to a bit of frustration of confusion is usually where the learning takes place.  Problem is, as parents and teachers, we sometimes have a hard time letting our children or our students stay in their discomfort. For that matter, we probably don’t allow ourselves to stay in it either.

My own child, a college junior studying abroad this semester, decided to buy herself a train ticket, make a hostel reservation, and travel alone to a coastal town in her host country for a weekend adventure.  I was quite proud of her as I would have never done this at her age, but at the same also worried about her traveling alone in a foreign country, staying in a hostel with strangers, and navigating her way around a town where she knew no one.  When she arrived there the first day, she sent me a few texts indicating things were not quite as she expected to find them.  I immediately sent back that if she felt unsafe or the hostel was unclean that she should get on the train and go right back to her flat in the city.  She said it was neither unsafe or unsanitary, “just weird”, which told me she was experiencing the discomfort and stretch of traveling alone in a strange place, going to a restaurant by herself, figuring out what to do and settling in to the idea of sharing it only with her journal and her camera.  Still, she didn’t sound like her usual confident happy self and my mother’s heart wanted to tell her to go back to the comfort of the city she has become accustomed to, even though she was clearly in no danger.  My next move was to go online and start researching the destination.  I had the idea that I could could send her links of where to go, what to do.  I’d stay in constant communication with her so she wouldn’t feel lonely.  I was going to try to have the experience with her if she stayed.

Then I caught myself.  This was a “growth mindset” moment for her and I was trying to prevent it.  I need to be available only if she asks my advice, but she needs to figure out whether to stay or go, to stick it out or hop the first train back to familiarity.   The confidence or the regret needs to be hers.  Turns out, she stayed, pushed through the first day and night of uncharted territory,  went to museums, galleries, and dinner alone and the second night sent me a text saying she was 180 degrees from where she was the previous day. Text messages couldn’t mask her confident tone.  She honored the edge, breathed into the stretch, and grew stronger for it.

Last year our faculty read Carol Dweck’s Mindset as a summer read. It made me want a ‘do over’ for many days of both parenting and teaching that are already behind me, but it also inspired me to stay in the moments of discomfort, lean into resistance, breath into the stretch, and see what it can teach me – and to do that for my own children and my students.    Like on my yoga mat, the stretching and staying at the edges in life create the strength and flexibility I need to face the next challenge.

“Don’t Let Me Hurt Them”

It’s not as bad as it sounds.  I’m not completely end-of-May-exasperated on the first full day of school.  Though I readily admit to this very thought shouting in my consciousness at year’s end, it also floats into my mind at the school year’s beginning.  In August, it has a completely different context.  It’s one of my breath prayers – those one-liners you say on the run or in desperate moments.

Help me. 

Here I am. 

Show me what to do.

I’m listening. 

Add to that list:  Don’t let me hurt them.  I know the power of the tongue.  I’m a wordsmith, a writer and an English teacher.  Every job I’ve ever had paid me to use words and I know their power.  That’s their attraction for me, the mysterious, surprising capacity of the endless combinations and context in which they dwell.   They can bless and curse;  expand life or diminish it.  They wound and they heal;  they love and hate. They encourage or they demoralize. They empower and enthuse; they also reject and refuse.

When you love and own and practice words the way I do, there is tremendous potential for good or evil. In the course of the day with my students, I can instruct and encourage, comfort and cast vision, or I can confuse, unnerve, embarrass or demoralize.   Just writing those last four words frightens me.  The rate at which I run my mouth, often before my brain is engaged (as my father used to say) is dangerous.   Teenagers can be snarky and sarcastic and funny.  They complain and speak about things of which they are ill-informed. The tendency sometimes is to want to get in there with them.

But I can’t.   There is not a balance of power.  I’m the adult. They are “not quite yet”.  I’m the teacher, the giver of the grade; they are students who have to do what I assign.  The temptation to become one of them in conversation or to get a laugh at another’s expense is one I must not give in to.  The opportunity to teach them the high road in civil discourse and in personal relationships is mine. So is the chance to comfort the hidden hurting ones who walk through my door every day, whether they tell me those hurts or not.  My minister often says, “There’s pain in every pew.”  So it is in my classroom – in every desk.  I pray I am never the instrument which inflicts more.

I know the power of words, get drunk on it at times,  have run away with those words without thinking of the consequences. I’ve lost count of the times in my life I’ve had to ask forgiveness for using them carelessly.  So I’ll begin this new school year the same way I do every year, with this simple prayer, “Don’t let me hurt them.”