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.

Writing Is an Act of Faith

Writing is an act of faith. You don’t know where it is going when you start.

My students have just finished writing researched argument, which is a way of saying “a research paper”, but I was trying not to call it that, to spare them paralyzing fear and help them see the value of the assignment in connection to their AP Language and Composition exam where they will write rhetorical analysis, argument and synthesis essays.

I gave them the assignment, carefully explaining the steps to the research process and writing about it, and then they began by reading a non-fiction book that makes an argument, researching that topic to see what other writers discovered, analyzing and synthesizing that information, forming their own thesis, then writing about it.

Funny thing happened at step two. Many of them had chosen books about controversial subjects that interested them, thinking at the outset they agreed with the author. By the end of the reading, they were fully convinced. Then they started reading other research and frustration set in: I thought I agreed with Malcom Gladwell but now I don’t know.
I’m confused because I thought Deborah Tannen was right but this writer totally disagrees with her. I’ve completely changed my mind; can I change my thesis? These were the comments I was hearing one morning in class and I began to smile, even laugh. I cheered! That frustrated them even more.

What I knew and they didn’t (yet) know was that the process was doing its work. This is the point! I told them. You don’t really know what you think until you begin to write. As the students researched and learned, they began to change their minds, or sharpen an existing opinion, they experienced the thinking and writing process just as I want them to – as an open-ended act of faith. You begin without knowing the end. You start with a question and maybe you find an answer, or maybe you have to write new questions .

Writing is thinking and discovery. You have to stay open. One must follow the question, even if the answer means you change your mind.

Write your way out of a hole. I’ve said this over and over as my students struggle with a prompt or timed essay question. Just start. Write something. Turn the flow on. You may discard the first paragraph or first page, but just start the pen moving. Believe writing will come if you just start.

I’ve preached this for years and yet I don’t always practice it myself. At times I am faithless. I don’t write. I think I have nothing to say or believe that I don’t know what I think. Yet, like faith, the process has never failed me, when I trusted it. When I began – to write something- there is always something to say, even if it’s a list of questions. Even those tell me what I am thinking, wondering, and wanting to know.

One word, phrase, sentence or question at a time, I build a ladder of language to get myself out of the hole. I do know what I think- if only I practice faith and begin to write.

Bolt or Trust? Art, Writing, Frustration, Learning – Part 2

My teacher gave me homework to do. “Make a color chart,” she said. While I practiced my strokes on my canvas, she meticulously cut painter’s tape and made a grid on a white board. She then labeled several paint colors and told me how to mix them to see how the colors blend. I was to move down the chart adding varying amounts of white and across the chart mixing each subsequent color with the first which was Sap Green. She squeezed out paint samples on a board, covered them in Saran Wrap, and sent me home to mix color.

A fews days later after dinner one night when I was too tired but didn’t realize it, I sat down to mix color. I worked diligently mixing each one with white and putting them into the squares on my chart. I then mixed each color with Sap Green, not realizing until I was almost finished the entire chart that I had been mixing cumulatively across the chart, so instead of Sap Green and Cad Yellow, then Sap Green with Lemon Yellow, then Sap Green with Barium Red, I had been mixing Sap Green with every color across the chart at the same time. No wonder I wasn’t finding a color I liked. Suddenly, it was late at night; my kitchen table was a big mess, I had deprived myself of sleep to do this and it was all for naught. I wanted to cry. I had done it all wrong.

I cleaned up and went to bed. My first waking thought the next morning was how I had messed up this whole chart that my teacher spent so much time making and used up all the paint she had given me and had done it completely wrong. I felt about five years old. Really. “I must not have listened to her directions well,” I chastised myself. Later in the day I sent her a picture and a text and told her what I had done. She was ever encouraging and told me to bring what I had to the next lesson, assuring me we could use it and all was not lost. I didn’t believe her. I’d looked at the colors again in the daylight and I didn’t like any of them. They weren’t real colors; they were mixtures of things that shouldn’t go together.

A day or two later I took myself to Hobby Lobby. I decided to buy a few tubes of paint and make my own chart before I went back. At first I got all excited being in the art supplies’ section, the way I used to feel in my parents’ office supply store picking out new school supplies at the beginning of a school year. I loved new notebooks, fresh paper, and new pens. Still do. But my excitement quickly faded and an anxious feeling set in. I didn’t know which paints to buy, or what kind of board to use. And there were so many different kinds of supplies, brushes, cleaners, canvases, tools —a whole new vocabulary to a hobby that I’d have to get acquainted with if I kept pursuing this art thing. Again, the “bolt” feeling came. I almost walked out without a single tube of paint. A voice in my head said, “Don’t start another new thing when you have so many things unfinished at home.” Visions of photographs yet to be put in books, music to practice, gardens to weed, and writing projects stalled in the drafting stage filled my head, along with lesson plans, laundry, dusting, and cleaning out closets.

Art won. Experimentation won. In the paint aisle at Hobby Lobby, I made a decision to continue my experiment in learning about process, to press into the newness and unknown field, to get comfortable with messes and failures as part of learning, to put myself in a practice of doing something out of my comfort zone. I bought the paint and I came home and started over.

My empathy for my students grows with every attempt at mixing color or putting it on canvas. What seems easy to me – putting words on paper- feels to some of them like my moment in Hobby Lobby. They’d rather just bolt from that blank page. Only they can’t because this is school and I am going to give them a grade. So despite feeling inadequate or overwhelmed or frustrated, they dig in and do what I ask and trust me that they can do it even when they don’t see it happening.

This is particularly impressive and inspiring to me as I think I should be the stronger and more capable among us. My art experiment is proving otherwise. I’ve had my canvas painted. At fifty-one years old, I have several layers of life’s color and texture by now. At seventeen, most of my students still have significant white space on their canvas. Whole swaths of their lives haven’t been experienced yet. So I’m learning from them, and their trust inspires me, and I’m going back for another art lesson.

Art, Writing, Frustration, and Learning – an experiment: Part 1

I had the idea to take an art lesson. Just one. I thought maybe I could learn something about my writing practice and process by seeing how someone works in another discipline. I called a good friend who is a working artist and also teaches and she happily agreed for me to come to her studio the next day. It was a whim; I tell you.

I must have had some unconscious awareness of how much I was going to feel like a four-year-old as I took with me one of my husband’s old shirts as my ‘smock’. Consciously, I thought I would probably sketch with charcoal or paint with water colors for an hour or two, pick up a tidbit or two that parallels with writing, and come home and write about it. That is not how it is working out. Notice the verb tense there—My friend won’t let me quit with one lesson and be past tense; —it is present progressive; though I’m not sure how much I am progressing yet.

As soon as I got my smock on and sat down, my artist friend began talking about the picture I was going to paint in oil, but first we would practice on something smaller in acrylic. What? I’m just here for today, I reminded her. She was having none of it. She had a multi-step plan.

We looked through some photographs on my phone and chose a few pictures I liked. One was a landscape, a view of the lake from my back deck, and the other a desert flower from this summer’s vacation. The lake scene would become my oil painting, she said. The first thing she had me do was paint the entire canvas green.

We then turned our attention to a smaller piece of paper and the desert flower picture. She showed me how to put the shapes and lines in first. Then she painted the same image along with me and following her lead, step by step, I began to create my first painting. This smaller picture we were using as practice, to learn to stroke with the brush, not ‘feather’ as I kept tending toward, to learn how to mix the paint and to hold the palette knife. I kept wanting to use it like a spatula in cake icing. The technique is not the same, nor can you lick it clean. I kept forgetting steps in the mixing process and ending up with colors that didn’t even look like good dirt. I began to feel my ineptness. I didn’t expect myself to be good at mixing color or painting on the first day, but neither did I anticipate just how ignorant and awkward I would feel. I wanted to bolt a few times.

I tell my students all the time that frustration is the beginning of learning, that they must have a growth mindset; yet here I am again, encountering something new and foreign, feeling like a child who can’t quite hold her peas on her fork and getting frustrated and embarrassed. But I’d brought myself here of my own volition, and regardless of how bad I was at holding a palette knife, mixing color or making proper strokes with a brush, I mustered my determination to learn something about writing through my experiment with painting.

The flower picture was finally complete, and though one can tell what it is, I doubt it will ever make it to display, even on my refrigerator. My teacher praised my efforts and obviously sees something I don’t or just knows how to be an encouraging coach. Her kind words were water to me. She then had me turn back to my green canvas.

I then painted in the lines and shapes and values in brown. This is underpainting and it will be my guide, she said. Eventually no one will see it. But I will always know it’s there. I liked this idea. It reminds me of varied syntax and paragraphing; no one notices it until it’s absent. It also reminds me of the journeys we all make, teachers and students, parents and children, husbands and wives, all of us traveling guided paths that we sometimes can’t see even as we are walking them.

I’m going back to another art lesson, trusting a teacher and her process and a path I can’t see, hoping my students will, in turn, trust me.