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.

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I Almost Read Ahead

“Mrs. Slawson, I read last night. This story is getting good,” this coming from a fifteen- year- old boy who was doing his best NOT to read in my class this year.

“ I read, too,” another reluctant reader piped up.

“ It’s actually pretty interesting,” a third one said.

“ I almost read ahead last night,” I heard from my left.   That good – he almost read ahead.

I’m about to sprout wings and fly around my room. They are reading!  They are reading!  I’m not sure what I have done, but most of them  are reading the novel I assigned them.  I suspect it might be what I have not done.  I’ve not gotten in the way of great literature this time.

I recently read an article (  the source of which I can’t remember or I’d cite it here)  in which the writer questioned why we teachers stop to discuss while we read through the book with a class rather than waiting until we’ve read the complete story.  How would we like someone to stop a film every fifteen minutes to discuss it with us rather than just let us enjoy the story?  I’ve long suspected that some of my students didn’t have to read for themselves because they could rely on me to ‘retell’ the chapter in the discussion.  These two things together prompted me to try a different approach.

For the most part, we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird in full before we begin to analyze it for the symbols, the themes, the plot or setting,  and the tools of characterization.  We will look at those things, but only after we have had the pleasure of being told a great story by Harper Lee.   We are learning some new vocabulary and I am asking students to do some writing as they go to reflect on what they read, but for the most part, we are reading.  I’m giving them class time each day to accomplish hopefully half  of the reading I expect, and the rest should be done for homework.

Some students like to tell me they can’t read in class. I refuse to accept that.  If I can keep the room quiet, (and I can) and let them get comfortable, many of them find that they can leave the cinder block walls of my room and travel in their mind’s eye to Maycomb Co. to roam the streets with Jem, Scout and Dill.  I give them time in class to read for two reasons:  at least I know they are reading some of the book because I watch them do it; and more importantly, I want them to know I mean it when I tell them that nothing is more important to their academic lives than reading.  How can I tell them reading is such a high priority in their lives if I don’t make it one in my classroom? 

I recently asked my students  in each class how many of them read chapters from their textbooks when they are studying a unit in history, science, or math.  Unfortunately, only a few hands in each class went up.  Most of them just study class notes, they told me.  This is disheartening because as a college-preparatory school, our students should leave here being comfortable reading textbooks.  My daughter, a freshman in college, has noticed that her sociology professor might assign 75-100 pages of reading between classes, which only meet twice a week.  No way is he going to cover all that material in two fifty minute lectures per week!  Yet she will be tested on it, hence, the need to read the book.

Granted, I have Harper Lee, Pearl Buck and Ernest Hemingway to help me “sell” the pleasure  and virtue of reading in an English class. Still, reading the book – whether novel or textbook – is essential to college-preparedness. So if you pass by and we are sitting on the floor, under the pool of lamplight, book in hand, leave us alone. We are  reading!