Practicing What You Preach: Learning What You Teach

Summer is the perfect time for me to try out some of the nonsense I spew all year long.  Okay, not nonsense. Well thought-out, research-backed, pedagogically sound, veteran tested, best practices stuff.  But honestly, stuff that sometimes makes me feel like I’m just a carnival barker. I’m talking about the practice-what-you-preach stuff.  Things I say a million times over the course of a school year, but haven’t done myself in a while or, well, ever. Things like “you have to grab inspiration when it flies at you, so it doesn’t fly past you,” or “Just get started with your writing and let it unfold in front of you,” or “Editing is fun!”

When you teach creative thinking (or learning through creation) through the written word, music composition, or the visual arts, it’s easy to pour energy into coaxing students to take huge risks in their creations.  What’s not easy is trying it yourself.  When was the last time you wrote something?  Created something? Made something in your field?  Did the writing assignment you gave?

I remember a high school music teacher who told me that she believed that her students could only be as good as she was musically.  She believed that it was her responsibility to be better than her students, so that she had the wherewithal to help her students grow.  While I see the value in teachers being highly competent in their fields, I don’t believe that my students can never surpass me. I’ve certainly mentored students who have gone far beyond my own technical and creative skills.  But what I’ve found while wrestling with this philosophical idea is that what I don’t do well is to advise students successfully in something that I haven’t tried myself. Maybe it’s a level of trust that I build when I look a kid in the eye and say, “It’s hard. I know. I’ve been there. I’m still working on it myself.”  That’s why we should all learn what we teach. And I don’t just mean content. What I do think we as teachers need to learn (or revisit) is HOW to learn, HOW to struggle, HOW to create, and HOW to take healthy risks. And our students need to learn to understand content through creation, not just memorize information to answer correctly during a standardized test.

Try it.  I did. This morning inspiration hit and I grabbed it.  I took my own advice and imitated the writers I’ve recently read in order to find my own voice.  I started typing without knowing what I was going to type. I grew through my creation and hope to inspire you to try it.  The three-paragraph product I wrote doesn’t really matter. I’m throwing it out into the world because I’m done with it. I’m going to let it live on its own out there.  But, I get to hold onto the process that I experienced as a learner. And my students will be better for it.

If you’re curious, here’s what I wrote:

Pruning

It’s like a small brook just appeared in my living room.  It took entirely too long to realize the plant my daughter had watered a half hour ago had had enough and was ousting its excess offerings over the rim of the tray, down the radiator cover, and onto the floor. Surely, the plant was trying to catch my attention. A happy little purple and white African violet, of which I have no idea whence it came.  I don’t remember ever paying it much attention. But there it was beaming up at me, begging to be deadheaded. Then, like the recent sound of running water down my radiator, the story my family has told a million times came flooding into my mind.

Legend has it that my mother, an obsessive dead-header (not to be confused with obsessive Deadheads) discovered that the three-year-old me had mimicked her and picked all of the blossoms (not just the dead ones) off of my older sister’s beloved prized African violet.  Three-year-old me, apparently, beautified the newly stark plant with a collection of crayons stuffed into the dirt so as to spice it up visually after my pruning spree. This story has been told hundreds of times in my family, often used to point out when I am stepping beyond the boundaries of where I should be going or doing (or ruining my sister’s life).  It’s a jesting way to illustrate my brazenness, sometimes as a warning and sometimes as a celebration, depending on the storyteller’s need.

So, I stand here with the urge to deadhead the hell out of this thing.  Look at it. It really is begging. So, I do. I clean it up, take out the spent blooms, make it a little lighter so that now it will have room to grow.  I occasionally break off a perfectly good bloom in the process. %#@*^%$. Ugh. It’ll take some time, but I know another flower will grow back. With that, I’ll go through this day, living with no memory of that memory, only informed by its retelling and my own pruning.

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