I started using the word “positivism” in pep-talks to myself while I was living in Honduras. Usually these pep-talks would take place on my short ride to school while musing with my roommate and listening to Michael Jackson infused reggaeton on the radio. The pep-talks were necessary because of what I recently described to a new colleague as the Central American paradox. Being fully aware of the inadequacy of this generalization, I went for it because I wanted to communicate the two competing responses I have to my experience; it was both beautiful and haunting at the same time.
I am sure that this paradox is what made it so difficult to reflect on my experiences publicly, as I intended when I started my first professional blog. Instead of posting my considerations of cultural, social, personal, moral, and educational experiences, I stored them in drafts which I can hardly comprehend now. They are also in letters and emails sent to people who helped me navigate this paradox for the last two years. Regretfully, the bulk of my reflections on the first two years of teaching are here:
I should say there, since I left these notebooks behind. The process of reflecting on my experiences and trying to make sense of students’ lives was important for just that, the process. I could not let the risk of misunderstanding the implications of my own writing about a community, whose complexities I knew very little about, keep me from writing and moving forward. So, for better or worse, that’s what I did.
The result of my failure to be a blogger, which seemed to mean making an impossible delineation between my job and my life, is today’s project of social research on myself. A project that I hope will bring me back to a more acceptable form of professional reflection. I need to get back to the blog, since I already have a few notebooks stashed in my desk.
I think the way to start my social research, is by returning to the online place that I first looked to for conversations about teaching. The English Companion Ning helped me find some focus for public reflection. I did achieve a few blog posts there, and one of those I find particularly intriguing now.
My response to the question “Who do you want to teach?” was initially not an answer to but a rejection of the question all together. I did comment on this post later, and I asserted that one important part of actually answering this question was understanding that who actually refers to more than just students. The ironic part of this post is that I started it by recalling my initial experiences with education, which included the comparison of “my students” to students like me. Right now I am in a community of teachers, students, and parents that I believe in, and it just so happens to be the very same community that I grew up in.
I accepted a job at my alma mater in May. When I returned to Wisconsin in June, I traded positivism for optimism.
After Dawn Hogue was kind enough to spend a summer day helping me get reacquainted with Sheboygan Falls High School, I went back to my old notebook habit. This was a most heinous decision, since Dawn was the one who encouraged me to start blogging in the first place. The least I could do was share my reflections on that experience with her, my friend, mentor, and new colleague.
To take sharing to the next level, here is an excerpt from an email to Dawn:
The sorting and undoing of old things made me think about how it felt to be at school last week. I always liked school, so I was excited to be there and excited to be starting something new and excited to be there and starting it with you. I was sort of sad too, though. I missed the kind of excitement that comes with the unknown. I have learned to work pretty well with the unknown, and I actually made a lot of conscious efforts to join foreign communities. Maybe I’ve done this to maintain an optimism about people, relationships, and education. Anything seems possible when you don’t know what isn’t, right? I have decided that regardless of what I remember or hear, I am trying to approach familiar things and people with a foreign optimism. Unless this doesn’t make sense to you, I hope you’ll remind me about optimism when I forget. We’re only human.
In this I identify the paradox that I’m working to understand for my new experience, the foreign, with an old place, the familiar. More importantly than the duality that amuses and challenges me, is the notion of foreign optimism. Anything imagined is still possible. Anything can be good. And when people ask me about what it’s like to teach at the high school I attended, and a lot of people do, I am very excited to say that I can’t imagine feeling more welcome, hopeful, and just plain happy teaching in any other place.
Despite the many differences between this year and the last two years, technology has been one constant. It is the focal point for my social research project, because it has helped me see that despite my inadequate professional bloggery, I have actually done quite a bit of public reflection and more public teaching than ever this year.
I’ve been letting little bits of my conversation with myself about teaching out, 140 characters at a time.
Twitter is the web glue that I didn’t even know I needed, until I moved abroad and started teaching and learning with technology and little else. (There will be a post that discusses this more in the future, after I rescue it from blog purgatory – drafts.) I hope Twitter is my gateway to being a (better) blogger, but for now it is simply one of my favorite things. The picture and link above show a current student’s self-evaluation using color (to the right) and a bit of a conversation I had with a former student regarding what literary analysis actually is (to the left).
I have not yet invited new students to communicate with me via Twitter, but I have set up solid online spaces for teaching and learning with them. I’ll add this topic to the list of future blog posts, but for now I’ll say that class blogs for English 10 and College Prep English 12 are an important step towards transparency compared to my previous online classroom, which was on the web but not public. I’ll also say that my official goal for the year, yet another future blog post, is to get College Prep students more engaged with blog authorship for the class and to get English 10 students back to blogging on their own.
While transitions and technology in education require a great deal of optimism, the conclusion of this social research project is a return to the word “positivism.” Positivism in the history of thought is not early morning pep-talks in the 21st century, but the much older idea that knowledge is based on observable experiences. The observation of my own experiences, as documented in various regions of the web and in the post above, give me the self-knowledge that I actually have potential as a blogger.
I was using gmail to chat with a different friend, mentor, and former colleague this morning, when I realized that all I need to do is take a more empirical approach to professional reflection.
I need to focus more on observable experiences. Since I mentioned observable experiences this month in my message to Heather, I want to close with this link to bit of real positivism, experience and reflection, for College Prep English 12.