Welcome Home

 airport escalatorA few year ago, when the design for Winnipeg’s new airport terminal was in the consultation phase, the citizens of the city spoke fervently about not wanting to lose the iconic escalator where they had greeted their loved ones for decades. The design team took heed, and replicated the escalator in the design for the new terminal. Everyone who arrives on a domestic flight makes a grand entrance at the top of this escalator, and hopes to be met by someone special waiting at the bottom. The escalator is, in many ways, Winnipeg’s official symbol of coming home.

Today it was my daughter coming home—back in town after four months away at school. She was excited to be coming back to reconnect with friends and family over her holiday break. I was equally excited to be meeting her.

I like airports. I like people watching in airports. I like the shiver of anticipation that vibrates through the crowd—the undercurrent of anxious excitement that swirls around those who are coming and going and waiting.

Of course the problem with people is, well, some of them are better company than others. I sat down on a bench to wait and was promptly subjected to overhearing a racist tirade by the middle aged white woman across from me–something about aboriginal Christmas Hamper recipients who “take advantage.”

I wish I was better at delivering snappy comebacks to strangers. As usual, I just felt silently ill.

I’ve been immersed of late in the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—struggling to wrap my head around the appalling manner in which the first residents of this land were treated by a group of newcomers. Wearing my lifelong privilege with increasing discomfort. Finding myself more and more intolerant of intolerance.

airport arrivalsUnwilling to remain in earshot of my racist neighbour any longer, I vacated the bench to wander the increasingly crowded waiting area. Evidently someone else of significance was expected at the top of that escalator. By the time the arrival board announced that the plane had landed, the waiting area at the foot of the escalator was filled with TV cameras, reporters with microphones, and people holding up “Welcome to Canada” signs.

My daughter was one of the early ones off the plane and down the escalator, and we watched together as her celebrity travelling companions made their grand entrance—a Syrian refugee family arriving to be greeted by their Manitoba sponsors.

airport drummersAnd then, out of the crowd emerged the drummers. I had read earlier that, across Canada, Indigenous people were making plans to extend a special welcome to the newcomers. Still, witnessing it first hand caught me off guard. I fought back tears as the group of women stood at the foot of the escalator and drummed and sang a welcome ceremony, their chants echoing through the massive arrival hall.

Welcome home. Everyone.

 

 

Advertisements

Points of view

I was getting my hair washed. I like getting my hair washed. Note that this is not the same as washing my hair. Washing my hair is a routine, pedestrian chore that goes along with showering and brushing my teeth. Getting my hair washed is something that happens at best every six weeks when I go for a haircut. Getting my hair washed is a bit of luxury — having someone else slowly and expertly massage your scalp is a substantially different experience than hastily scrubbing a bit of shampoo and conditioner over your head as you scramble to prepare for work. But I digress.

top of my headI was getting my hair washed, and a strange thought occurred to me. This young salon assistant, who I know absolutely nothing about, can see a part of my body that I can’t see myself. (Apparently strange things happen inside my head when you rub the outside!) The thought intrigued me, and it got me thinking about all the ways in which other people had views of me to which I had no access without the aid of some form of technology.

There’s a large wall of mirrored glass which reflects me walking to the elevator at work each morning, but I don’t have a clue what that mirror displays when I am walking away from it.

There is an exclusive club of doctors and nurses who have been up close and personal  with parts of my internal workings that are not normally on display.

I never get to see myself sleeping.

Then, because this is how the inside of my head works, I began to think about the less tangible ways in which other people might see aspects of me that are not readily visible from my perspective.

For example, I wrote recently about my “impostor syndrome” dream and all the anxiety that my subconsciously imagined classroom represented. In my real classroom last week, my students painted a very different picture in the feedback they provided.

hairSo which is really me? The partial me I see? Or the view that is visible to everyone else?

Both, together with a third perspective: the parts of me that only I can see. Because you may be able to see the back of my head, but only I can see what’s in it.

Unless, of course I decide to offer you a glimpse. And unless you agree to accept it.

Which is why I write this blog. And why you read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imposter syndrome

I wrote in an earlier post that I don’t often remember my dreams. When I do remember them, it’s generally because they are particularly memorable. Or, in the case of my most frequently recurring dream, particularly familiar.

During the 20ish years when I taught school, the back-to-school dream was an annual fixture. It generally happened in late August, just as I was starting to gear up my prep for the new school year. The dream took on different variations from year to year, but there were always predictable elements.

Typically the dream begins with me arriving at a new and unfamiliar school. I don’t know my way around, I’m late, and I can’t find my classroom. When I do eventually make my way to my assigned room, the students are already there and in a state of near riot. By the time I have restored order, I have also discovered that I have been assigned to teach a subject for which I singularly unqualified and thoroughly unprepared. Physics, typically, or some form of highly advanced mathematics.  Either that or it is a language course in a language about which I know absolutely nothing. Greek, perhaps. Or Mandarin Chinese.

Regardless of the specifics, the common element is that I am always inadequately prepared to take command of my class.

It’s a long time since my teaching activities have corresponded with the traditional school year, but I still engage in activities that can trigger the back-to-school dream. I’m coming to the end of a week of teaching an intensive summer course at my neighbourhood university  and, sure enough, the dream resurfaced last week as I was gearing up to start this course.

In this recent incarnation of my back-to-school dream I am team-teaching with a former English professor of mine—a fellow who I remember as being very intelligent, but verbosely full of himself. Although we are supposed to be jointly teaching this class, it appears that we have actually been assigned to teach two different courses simultaneously to the same unfortunate group of students. This time I arrive in good time, ahead of most of the students, and seat myself at one end of a large seminar table. I think to myself that he can sit at the other end, so we will be positioned as equals. When he arrives, however, the room rearranges itself in a manner that only happen in dreams and Harry Potter stories, and I find myself seated with the students in what has morphed into the upper tiers of a vast lecture theatre. My colleague finally arrives. Or rather, he makes an entrance. Dressed like Elvis at the height of the satin and sequins, he launches into a bizarre blend of lecture and concert that goes on forever. One of the students seated near me whispers a question to me about my course outline. Before I can respond, the other professor interrupts his performance just long enough to chastise us for not paying attention. I become acutely aware that we are nearing the end of the scheduled lesson time, and I have still not had an opportunity to even introduce myself. Suddenly, a door bursts open and in rolls a long buffet table decked out in vast quantities of expensive cheese.

That’s where the dream ends, with me feeling flabbergasted and frustrated.

None of this has anything remotely to do with my actual experience in a real-world classroom. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching the course I am engaged with this week. It fascinates me, therefore, that the anxiety and feelings of impostership that are clearly at the root of such dreams are so deep-seated that they still send up shoots at a point in my teaching career when, at a conscious level, I am really quite confident about what I am doing.

What I find especially interesting about the latest incarnation of the dream is the “Elvis” figure hogging the stage and preventing me from doing my thing. Teaching is, in many ways a form of performance. In the dream, I know I am prepared to teach my course, but I am prevented from “stepping on stage.”

No matter how confident and competent I am as a teacher, it seems there will always be that small voice whispering in my ear, “What if I bomb this time? What if they hate me? What if I can’t command their attention?”

And seriously, how come no one ever arrives spontaneously in my classroom with a cheese buffet?

Seeing the whole picture

Albert* was one of the old-timers who sat at the back of the room, moseying their way through high school on the extended plan. To be honest, I suspect that the unspoken consensus among my teacher colleagues was that Albert’s chances of graduating were pretty slim.

In a small Manitoba town in the mid 1980’s Albert’s outward appearance was guaranteed to evoke judgement.  He wore threadbare t-shirts with rock band logos, torn never-washed jeans, and long greasy black hair, perpetually falling in front of his eyes and draped across a complexion ravaged by adolescence and poor nutrition. I never knew whether he lived in town or commuted from the Reserve up the highway. I suspect that there was some degree of undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Effect in Albert’s story. The teachers who attempted to teach him Math and English despaired over his erratic attendance. But I was the Art teacher, and Albert, I discovered, was an artist.

Albert’s attendance in art, while far from perfect, was somewhat more regular than his attendance in his academic courses. He sat in the back corner of the art room, head down, eyes hidden by his heavy black hair, deeply entranced by whatever project I had conjured up for the week.  Whatever the assignment, Albert produced something beyond my expectations.

In a big city school Albert might have had the option to rack up all manner of high school credits in a comprehensive arts program. But all I had to offer him was one credit per year of his high school career. And at the rate he was going he was going to run out of art options before he ran out of years.

The more I got to know Albert, the more I ached over the disconnect between his artistic talent and the way that everything else about school conspired to beat him down. I wished there was something more I could do provide him with some validation.

One day I had a brainwave. Remembering that there was a process to create a special project for credit, I proposed to Albert the idea of creating a mural. To my delight, he agreed.

And then the bureaucracy began. First the principal hemmed and hawed. He was not a man given to making decisions if he could possibly help it. I suspected that, had Albert been a more conventionally studious student, the answer might have come quicker. Eventually consent was given, on the condition that I consult with the School Division office regarding the acceptable kind of paint to use on the school walls. After another lengthy runaround, I was informed by a bemused Director of Facilities that ordinary latex paint would be just fine. For a location, we agreed on a boring segment of hallway that joined the two wings of the school.

All that was left was the matter of the mural composition. Fearing that I was going to have to go to battle to defend Albert’s artistic freedom, I asked him to draft a prototype on paper before starting. I waited nervously to see what Albert would come back with, scarcely able to imagine what he would propose. Given that his overall school experience had been less than uplifting, I envisioned something dark and angrily abstract.

Albert sought me out late one afternoon. “I’ve got my picture for the wall.” He unrolled a sheet of poster paper, and revealed, to my astonishment, an exquisite sketch of a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs in front of a backdrop of lush green forest. I said all the right approving things, but all I could think was “where did that come from?!”

Albert toiled for weeks, painstakingly recreating his work as a mural that spanned roughly 8 feet of hallway. The result was stunning. The other teachers didn’t say much, but once in a while I would catch them looking with veiled astonishment and grudging respect at Albert’s creation. Whatever else they might have thought about Albert, we all saw a part of him we had never imagined was there whenever we passed through that hallway.

I only spent two years at that school, leaving for a position in the city before Albert graduated. I don’t know if he ever did. I have always wondered what became of him. I hope that he found something worthwhile to take him far away from that town. I went back myself a few years ago, and had occasion to walk through the halls of the school.

Albert’s mural had been painted over.

It broke my heart.

When I knew I wanted to write this story, I combed through my albums in search of the one photo I remember taking of the mural. I couldn’t find it.

And it broke my heart all over again.

paint-wall-lg_A2

 

*name has been changed.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Daily Prompt: Does it ever make sense to judge a book by its cover — literally or metaphorically? Tell us about a time you did, and whether that was a good decision or not.

To my students: Why I won’t be handing out copies of the slides

Someone’s going to ask, so we might as well clear this up right at the outset. No, I won’t be handing out copies of the PowerPoint slides.

I recognize that, in the minds of many of you, that statement is tantamount to academic abuse. That it is evidence of some dreadful mean streak or profound character flaw on my part. That clearly I must have missed Lesson One of Teaching 101.

You are welcome to think whatever you want.

In fact, that’s exactly my point.

Part of my teaching philosophy is that I need to always be able to provide you with a reason for what we are doing in my class and how we are doing it. (You don’t have to like the reason, nor do you have to agree with it. But I have to have one, and I will always give it to you when asked.) So let me explain the rationale for this act of pedagogical treason.

First, if I am using PowerPoint effectively – something I don’t profess to be perfect at, but I do try – then my slides will largely be designed to provide speaking prompts and visual interest. If there is significant, detailed content that I think you really need to have in writing, I will give you a handout or provide you with a link.

Secondly, there is some evidence that writing notes the old fashioned way, by hand on a piece of paper, actually helps you learn. Of course if there is some genuine reason why taking your own notes will disadvantage your learning, I will happily accommodate you. But the vast majority of you will not be harmed by being expected to flex your note-taking muscles.

Besides, if all you are doing is trying to transfer what I am saying onto the page, you aren’t, in my view, taking the kind of notes that are going to be of much value to you when you walk out of my class.

Remember when I said “you are welcome to think what you want”?

That’s what you should be writing notes about. What you think. If this class was just about the information coming out of my mouth, I could type that up and send you a file and it wouldn’t matter whether you showed up or not. But since you did show up (and I’m glad you did!) it’s my job to make sure you get the most out of this course while you’re here. And that won’t happen if I do all the work.

You are here to engage with the content of the course, not just to record it for posterity. If I were to read your notes, I would hope to find that they contained a lot more than what I said. I would hope to see questions. Comments. Musings and ponderings. Angry little rants. Diagrams and arrows and words with circles around them and symbols that mean something to you alone— that mean things like “look up this author” and “possible essay topic!”

I’m far more interested in seeing margin notes that say “yuck” and “wow!” and “why???” than I am in seeing my own words parroted in neatly bulleted lists. I want your notes to say as much about what you were feeling about what you were learning as they say about the curriculum.

So no, I won’t be handing out a copy of the PowerPoint slides. And I won’t be emailing them to you after the class either. You are welcome to complain about this gross injustice on the course evaluation. Be sure to provide a detailed explanation of how your learning suffered due to my failure in this regard.

At least you will be writing about what you think.

Evaluating evaluation

We are always evaluating.

“I enjoyed the movie, but the ending was kind of stupid.”

“This salad is really tasty! Can I get your dressing recipe?”

“You should read this book. I couldn’t put it down.”

Book and movie reviews are evaluations.  So are restaurant reviews. So, in fact, are all those annoying Facebook comments exhorting you to support this cause or check out that article.

The problem is that we often don’t make it clear what criteria we are using as the basis for our evaluation.

For example, the other day I was reflecting on the fact that both my children have reached their late teens/young adulthood without having had the opportunity to visit any of Disney’s iconic theme parks. For that fleeting moment I found myself evaluating my success as a parent against a marketing-driven upper-middle-class standard of Experiences Your Children Ought To Have. My daughter swiftly brought me back to me senses by pointing out that, according to her criteria I was doing just fine:

“Well, let’s see Mom– I don’t enjoy rides, I hate waiting in line, and I prefer to avoid crowds–so really I’m OK with that.”

I was reminded of her insightful bit of reframing today when I read through the evaluations for a workshop I recently instructed.  Out of 24 participants, 23 seem to have thought the workshop was interesting, engaging, relevant, important, etc. The other one thought it sucked.

You can please some of the people some of the time.

The thing that makes it so difficult to interpret these evaluations is that even though they all answered the same questions, they clearly aren’t all approaching those questions from the same set of criteria for what constitutes a good workshop. Sometimes when I read feedback comments I have to wonder if we were even all in the same place at the same time. Someone thought the workshop was too “lecture heavy,” while someone thought there was too much group “brainstorming.” Someone thought the workshop should be a mandatory part of the program, while someone thought it was a colossal waste of time.

The are probably all correct. If I could sit down and have a conversation with each of them, I would likely be able to determine why they responded the way they did. Everyone approaches experience with different expectations — different criteria against which they measure just about everything around them.

Truthfully, sometimes it’s just not the workshop for you — not because there’s anything wrong with either you or the workshop, but because it’s not the right fit. I hate horror movies, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t enjoy them. I am, on the other hand, a big fan of dystopian science fiction, which I recognize is not everyone’s cup of tea. The problem comes when we try to evaluate the horror film using the criteria that make for good dystopian science fiction, or vice versa.

I will dust off the evaluation report next time I prepare to offer this workshop. I may tweak a few things as a result. But given that the overwhelming impression was positive, I won’t sweat the details. What I might do is add in a few more explanations of why we are doing what we are doing as we do it– not because I think I need to justify my instructional design decisions, but so that my students and I can come closer to being on the same page when it comes to how to evaluate the workshop. If I’ve made it crystal clear that I’m only offering hot fudge sundaes, you can’t complain that you didn’t get a banana split.

Well you can, but it won’t change the menu.

IMG-20130714-00304

 

Create the path by walking on it

Daily Prompt wants to know, “Have you ever become obsessed with something? Tell us about something that captivates your attention like nothing else.”

You may have noticed I haven’t been posting much lately. I have been doing a bit of non-blog writing, but mostly I’ve just been super-busy with other things. Chiefly, I’ve got a lot of papers to grade for the two (what was I thinking?) courses I taught this term over and above my already busy day job. I should be doing that right now.

I don’t know if I would call it an obsession, but at this point in my life I am focused on finding ways to live more creatively. Teaching is, for me, a creative pursuit. Grading papers is not. My job affords opportunities for creativity, but it also comes with lots of barriers to creativity. Sometimes I think my biggest barrier to living a more creative life is me.

One of my greatest creative mentors is a woman I have never met, but who lives so vividly through her books that I feel as though I have. A few days ago I was having a sort of “crisis of faith”—as in I was seriously doubting my faith in my own creativity. I expressed it in this blog post. The very next day, as though the universe itself was responding to my shaken confidence, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper from my nightstand and happened upon these words, written by Cameron in reflection upon a concert of Richard Rodgers’ lesser-known works:

All of us who make things worry whether or not what we make is “original.” Listening to the Rodgers evening proved this worry to be irrelevant. Clearly, Rodgers was the “origin” of all his work. The prism of his sensibility is what made it original. The same is true for all of us. We are the origin or our work. Our allowing work to move through us in the issue. As we suit up and show up each day at the page or easel or the camera, we have an “eye” that becomes the “I” present in all that we do. (pp. 57-58)

Julia Cameron is one of those rare beings who actually make a living being creative. She has published both fiction and non-fiction, and even composed opera. But Cameron’s greatest gift to the creative world has surely been her many books of gentle wisdom on how to unlock the creativity we all carry within us. Beginning with The Artist’s Way, and moving through multiple volumes of reflections and exercises that encourage the reader to dig deeper into the depths of his or her own creativity, Cameron has quite literally “written the book” on how to live a more creative life.

Mind you, she’s not alone. There are others whom I have found to be able guides in my quest to centre myself within my creativity. Twyla Tharp. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Stephen King. And others whose names escape me for the moment.

So many things escape me. So many times I have tried to take a run at living a more creative life, and before I know it all the things that have a tendency to squelch my efforts rush in and fill up all the spaces in my day, and in my mind. The truth is my willpower is not very powerful. I’m way better at starting projects than I am at finishing them.

But I’m not giving up.

There’s been a lot written about Disney’s new creation Frozen. For  me, the most powerful metaphor in this amazing film comes in the middle of Elsa’s iconic song “Let it go” where she essentially creates a staircase by walking up it. That’s how I see the process of creating a different way of living. Create the path by walking on it. One step at a time.

Meanwhile, I need to grade some papers.