LEARNING TO LOVE EDUCATION AGAIN
Single Handing It: Finding Our Way In An Age Of Fear
By STUART GRAUER, Ed.D.
Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation's top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, Stuart's new book, Real Teachers, is available from CWI Bookstore. email Stuart.
“People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Single Handing, Multitasking
Fishers Island trails off the northeast fork of Long Island and stretches north, as though longing to grasp Rhode Island. But it neither truly belongs to Long Island or New England—it is a private place to be lost somewhere in between.
I love single-handed sailing. I spent years on the Long Island Sound, sailing from point to point, mainly alone, on a twenty-five-foot wooden sloop called Sequoia, all around the North Fork. Silently getting it rigged and taking off downwind, filling the jib with wind one-handed and hearing it snap into silence, then hoisting and cleating the main halyard with the other hand while steering…with the other? I hardly even know how to explain how single-handing is possible, but for those of you who do it, you understand.
I was trying to become a teacher in those years, not at all sure of my “real” path, and single-handing gave me a sense, or the illusion, of independence and control over my destiny. My favorite book became Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World, a book I would give anything for our students to want to read. My weekend retreats from teacher education became beautiful destinations and landings all over the Sound, although I never landed on Fishers Island then. With barely a post office and just nine miles long, Fishers Island always seemed a mystery, with a bit of an Alfred Hitchcock aura about it.
I loved the life. When we sail away, gone are the straight lines and fences, gone are the rules imposed mainly to control and rarely to free, gone is the status quo. There is still fear at sea, but this fear is not of the limits and regulators imposed by education and social life, but of the limitless.
We replace “what” with “what if?” Gone are many questions with answers.
Single-handing through wind, tide, and current, gone is the schooling. But the study and practice of seamanship leaves out no essential facet of education, progressive or traditional; discovery and curiosity are reborn as basic skills (Jameson et al., 1996). As educators and parents, can we reclaim the courage to pursue these equally timeworn and forward-leaning values? This would be real work for teachers.
Educators from at least as far back as Socrates have speculated about how to engage curiosity and discovery—Socratic Inquiry—in the classroom, and how to develop these faculties, faculties which are so akin to entrepreneurship and our country’s heritage. Can we commit to a penetrating line of thought rather than be tossed about by the sea of standards and disparate agendas that we face? The “multitasked” life? Coming of age in the new millennium, “millennial” students and teachers look to technology to enhance the level or classroom inquiry, since today’s school sizes make Socratic methods seem impractical, unsustainable, and unusual. In Student Centered Learning in Experiential Education, Cheryl Estes (2004) echoes educator and philosopher John Dewey saying “the goal of education was for the student to be able to understand and use experience...and to examine their experiences .”
Class size is at a historic high in the United States making it hard to access each student individually. Can we reclaim the time to listen to our students honestly as they find their course? Can we reclaim the courage we’ll need to take that kind of time, time for true inquiry?
We were at the Green Inn, in Narragansett, Rhode Island, summer of 1976, and it was getting late. Some still remember the old Victorian-style inn, its huge green turrets and awnings perched over Monahan’s Dock on Narragansett Bay, before it went into debt and burned to the ground. (“Kitchen fire.”) We were out on the front porch on the wicker rockers, sipping warm cognac in giant snifters, the lights of Newport glimmering across the bay. My friend Rick walked across the deck, concerned. He had a twenty-eight-foot sloop docked out front at Monahan’s and his crew had just backed out.
It was August. Rick had agreed to deliver the ship to the south shore of Long Island, to the Great South Bay, in a day’s time. That’s well over a hundred miles, mostly in open ocean I was guessing, but mainly in sight of land. If the weather stayed clear, a sailor could do pretty much the whole run using coastal piloting without having to get into too much off-shore navigating. I knew the whole run already, pretty much, except for the final reach from Montauk to the Great South Bay, the last fifty knots of straight, coastal piloting, which sounded like fun. I agreed to single-hand it.
I set out at midnight, fully engaged in learning the new rig, and plotting my entire course in rhumb lines right up to dinner the next night in Bellport, Long Island. Or maybe breakfast. Shoving off, I hoisted the jib and set it loosely, then let go of the land, heading downwind.
Nothing engages the entirety of one’s mind and body more than an open-ended problem, like setting out on a new ship, learning a new rig, alone. Single-handing, you’d have to get the sails to manage themselves for a minute using some spare lines or the bitter ends of a sheet or something—you'd have to come up with the craziest knots, quickly.
In the Harbor, and out in “The Real World”
Recently, I asked my friend Dave from Utah, "If you could push a button and your daughter would be admitted to the college of your choice, and then end up with a secure job in a cubicle and live out her life with no prospect of failure or pain—if she could “straight line it”—would you push the button?” Tim thought carefully for a minute, then nodded his resignation: "Yes."
I was stunned, truly. Dave, a button pusher! It would never have occurred to me that someone would feel this way, much less Dave. He skis some of the steepest chutes on the mountain, he even teaches avalanche protection.
I’m not stunned any more. Who among us would stand up and claim we are living in an age of courage? Nelson Goud’s article Courage: Its Nature and its Development (2005), illustrates
how “the energizing catalyst for choosing growth over safety is courage. Courage allows one to effectively act under conditions of danger, fear, and risk. Without courage, the individual or group remains stuck in existing patterns or immobilized in fear. ” How many of our neighbors or school teachers would live free or die? Notwithstanding the romantic imperative for this, do we all really prefer the journey to the destination? (If you’ve flown and passed through our airport hubs much lately, don’t answer that question.)
Tying down the ship’s wheel with a slipknot gave me time to raise and set the mainsail, shuffling back to adjust the steering several times. Then, managing both sails while keeping the ship on the right heading and every few minutes adjusting the course along with the chart, I sailed out into Narragansett Bay … beautiful night.
Tunnel vision is not only stimulated by the decision to focus the eyes on a book or a road, it is also a physiological response and it can be caused by things like consumption of rum or the bite of a black mamba—or by fear. But as we adapt to the ocean with nothing to block any vista, the peripheral vision expands and breathing naturally slows down, moving lower in the chest. To the extent that one is truly in the peripheral vision state, clear sailing means we block anxiety or stress—we become emotionally and intellectually receptive. At length, we may approach the trance state as our vision spreads out over space and time. We are receptive, perceptions enhanced. Teachers, pressed on by curricular demands, often feel little time to assess the state of their students in these two, physiologically incompatible states of seeing.
As I travel the Southwest visiting schools and talking to parents, teachers, and school leaders, I meet many parents who show low tolerance for a tough journey, for an open-ended journey, or for watching their children finding their own way. Millennial parents believe it is their responsibility to keep their children headed on a straight and narrow tunnel, or as I call it, “the race to the cubicle.” A growing number of Ivy League admissions officers complain that the intellectually sensitive and supposed “best and brightest” (i.e., highest scoring) among our children have become masters of compliance and tunnel vision. Parents can seem like the biggest victims, viewed as meddlesome in school, where the gatekeeping has become superb.
The groups and pressures bearing down on our schools seem like high seas, out of control, and I don’t know how superintendents can face them all squarely and still keep the focus on great teaching: curricular standards; grant funding requirements; competing national, state, and local testing requirements; violence prevention and safety and health requirements; insidious vendors and interest groups; insurance companies; teachers union and department of labor regs; and sprawling, self-sustaining bureaucracy at various levels. Add to these groups: fearful parents.
We have not transcended horrific, millennial-era events like 9/11 and the Columbine school massacre, nor have we removed them from our collective consciousness. Many parents I meet wear the overprotection of their children on their sleeves, as evidence of their responsibility in a world defined by these kinds of events. It’s instinct. As we become fearful, our peripheral vision narrows and, with the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the 'involuntary' or autonomic nervous system associated with activity, adrenalin, and stress), our views are limited. We tend to focus on one object or the next rather than a broad field of vision.
Peter Gray (2011) argued the following in the American Journal of Play: Play functions as the major means by which children (a) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (b) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (c) learn to regulate their emotions; (d) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (e) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health. (p. 443)
One psychologist observed, “Whereas energetic free-play outdoors used to be the typical activity in childhood, such opportunities are rare now, largely because of parental fears about their child's safety” (Smith, 2009 ). We abandon the open ocean.
Our own school, as a benign illustration, uses the slogan “Learn by Discovery,” but the slogan has undergone years of criticism from marketing teams and parents for being too childish for a college prep school. Imagine a world where discovery, the work of Einstein, Magellan, Galileo—of Fossy, Admiral Parry, and NASA—is a quaint, storybook effort dispensed with easily enough in kindergarten or cub scouts—not something you can actually “do.” These are subtle enough assumptions, but they rumble beneath American elementary and secondary education school like a distant storm heard by whales, deep down, irrelevant.
Competing world views, and the unwillingness of those with one to recognize the truth of the other, explain why parents and teachers either view Albert Einstein, through tunnel vision, as a theoretical physicist who discovered the theory of general relativity or, in a state of peripheral vision, as a Nobel Prize winner who tried to teach us that “imagination is the highest form of wisdom.” Einstein could never have discovered one without the other, so rapt and complete was his curiosity. There is game-changing research on curiosity coming out of the psychology field, but it is not finding its way into educational research (except in articles criticizing its absence). This is not new in the field of education. As Einstein wrote: "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom” (Llewellyn, 1992). Nevertheless, at his death, Einstein the teacher was to be missed as much as Einstein the physicist.
School is treated as a protected, controlled harbor, but we sacrifice when we attempt to turn education into a controlled, closed system . When teachers and students delve into topics in depth, it follows that they will almost certainly be unable to get through the year’s prescribed curriculum (Marzano, 2006, pp. 13-14). Teachers thereby risk their stature and security. Their students risk test preparation. It is a world where a key criterion for college admissions (the SAT) was designed sixty years ago based fundamentally on its breakthrough attribute: it could be scored by machine. It is a world where students get credit for online physical education.
In-harbor written expression is reduced to strict formulas for writing one, three or five paragraphs, as though thought and discovery alike were a fill-in activity. In-harbor, every middle schooler must take algebra or be “left behind.” Efforts to regulate schools of over five hundred students, often consisting of up to two or three thousand students divided into classes too large to have an open, curiosity-driven conversation, seem sensible. In harbor, this all might look like a reliable formula for life preparation because it is accepted as the practical normalcy, but it does not look that way at all from open ocean. Unless, of course, our wish is for the next generation to spend a lifetime in groups of thirty to forty people forcibly gathered together daily. Or, perhaps, if life could reliably and expeditiously present us with three or four solutions for our most significant problems. Imagine such a life!
Surely we will need fearless parents and teachers to hold the largest vision for the larger purposes of schooling. Real teachers will be willing to risk their jobs solely to have a single, great, openhearted conversation.
Over the Edge of the [Virtual] World
“You’re weaving all over the Atlantic!” a ship’s captain once told me as a drifting boy still learning to handle the helm. I was surely that way in school at that point, too, fuzzily wasting my university education away. There would be a few more years of weaving for me, too. I’m glad I was not online in those years. I’m glad I remained untethered and out in open ocean, even though I often felt lost.
Single-handing at sea begs contrast with a concept now villainized in educational and social circles nationwide: “multitasking.” Multitasking is a term now on the “cusp” of paradigm shift, and the confusion is, no doubt, intergenerational: “Baby Boomers,” “Generation X-ers,” and “Millennials” all see it differently. In general, new millennial definitions seem to share the idea that multitasking entails attempting multiple tasks at once while using digital technology. The acceleration of “interruption technologies” can impede deep concentration and our students’ impulse control. Growing scientific research points to a need for digital time-outs (Steyer, J.). The wonders of digital citizenship are bearing hard upon a growing understanding that we seem to be sacrificing deep focus and a steady course. Single-handed sailing is not like that at all; every action is focused on a pure, single purpose: moving the ship ahead properly, all skill, creativity, and ingenuity combining for the same, single purpose. Wind and water, sky and sea, all part of the same, unified whole. Although it has the advantage of promising a seemingly unlimited number of collaborators, multitasking in our wired world can force us to stay at the superficial level, always grazing, weaving all over our own, intellectual Atlantic.
To the old-timers, the latter is indicative of distraction and a lack of deep focus. It appears artificial, inauthentic, and time-sucking. However, Millennials, text messaging with one hand and video chatting with the other (or, horrifically, while driving), going about their “connected” day, will say what a seventeen-year-old, plugged-in high school senior told me recently: “Of course I focus on all of this at once—I am just staying in touch. It’s not a distraction.” Are these students distracted, or merely busy? Are they isolated in a virtual world, or developing collective intelligence?
There is a substantial portion of our student population—those repressed students whose worlds are stifled in school—who find whole worlds right there deep in the harbor: passive, electronic, and often angry or driven worlds far beyond the comprehension of mom and dad. They are spending half of their waking lives with their spirit drawn down into the twilight zone of an electronic screen of some kind (Frey, 2011) . They are not weaving all over the Atlantic; they are just finding another course, naturally: wired.
Students aren’t the only ones who appear distracted and consumed. Teachers in today’s large comprehensive school have incredible, time-compression demands, 150 or 185 students a day, and these students and their parents can often access them 24/7 in a world of electronic messaging. Electronic communications alone intensify their communications, both increasing their work and decreasing their ability to pay attention to a single task (Wheatley, p. 14 - 15).
It appears that previous generations, including pre-millennial teachers, resent multitasking and chronic online social networking. It also appears that their students do not mind it, often doing it compulsively throughout the day. They feel it opens up the world to them, while their teachers may feel this all cuts into their “real time.” This generational divide will continue to be debated while commercial meditation studios (and even school clubs) launch all over the country, attempting to reclaim slow time and open space. If enough people presume something for long enough, it becomes real. Hence, we watch as things the previous generation thought to be contrivances become real. As generations change, we are spirited away from one collective consciousness and into another. Socially, we are drawn into a world that feels compelling even as we sense it as a world apart—since well before Magellan, well before Socrates, we have been so drawn—and now we are drawn to the streaming edge of a virtual world.
Full and By: Perseverance
Sailing out of Monahan’s Reef, I headed west on a steady reach out of the Bay for a couple hours, passing the mansions along the shore lit dimly under long, wispy clouds. A bit icy way up there, I could feel the air, chilling and dampening, but it was a balmy, clear night and the breeze was lovely and it would soon be fresh. The Big Dipper overhead, Arcturus my constant friend, the black ocean straight before me and spreading wider: I loved the simplicity and persistence required of staying on a single bearing for hours at a time.
You practice persistence when you’re single-handed sailing, doing one small action with increasing focus and precision along with decreasing distraction and discursive influence. Not even a ghost of anyone to rescue you, nor anyone to bail for you. No alternative task to shift to when you feel unexcited or unsuccessful. If you bump your head hard or find yourself twenty nautical miles off course, it can feel desperate and terrible. Some of that passes, and you persist, only with more intensitynow, and with more focus. The specter of being lost is always on the horizon, but eventually no longer as a fear so much as an aside, a companion ship you merely wave to over and over again if you are lucky, and you keep plotting and checking your course, pressing on single-mindedly.
Some of the greatest challenges in single-handing come from piloting and navigating—finding your way. You set out on a course, trust that a good many wind and water conditions will be as you planned, and arrive at the right point some hours later. Underway, you keep the faith. You adjust, dead reckon, trust and reflect, adjust and dead reckon…and trust and reflect. Often for hours.
Perhaps there is nothing quite as valuable as the reflection process as you move along your course towards your imagined destination. Setting an intention and holding fast requires patience and persistence beyond the academic norms on land or in the harbor—the patience and persistence we find in a great teacher.
Single-handing is from an era before multitasking was conceptualized. Rarely in elementary or secondary school can we find curriculum or testing where students must hold fast to the same point, the same concept, withstanding every distraction and threat posed against it, for six whole hours. (Learning disabilities specialists might even label this as “perseveration.”) After a while, we slip into the timeless.
And the peaceful sea—its alpha wave sounds and its blues and greens—lures us to allow our minds the space to become increasingly trusting and peacefully disciplined (Schoeberlein). Sometimes it can get rough or endlessly unpredictable and, especially if you have practiced, you may hold your intention through those times, too. In Thresholds of the Mind, Bill Harris (2007) affirms “somehow, people do not get, at root-cause level, that how they think and how they act generates the results they get. This causes them to think they can get different results without changing how they think and act. Getting different results does not come from changing your external situation. It comes from changing your internal situation ” (pp. 151-178).
I stay full and by on the warm breeze, not too damp yet—all moves dedicated as close towards a single bearing as the heading wind would allow. Five hours on the helm, in open ocean now, I am almost in sight of Block Island Sound. It is near dawn, the wind coming from the southeast, right where I focus, so I make a starboard tack to be closer to the mainland, sailing full and by.
Sailing full and by, we stay as close to the wind as possible, knowing our best course would be to go straight into it, which we cannot do. Full and by, we’re just making the best way we can, and it might be said that this means we arrive at our destination at the very perfect time: at the only possible time. As an educator, I’m not sure what is so appealing about sailing full and by, but it makes good speculation. I see parents and guidance counselors and high school students treating the path through school and college as though it were a railroad track, a tunnel, rather than a life sailing full and by, aware and adaptive. Full and by, we are responding to every wind and eddy, every current and opportunity that actually presents itself along our way, and we remain open to each change. Nothing is predetermined, and so we remain lithe and resourceful, inspired by whatever it is the day, the class, or the wind, is serving up. The teacher shifts the tone from prescriptive and judgmental to empathic and, to a greater degree, open-ended. The teacher is dealing with the students as they really are, listening, full and by—not always easy to do. What if this were the purpose of schooling? What would that school be like?
A Squall: Awakening Passion in Education
The squalls of late summer on the Long Island Sound are legendary and sudden, they give little warning even to the most experienced sailors, and the path they take is no more predictable than that of a top, spinning.
One sure way to make sure people are focused, learning, and fully present is to engage their passions. This is never a small trick, even for the best teachers. University admissions officers and corporate leaders alike agree about what we need out of our high school grads, out of “educated” students: passion (Wagner, 2008, pp. 8-42). You can’t really assign or teach it, you can only allow it and appreciate that great teachers will somehow tap into it. And you can’t do it part way. Passion is full commitment, full presence. Full presence of course transcends class bells and school fences. How can we tap into passion among students?
My favorite part of single-handed sailing is when a storm comes up. At these times, you're managing so many things at once that there is nothing to spare, you need every faculty, and any slip-up or error could cost you dearly. All this, and the pounding wind and rain to orchestrate it. You can hardly see where you're going, but that just enhances every other sense. You don't know when it's going to end, when you'll come out of it or, when it gets real bad, if you'll come out of it okay. That's what I call being alive! If the weather conditions get past a force five or six out there, it can get real (read: scary). In those situations, I have discovered faculties I never even knew I had.
Due north off Long Island where the Sound mixes with the ocean, I can tell the barometric pressure is dropping rather suddenly, and I become uncertain about the weather. Something is stirring, is it me? Sounds?
One of the most powerful and mysterious aspects of the sea is sound. I love to play ocean waves (or baroque music) in my classes, at least for the first few minutes and between classes. "Alpha" or "MU" sound waves, like a military helicopter in the distance, are conducive to good behavior; they calm people down and make them receptive.
I’m listening to them.
Through infrasonic, the study of sound waves, we can learn of a whole set of sounds we normally disregard, sounds we cannot or can barely hear. This frequency range, beneath 20 Hz and down to 0.001 Hz, is utilized for things like monitoring earthquakes and charting rock or petroleum formations below the earth. It is also used study the mechanics of the human heart (Le Pichon et. al., 2010).
As I sense wind picking up and clouds moving much more quickly, I feel a bit anxious, almost as though there is something supernatural taking place.
Weather that builds over long distances results naturally in severe wind and surf. Just the impact they have on our hearing alone can be profound. Leaving the calm whooshing of alpha waves, as the wind and weather pick up, beta waves of maybe 18 Hz (or in the 12-19 Hz range) are its messengers, and we should sense some agitated brain waves, not consciously at first; when beta waves are coming, we sense them well before we hear them. These changes are important to understand especially during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As L.P. Spear (2000) explains “later hormonal influences may also have an “organizational” component, in the sense that alterations in hormone levels in adulthood can be accompanied by significant structural change in brain. ” Just like that weather, infrasound can cause feelings of awe or fear in humans. The chopper is approaching, deepening. Passion. Your breathing deepens.
I can no longer see stars, and the clouds are gathered dark and leaden above. Within moments of my noticing this, my pulse is quickening. Waves begin pitching up raucous and crazy , some over the bow or slapping hard over the gunwales, and had anyone else been at the helm, I certainly would have taken shelter in the cabin. No one is here, the sound track is changing and I am alert and tightly focused.
I become uncertain about whether to stay my planned course for the open ocean or to hug the Connecticut shore. In this situation, winds can reach as high as seventy knots and tornados are possible. High alert.
Squalls like these are the subject of both scientific research and Sunday sermons, in equal reverence. For my uncle Roderick, a seafaring Episcopalian minister, the difference meant absolutely nothing, a point of pride and subtle fury.
Before these uncertainties awaken in me much longer, lightening comes, angry, and storm winds whip up the waves. Then the rain comes, and now so heavily that my visibility grows dim as it pounds the ship. Now lightning bolts crack all around so intensely I start to wonder if there is a way to get out of this situation and if I’m going to be okay.
Much like a video game, elementary and secondary school classrooms present a virtual reality, not an authentic experience like a storm. It’s a simulated life which ends at the bell. Virtual as they may be, they have their ups and downs, which may seem very real indeed. In bad classes, and I’ve taught my share, we may orally experience something called “the cocktail party effect,” where various sound frequencies compete from different locations making collective thought impossible for many, and sensible students take cover in multitasking or other forms of superficial compliance.
At my worst as a teacher, I have tried to force or demand or even blame my way through parties like this—not so great. Kids, and even adults are not designed to sit still and be fully present in an environment like that. Sedentary behavior negatively affects all functions in our biology, and of course this includes our neurological and cognitive functions. Lengthy periods of sitting in any context work, school or even recreational can leave students and teachers with short term or worse, long-term negative physical and intellectual consequences. Neville Owen (2010) has pointed out:
Practical and policy approaches to addressing too much sitting as a population health issue will involve innovations on multiple levels. For example, public information campaigns may emphasize reducing sitting time as well as increasing physical activity. There may be more widespread use of innovative technologies that can provide more opportunities to reduce sitting time (Owen et. al., 2010)
Like great seamen, great teachers somehow embrace and engage and shape all these sounds and energy sources, and they channel them into a sense of unity and flow. Mastery like this is a wonderful, beautiful thing to observe or, on your best days, to achieve.
The elements press on. I can hardly see anything, and it is very hard to keep a steady course because of the wind and waves. For a while, I cannot see twenty feet in any direction.
Dead Reckoning: Setting Intentions and Tracking Them
Just recently, sailing on a classic ninety-seven-foot schooner, I pointed out two constellations to the captain, who was a recent college grad. I was puzzled for a while at his disinterest in the stars. How could a young, ship’s captain have no regard for stars? And then it dawned on me: we have entered the first century, the first millennium, in all of human existence where, for those coming of age, the stars no longer have any bearing on their life paths. The stars that guided the Magi and the Phoenicians, the stars that have played a visual and spiritual symphony for the sages through the ages, are now window dressing. To our millennial captain, the whole of the cosmos is surpassed in output by an electronic GPS screen the size of a car radio. At the risk of sounding old and romantic, I still think it bears asking: how will sages find their way?
Dead reckoning has everything in common with great schooling. Worthy principals (and ship’s captains) chart their courses constantly, using everything they can get in the feedback loop so they can see if they are on course for the outcomes they aim for (Williams, T., Michael, K., & Haertel, E., et al., 2010, pp. 14 – 18; Benjamin, 2011, pp. 25-31). Like all the most important aspects of education, the principle that we must be intimately in touch with the feelings and thoughts of our students is one which should remain beyond documentation—it must be an assumption. At sea, it is an urgent matter when you are off course or, worse yet, if you are uncertain of it. In many schools I visit, doors mostly closed and departments siloed superintendents caught between state, district and school site agendas, it is hard to find a captain’s intended bearing. It can be impossible to discern a true philosophy in action, a guiding star. Cocktail party effect. Unfortunately, but understandably, most organizations tend to press on anyway, “coalitions of the willing,” as Harlan Cleveland, a true captain if ever there was one, captured in Nobody in Charge.
The lightening intensifies. I heave-to for a while, stabilizing the vessel in its position so I can study the charts, hoping the storm will pass. But in the end all bets are off on the storm passing any time soon. My charting has been consistent and I can estimate my position within reason. I plot it again, this time within a triangle of possibility, then add a vector line for an estimated drift in these conditions. After a few minutes, I make an assumption about whether or not I am lost, and this assumption becomes my best dead reckoning: a thin pencil line amidst almost infinite complexity.
Today, thirty-five years later, my daughter would have just pulled out her iPhone for a GPS fix, checked the weather map app for a clearing in the storm, and then maybe held it to the sky for star or planet positions, just for fun. What she would have missed! My tools were: a compass, depth sounder, tide table, good chart with a pencil and some parallel rules, pair of eyes, pair of ears.
I keep the ship inside the north fork of Long Island, hugging the Connecticut coast so that I can try to maintain sight of landmarks. No luck. The visibility is such that, if I squint, I can make out the coast now and then, but not consistently. I note my speed and distance and reckon in the currents about every ten minutes on the chart. Torrents of rain sound like sand being blasted into aluminum sheets, terrifying and incredibly beautiful.
We (the ship and I) are now somewhere off Fisher’s Island, but the actual charting of vectors accounting for wind, current, tide, estimated boat speed, heading, compass correction, and time could put us only along a sizeable stretch of coastline, most of it rocky, meaning that if we land poorly, our little ship will surely be dashed into rocks. (If you’re reading this by a computer, Google up Winslow Homer’s “Summer Squall” and you’ll get the feeling.) It is then that, through the rain and haze, a small patch of coast appears, as a rubbing, whiter than the dark shading of the rocky coastline and, through examination of the vector lines I had penciled onto the charts, my best guess is that this is a tiny, sandy crescent where I can safely beach the boat.
The destination in many situations is something that can be sensed intuitively even though is not yet visible. I have tried for years to persuade our school trustees of this reality. They have come to find it a quaintnotion, especially since the accuracy of my gut financial impressions has surpassed that of their own complex calculations, year after year. Not to brag.
It is only the slightest, grayed-out impression that seems to lack the crude, darkened shapes of a rocky coast. But suddenly it opens up, this rubbing, only for a moment, before the weather grays it out again, and it is gone. I have the bearing now! If I approach it too closely, but drift too much with the surges of water and wind, I will surely miss the landing and be knocked down into the shore, drawn into the rocks, and ruin the ship’s hull.
Luckily, as sages assured us throughout the ages, despite our skepticism and fear of intuition, when we are attuned to our business properly and with acceptance, our intuition has a way of lining up with reality.
I draw a final line of dead reckoning, put on the auxiliary motor, and head toward the assumed spot, which soon comes into clear view. I feel heroic. The sloop slides up onto the sand with a soft grinding and I jump out, drenched, with bow and stern lines in hand—preoccupied by doing all of these things at once. Three islanders are there to receive the lines and, with the boat beached and a high tide, ebbing, the vessel would stay high and dry for the night.
In almost all of our lives, when we are ready, we may encounter the farsighted, the storytellers we traditionally have known as “teachers,” who show us not only that a test is when you are facing a storm, but also that a storm is the most natural thing in the world. They are not doing three things at once, are rarely surprised by weather, and I’m guessing they never feel heroic; they receive us simply and with the faith that only one with no agenda can have.
The lightening . . . ” I say. “Come on up to the house,” says an elderly woman with an ample body knowing eyes, and the largest pair of binoculars I’ve ever seen.
Perspective: The Real Teacher
Laird Hamilton of Hawaii was towed on a surfboard by a jet ski into a sixty-foot monster wave, dropped in, engulfed in blackness by the giant, crunching curl, then spit out like a watermelon pit squeezed between the thumb and forefinger, out into the open, making the wave, safe. He observed this: “It helps to have that little jolt of perspective that life’s fragile” (Casey, 2010, p. 68-69). We could tell sea stories for hours, but what the good ones keep showing is that there isn’t a sailor or surfer worth being at sea with who hasn’t played out his own imaginary death, been knocked down, humiliated, and seemingly betrayed by natural forces and then—and here is the worth—gone on in life a little humbler with a brighter glint in his eye. That little jolt of perspective.
The thought of risk in education, the role of the classroom in developing courageous people, has occurred to me many times since first landing on Fishers Island. Since the new millennium, we have entered into an age of fear, an age when parenting seems to mean moving any obstacle that could lead children from the linear path of the right grades, college, and job slot. Maybe those parents want to be heroes.
In school, becoming lost and alone, experiencing what we can never plan—single-handing it—is considered bad planning. In school, being lost is an unacceptable departure from the “real world” which schools pretend to offer us; it is the storm fearful parents demand their children be sheltered from. I am so sorry that there seems to be so much to fear in this new millennium. We are used to controlled experiments, scenarios that we can report accurately on. And so, understandably, unwittingly, we eschew freedom and discretion in education. Our school systems red-pencil the fragility and risk of authentic experience. The list of examples detailing this is long and dreary: more content standards per course than experts believe a teacher can cover in over a year and a half, accountability for set outcomes at the expense of discovery, de-emphasis on teachers who have mentoring relationships with students and commit to the time that takes, homework that crowds out the opportunity for the development of intrinsic passions, more math tutoring and support classes at the expense of high school electives and clubs, and the abandonment of time-honed, qualitative evaluation strategies in favor of one-dimensional metrics. Confusion about what it means to be a real teacher versus a student manager. Total confusion about the whole idea of free time. Heavy backpacks. With wheels. These are the faces of fear and, as I travel the American Southwest and beyond, I’ve see them in every community I’ve visited since the turn of the millennium. I see joy and passion and talent, too, but there is always fear. Fear narrows our peripheral vision. We see straight ahead only the enemy and, with laser focus, we lose sight of our larger world.
Out in the open ocean, some don’t make it, but let that never lead us to conclude that we were wrong to go out there or that all of our striving has been in vain. Life is fragile. At school, I suspect there will be continued efforts to remove what we cannot control: field trips, individually-paced curriculum, open-ended projects, recess, problem solving, team building, outdoor education, Socratic discussion, inductive thought, the arts. Richard Hackman (2002) in “New Rules for Teambuilding” challenges the convention of teambuilding and promotes smaller self-motivated groups while dismantling any social or team loafing. As more controls are placed on human institutions, our players become increasingly passive, and the quietly subversive is awakened in our future leaders. If the institution is school, the less ownership our students have, the more they retreat, or form clique, or multitask themselves into virtual worlds; and the more drop-out rates increase. Some day this may be seen as good news, as the unconquerable spirit of human freedom.
The sturdy Molly Chandler walked us all up to her house on the hill, led us into her bay-windowed kitchen which had overlooked the Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean for generations. She set down the binoculars—she had seen me long before I could see her—the largest pair I’d ever seen. Studying them they appeared to be the kind of old family treasure that contained epic tales. We ate.
Chandler was the oldest remaining family name on the island. Molly’s early ancestors had died when two ships went down in a storm two hundred years ago. From this kitchen, she had waited years for her husband to return from voyages until, one day, he did not return. There is no longer anything sad or moving about her solitude now. Any fear of being lost or alone, such as I might have felt, was two hundred years buried in her, unspoken and unthought-of, stated only in the way she held her coffee mug and looked out her kitchen window across the Sound, saying: Where you belong is where you are. We are never lost.
I made no plans for the boat that night and did not know what I would do—call the Coast Guard, call the owner of the ship and get him to fetch his damn yacht, something else? My shadow self, the weak one, was tempting me to give up on what I had started. Amidst this internal debate, Molly mentioned that high tide was at ten o’clock the next morning. My ship would be in high enough water to shove off by eight.
Molly was already up with coffee by 7:00 a.m. and did not need to ask what I was doing. Her presumption that I would persevere was unspoken, yet so undoubting that it became my own.
This life and death drama was a small thing in Molly’s perspective. No ship was rolled or dismasted, the rigging was undamaged, no one drowned, there was no hurricane, we hadn’t harpooned anything. I had not sailed away from England and the known world forever, bound for Plymouth Rock in the 1600s. Molly’s stoicism honed through generations tendered me all the courage I needed. Studying this all in years later, I learned I had visited the home built by one of New England’s legendary seaman. Mike Marshman was sailing in the legendary 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race in sixty to eighty knot winds with spray ripping into him when a sixty-foot rogue wave engulfed the yacht and rolled it, snapping the mast and cracking the deck, trapping him under the rigging. He was pummeled this way through a pitch-black night, losing a crewmate and lifelong friend overboard. Returning home, he said: “I’ve been a pretty selfish bastard—just ask my wife. But all the emotions I faced out there stunned me. All my values in life have changed....The house is fun again. I want to spend more time with my kids, and I’m actually enjoying my work again.” This, after a brutal, nightmarish, thirty-six-hour battle. (Mundle, 1999, pp. 105-6 ).
My entire squall episode, from onset to beaching, took about four hours, less than the time “millennial” generation children were spending in front of a computer and/or television screen daily, on average (versus two hours a week exercising) (Thomas, 2009) . Molly easily could have given me a C- in seamanship, but why complicate things? She found a hungry sailor, and she fed him—a Fisher’s Island routine. I was in equal parts humiliated by my own weakness and empowered by this older, larger world view.
Maybe Molly Chandler wasn’t a dreamer, but that only meant she would never fathom the ways we might conspire in the very dark shadows of our little hearts to abandon our dire situation, to bail. Her presumption that our only possible option was to complete our personal journeys somehow became manifest because of its very nature.
Similarly, great teachers do not really create learning, they only open up a space for it, and this can be a lot to face up to. When it’s real and lasting, that space can expose the crack in our souls, the weakness and longing, the soft matter. Real teachers understand that the unstructured and solo parts of the journey are the most difficult parts (Kalisch, Bobilya, & Daniel, 2011 ). A real teacher takes our vulnerability for granted, knows that this soft matter is where the passion resides, and that we will move on with greater humility and a wider perspective. As the trail guide says in Reinhart’s wonderful film, Meek’s Cutoff, “We’re not lost. We’re just finding our way.”
To experience teaching like this is to tap into a force of nature; it is life changing and life affirming, and I cannot imagine wishing a summer squall had never jolted me off course and exposed the weak sailor in me, and the strong one. What many squalls strangely have in common is that they often end as they started, with a beautiful, peaceful day. The day was great, blue and dark, and I felt like I could see 360 degrees around me. The after-storm air was a mix of smells, with the stirring hint of ozone. The tide was rising. We ambled down to the beach, and I shoved off the coarse sand along with some neighbors, hopped on, and hoisted sails, bearing towards Montauk Point.
Manhasset, NY; Encinitas, CA; Martha’s Vinyard, MA
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