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The Ecology of Teaching


Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal, taking a deeper look at current events, ideas, and trends. He feels that it is clear that we–Americans–are being challenged to examine ourselves, re-assess our principles, values, and ideals; to challenge our pre-conceived notions of ourselves; to then perhaps move towards a fresher perspective.

The Prepared Mind
The "prepared mind" and the mind in the process of preparing to be a citizen through Education must first grapple with empathy—its importance, its place. If the citizenry is empathetic we've solved quite a bit—a mark of evolution. This does not necessarily come through educational institutions, though; communities, families, friends, even online versions of ourselves and our dreams play a hand in how we come to understand the value of empathy, such as we see in this super community service project, Thread, urging "others to believe—that empathetic and enduring relationships are our society’s most essential form of wealth. This conviction stems from the understanding that at some point in each of our lives we have all felt alone." Empathy enables a critical apparatus that is very discerning—and always striking for some good. read more

The Cultivation of Hatred: A Brief History of Violence in America

We have witnessed great acts of empathy and selflessness. We can be proud of incredible intellectual, technical, and scientific achievement. We can also point to our American image, still, as the land of opportunity. But aggression and violence cloud these accomplishments suggesting that our successes have exacted a great cost to human happiness, to life itself. The answer to our woes is here; it’s what we need to examine, all of us. read more

American Violence and Education
I can't make things out anymore. I don't know what we're doing. American culture is upside down and, as an educator, I have no idea what to do, what to say, how to find "the teachable moment." I'm lost. I suspect we may all be feeling lost. It seems as if we're operating in two distinctly different worlds, one is inside the classroom where we theorize, study, calculate, ponder, the other, outside the classroom, that world we dare only glance at from time-to-time, is brutal, relentless in its inhumane insistence that life is cheap read more

Finding the Heart of Students, and the Soul of Education
We assume that our system is so complex that's it's nearly incomprehensible to the student; we now have systems, plural. In these systems and their mechanisms we essentially construct discipline, which fosters, primarily, dependency; it weakens the obsequious student who is blindly shepherded towards authority. This is an incredibly false construction caused by higher education's intimate relationship with the economic system; these systems mirror each other. read more

Degrees of Separation: Helping Our Students Find Safe Space for Thinking and Being
Can you help me? means I want to be a better human being; it means I want a larger purpose for my life—but we've failed to provide the adequate—and messy—room for this inquiry into the self to take place. And even the student heading to Wall Street is unsure of her purpose. Lewis calls this "hollow excellence." The place that in bygone days was about finding yourself, no longer is—and finding oneself in this world, today, is harrowing. Finding oneself and coming to the realization that perhaps you want to go another way, a larger purpose for my life, is even more frightening since it requires questioning ruling ideologies. Students are aware of this. For many it is easier to go along because it's not surprising that this level of questioning, for students, and all of us, is difficult terrain psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. read more

Reflecting with Students
She approaches the subject wondering about the importance of Hunter boots because she took our classroom conversation about adaptation into the world and felt she could explore it safely, test it—and me. She's exploring trust. The classroom doesn't work if you can't see it in the world, place it in the palms of a community. If you can't see it, you can't trust it—not completely. Her classroom needs to live; it has to be real, something offering transcendence—as it is for so many others, all the kids that walk with me. read more

Object Lessons: Life is Just a Bowl of Varies
I’ve navigated the teaching profession intuitively, always gravitating to what I sensed were voids in the system that, more often than not, compromised students. My rewards have not been monetary, nor have there been accolades showered on me—a special chair, a title, the such and such professor of. No. I’m nowhere near a think tank and the leisured life of, well, thinking and writing. None of this has happened. Mine has been a bumpy road—humbling in many respects. Some might even say I live on the boundaries of academe. read more

Education, Fear, and Arrivals From Unexpected Places
I'm often asked what I do for a living. "I'm a teacher of writing," I say. That's what it's turned out to be. There's a freshness that arrives when you know what you are, who you are. My wife, Nina, chimes in: Why don't you ever say you're a professor? The culture is large and powerful, and always challenging notions of who you think you are. Students come to me from unexpected places; they come with assumptions that, over yet a short life, are security blankets, familiar expectations given to them in intimate moments—but not fully their own. They come to me not yet fully formed. Questioning students' presumptions is a high wire act. read more

More Than a Gesture: Toward a Pedagogy of Community
It's inescapable that when we speak about education we speak about pedagogy. And when we speak about pedagogy, we actually never speak about pedagogy at all—that is to say, never in meaningful and significant ways. Instead, the language around the method and practice of teaching is rife with utopian aspirations, anxiety and discontent. Thus is pedagogy's paradox. Or to state it another way: pedagogy is a form and in this form there are at least three postulates that create its meaning, and our confusion and uneasiness, even displeasure, with education writ large. read more

Teaching What Matters: Technology and the School Experience
This curriculum can only be created by a meaningful K-16 collaboration that enables "education hubs" to emerge nation-wide: interdisciplinary centers of study focused on children, first and foremost, with appropriate teachers and mentors, counselors, and medical care up and down the system. Secondly, this new system privileges experiential learning: how to put into practice ideas and theories; how to test what we perceive; how to step away, reflect and describe what we're doing and how what we've accomplished may affect the future. read more

Final: Lost in the Funhouse

Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for—compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s. But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.” read more

This one young woman sitting in my office is a Vietnam. She is tomorrow, not today. In her somehow are the ruins—what has given way since 1975 and re-surfaced in new formations in her sophisticated ways of examining my office, her world, the life she's had, even though she's so young, but 19. She seems older, traveled beyond her years. She dissolves into something more remote then now, past it; she points to something yet out of reach for us, something she'll see and live. read more

Writing as a Transformative Experience

Writing is transformative. That's been my experience. Writers write to inquire, to dig deep into an unknown. Writers like to feel as if the experience of writing changes them. A young writer, however, hesitates because transformations like this are like shedding a skin, a layer, something personal changing into something else and the world suddenly looks different. "For starters," writes a student,, "a person does not merely place herself with the group of disposable people. We, the people as a whole, are the ones that force others to become indistinguishable." read more

Hope on a Tightrope: The Miller Street School
“It’s what I must do,” Shakirah Miller said solemnly, turning towards the Miller Street School, in Newark’s South Ward, just behind us, a gray-brown, government building with cages on the windows and dark green, steel doors. “Someone has to be her. Who else is going to do this?” Shakirah, the principal of this kindergarten through eighth grade oasis, crossed hectic Frelinghuysen Avenue to have some words with the blue uniformed sanitation workers that hang out in front of their facility’s doors, puff on cigarettes and give desirous looks to young mothers walking their kids to the Miller Street School. read more

Learning By Hand
The academic's hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don't want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach? read more

On Being: Something Grand and Strong
I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I'm comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself—that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes. read more

The Ecology of Teaching: Breaking Out of the Factory Model
Of course, citizens have to be productive and engage the world creatively, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive—produce productive individuals, it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. read more

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