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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Listening to An Other

by Paula Davidoff

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, Gerry Fierst and I co-taught professional development workshops for upper grade teachers. To begin each workshop, we told an African folktale about a man who married a woman from the sky. As in many tales about other-worldly wives, the woman’s consent to wed comes with a condition. Her husband must not open a box that she has brought from her homeland. The man breaks his promise and, to his surprise, finds that the box is empty. When his wife confronts him with his actions, he replies, “I don’t understand why it matters. There is nothing in the box.”
When she heard this, the sky woman’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re wrong,” she replied. “That box was filled with sky – with light and air – everything from my homeland that I hold dear. I’m not leaving you because you opened the box,” she continued, “I’m leaving because you couldn’t see what it contained.”

When workshop participants talked about the story, they related it to their own teaching and their students’ learning. Their remarks could be summarized as follows:
1.    Many of my students don’t see the value of what I’m offering them, and
2.    I sometimes forget that each student has unique insights and experiences that affect his or her perception of my classroom.

The workshop took place on November 10th and, after waking in the wash of election results, it was good to spend the morning immersed in work with thoughtful and enthusiastic teachers – telling stories, teaching and learning, dwelling in the timeless aspects of human experience, and reflecting on how we, as individuals and as a collegial learning community, can help our the youngest generation effect a positive change for their future.  However, we live in the present and, even as we walked back to our cars after the workshops, Gerry and I talked uneasily about what changes the immediate future might hold.
In the days and weeks since that workshop, I have heard from many friends who are depressed and frightened about the future. National news has been dotted with accounts of violence that may or may not be related to election-wrought fear and anger. And, in the few days preceding Thanksgiving, I heard more than a few radio bites about the less disturbing subject of how to avoid unpleasant holiday dinner table conversation. Through all of this, that teacher workshop has been running through my mind.

Although I love teaching professional development workshops, I almost always anticipate them with trepidation. I fear encountering the unfriendly faces of people who will proceed to talk and text and grade papers while I’m trying to teach. To make matters worse, I also tend to measure the success of a workshop by the responses of the most disengaged participants. I want everyone to be involved and, although I really do understand the frustration teachers feel when given one more thing to do, I don’t understand not taking a chance on what might be an opportunity to learn something new.
But in the weeks since that workshop, I’ve been questioning my own willingness to take that chance. I’ve become uncomfortably aware of the many times I put down the newspaper or turn off the radio when someone is expressing an opinion that doesn’t jibe with my own. Like the sky woman’s husband, I assume the contents of that box are not worth a closer look.

 In that workshop, I also told The Three Feathers. In this story from the Brothers Grimm, a king gives his three sons a task that will help him decide which of them shall rule after his death. The older two of the sons are quick witted; the third is not.
To start his sons on their quests, the king blew three feathers into the air, saying, “As they fly, so you shall go.” One feather flew east and one feather flew west, but the third feather flew straight up into the air and fell quickly to the ground. Laughing, one of the older brothers ran to the east and the other ran to the west, leaving Dummling to stand where the third feather had fallen.
But, as it turns out, the third feather has fallen on a hidden door that leads down a staircase to an underground chamber, and it is there, in a spot he has trod upon through his whole life, that Dummling finds what he needs to win the contest. The princes are given three trials and each time Dummling brings his father something extraordinary, while his brothers return with the first thing that crosses their paths.
The teachers in the workshop had a deep discussion of The Three Feathers. They understood the story’s metaphors and, so, talked about the importance of looking deep into one’s own thoughts and reactions, as Dummling looked beneath the surface of his familiar landscape. They also talked about how crucial it is for teachers to value their students as individuals, to discern each child’s talents, weaknesses, and misgivings about learning.

The king in The Three Feathers doesn’t understand that. He hands over the fate of sons to whichever way the wind blows. Dummling, the least valued child, is lucky to find himself forced to look within to find his way, but then, he’s probably used to learning hard. The older sons, who are given slight direction, don’t understand what is at stake once they’ve been sent on their way. Because of their quick wits, things have come easily to them. They haven’t encountered the obstacles that are an essential part of deep learning and, when put to the test, they have no way of judging the value of what they find.
Sometimes learning is unpleasant. It requires time, patience, and practice. It requires reflection. It can also require doing things you don’t want to do, like listening to people you don’t agree with and giving them a real chance to explain themselves. Listening only to what one want to hear limits growth. Since that workshop, I’ve decided to try to be more like Dummling, to look deep and, perhaps, learn to find something of value in things that, at first glance, seem empty.

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