Sunday, January 16, 2011

Being A Good Student

I follow Susan Garrett's blog (reachable at the link in my sidebar). She has started an email newsletter series called "Being A Good Student", and has asked for comments on her blog entry What Holds You Back.

So I posted the following today:

I taught Montessori children for 27 years, and many adults in pottery, watercolor and computer classes. I've taught myself many difficult things, like how to build websites, knit, throw on a potters wheel, etc. The one thing I notice that makes a human or canine student easy to teach is if they are "biddable". Willing to trust. Willing to do what you say. Not afraid of "getting it wrong". Not even expecting to get it right at first.

I point out to all my students that "If you knew how to do this already, you wouldn't be here, so don't expect a flawless performance from yourself. I don't expect that of you." It takes lots and lots of practice to even begin to get a "feel" for things (My visualization is the ballet student "at the bar" for hours on end). Do we practice the footwork of our handling maneuvers for hours on end??????

I had a great philosophy teacher who told me "Go to class to ingest. Go home and digest what you ingested." In other words, don't expect every piece you hear in class to fit into your preconceived notions, or to fit all together into a comprehensive system the instant each idea is comunicated. It's like a jig saw puzzle. The pieces come together slowly. Give the teacher a chance to unfold their vision, connect the dots. Be confident that you can explore something new and different for a few hours or days, and still return to your solid base later.

I suspect poor students don't have a solid or wide enough base to venture forth from, so they are horribly afraid to leave it. Prejudice is born of fear. They are uncomfortable with being confused. They raise their hand all the time, interrupt a lot, chatter, pout, cause mayhem, become dissatisfied with the teaching, or quit, because during class they are trying to file each and every piece of new data they hear into their established filing system, and if it doesn't fit immediately, it starts cluttering up their desktop. While attempting to clear up this mess during class, they miss the next bit, and the next, and the next.

My advice to all students: be comfortable with being confused. Enjoy the clutter. Or, establish a mental "For Later Processing" file, and stuff every confusing thing into it. You will find when you go back later and review all the confusing items, half of them aren't confusing any more and can be filed into one of your existing mental files. Plus, you will be able to create new files with new labels, expanding your filing system and your knowledge in rapid fashion, and getting your money's worth out of each class.

I have had so much success with this method myself after so many years struggling to learn and teach difficult things, I have come to trust the process intuitively, and along with reciting my daily mantra: "Patience, Persistence, and Prayer" (the 3 P's), everyone and everything has become my teacher.

I would have liked to refine this hodge podge of thoughts and add more, but the comment was already too long and I was in a hurry. But I've been ruminating about it ever since, and so I add more here.

I wasn't always a good student.  In grade school, I was the one who got ignored when I raised my hand, and called on whenever I didn't know the answer.  I wilted and grew tongue-tied and afraid to participate.  I made decent grades by doing my homework, passing tests, and because my father would have been furious with D's.  I never made an F.  To my father, teachers were liken to Gods and I better not EVER complain about any of them.  Any problem, it was my fault for being a spoiled, ungrateful child.  But I grew to HATE some teachers, whom it seemed were always trying to demoralize their students.  All the way up thru college, I encountered several teachers who started class with "Most of you will not succeed in learning this".  With that approach, that threat, many students didn't even try.  I set out to prove them wrong.

I became a teacher to "protect" children from the demoralizing experiences I had endured.  I love to learn, love to participate, love to stretch myself, and I want that for my students.

As an adult, taking continuing education classes but still mistrustful of teachers, I was always the "clever" one in the back, pacing up and down, evaluating the teacher's every phrase, raising my hand for clarification, justification, or with "points of interest". I don't know exactly when I quit. I recognized that I had changed when, in some class or other, there was a very annoying man in the back of the room, pacing, interrupting the teacher every few sentences with questions. He was a mistrustful student. I saw myself in him, and sunk into shame.

Another instance, I signed up for a class with a renowned instructor.  In the class was another student who was also an instructor of a similar method.  This student spent the entire class trying to teach her own method with "You can also do it like this." or "I do it like this".  I finally told her if she wanted to teach her method, she should put up a flyer or take out an ad, and maybe I might sign up for her class, but at this time I was paying to learn the current instructor's method, so would she please shut up.  She was, of course, highly offended, saying she was "offering her gifts for free." She wasn't there to learn.

Trying to teach pottery and water colors to adults, I discovered many adults are horribly afraid to make mistakes, always apologizing for not doing it right.  With all their negative self-talk, they are harder to work with than most children.  They probably had some fatherly advice along the way, like I did, that "if you can't write like Shakespeare, don't write.  If you can't paint like Michaelangelo, don't waste the paint. The world isn't interested in your junk."  I never accepted that ridiculous limitation, and finally found words to justify my early attempts at art when a fellow Montessori teacher, an art major, told me that the value of doing art is for "personal relevance".

PERSONAL RELEVANCE.  That was the missing key I needed to blossom.  I didn't have to write or paint for others, or to sell product, or make a living at it.  I could do it for personal relevance -- for the pure joy of exploring my capabilities and new media.   Learning is about me BECOMING what I can be, not becoming a world champion, the President, the wife of the president, or any other famous person. I don't have to justify my existance.


And I've been enjoying every moment of that freedom from that day on, and yearning to help others throw off the yoke of the tyranny of "perfection as a goal" as well.

Lydia, by Mary Cassatt
(certainly not her first attempt to paint)
Does that mean that I approve of sloppy work, poor performances, ugly messes?  Not at all.  But I am reminded of Mary Cassatt (one of my favorite painters), who, sadly, never kept a single painting she did for the first 10 years she painted.  Compare this with parents nowadays who keep every single crayon stroke their preschoolers ever make, and every little phrase they utter as though it were a completed masterpiece.  There needs to be some balance in between.  Of course one should strive for excellence, but we should all understand that a thousand less-than-excellent executions must flow forth from the inexperienced hand to gain experience, and each execution probably holds some "personal relevance" to the student as they see themselves improve.

To see a progression of Mary Cassett's earlier paintings would be a valuable thing.  Does that mean mediocrity is a creditable art form?  Should it be in museums?  Well, to that I might say NO.  But should it be kept in a portfolio to demonstrate the learning process?  At least a representative sample?  ABSOLUTELY.  I would love to see some of Mary Cassatt's early attempts at painting.  I actually have a copy of the first LP the Beatles cut, and have used it to demonstrate the learning process.  They sounded HORRIBLE!  I mean, it's almost unbearably horrible.  They worked in low down skanky bars for several years, perfecting their craft, before ever even recording that one.

So, yes, I'll keep the videos of Maxie and my 1st year of trialing.  Lots of sketchy performances, barely Q's, and my body not knowing how to run, or move.  We were novices all along, scraping by.  Now working towards our Masters, we are still novices.  But we got out there and did it, didn't give up, and now I know better what to practice.  In my dreams I see myself fit, fleet, and graceful, and me and Maxie connected, focused, and confident.  I know now what it is supposed to look like.  I have a more practiced eye, appreciate more nuances, and that's quite new. I have something to shoot for and if it takes me years of practice to achieve it, what a great way to spend each day.

Now, on to pick up Joy and Puddin', and take Maxie and Lucky to the field for a practice session this overcast Sunday afternoon.  We're meeting Cheryl W. and her Grace there, too.

Upwards and onward!

Addendum:  on 2/5/11, I received another of Susan Garrett's "Being A Good Student" emails.

Good student concept #6;
Be open-minded and brave enough to step outside of your comfort zone.

It seconded some of my points, and ended with these wonderful quotes:

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning.
~ Benjamin Franklin

One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.
~Abraham Maslow

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable while trying something new.
~Brian Tracy

If you always do what you've always done you will aways get what you always got.

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