Tag Archives: Learning

Learning to See

Whenever I travel, I bring a camera. Whenever I go out to do something potentially cool and photo-worthy (i.e. hiking or going for a stroll in a favorite neighborhood), I bring a camera. And whenever I bring a camera, I expect that I’ll be writing a blog post. This habit influences what I look for, which impacts what I see and subsequently write about.

And I know I’m not the only one. When I first moved to New York, I had coffee with a couple of bloggers (literally a blogging couple – what a dream!) that I met online and we talked about feeling pressure to document, write, and maintain readership. Crafting a good travel blog post, for example, involves some planning: What’s the story I want to tell? What themes do I want to capture? What feelings do I want readers to have? What do I want readers to see or experience or look forward to? As the post builds in my head, I document accordingly. At the same time, photographing and writing about my weekend wandering when I was living in New York gave me a sense of purpose when I didn’t have one.

I’ve learned some really valuable lessons throughout, like what makes a compelling photo. Seeking out those photos has encouraged me to stray from the beaten path, talk to locals, and simply to wander. But I’ve also learned that the minutiae of humanity are important to me. I spent a week in Europe in April and photographed every interesting doorframe I saw and then turned it into a framed poster when I got home. I have pictures of people’s laundry hanging up to dry from everywhere I’ve been.

Akko
Akko, Israel – July 2013

Some of my favorite photos are looking over the rooftops from a few storeys above the ground. But when I take photos like these, I catch myself wondering whether they fit into the story I’m trying to tell.

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Nice, France – July 2008

As I look around, I’ve seen beauty everywhere – in the sky, in the water, in urban and rural settings. Sometimes, it’s enough to be overwhelmed by what is everywhere while other times, it’s the focus on one element that quickens the heart. I take photos of sweeping landscapes and historic village centers but sometimes the ones that I like best are close-up shots of individual flowers, rocks, or flagstones.

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Batemans Bay, Australia – October 2017

Visiting family in Toronto this summer, which I’ve done dozens and dozens of times, I did not bring a camera. I knew that we’d spend time walking around downtown, which I’ve rarely done because my time in Toronto is always spent hanging out with family. But honestly, I didn’t expect to see anything worth photographing. To me, Toronto mostly means the suburbs where my grandparents and some cousins live and the downtown residential neighborhood where the rest of my cousins live. I didn’t really think there was much to see. If there were, I figured I would have seen it by now.

Turns out I was wrong.

After brunch with our relatives, my dad and I wandered through downtown. We followed a guide my sister had written specifically for this occasion; she went to university in Toronto and has recently moved back there. She sent us on a walking tour of her favorite downtown spots, landmarking what we’d see with restaurants, little shops, and parks. She included anecdotes about some of her favorite experiences and suggested places to stop for food and drinks.

Turns out, I wished I had a camera. If I’d had a camera, I told my dad, I could have documented the day and written a blog post. He reminded me that I had a phone and that my phone has a camera. Oh. Right.

But then I realized something important. I realized that, in my irritation at not having my camera, I was forgetting to look around and actually see. And in that, I wasn’t present. I wasn’t experiencing what was right in front of me. My favorite experiences of all time are seared into my memory because I was present throughout; I don’t have any hard evidence to document them, but even writing this sentence has brought a smile to my face.

Had I become so focused on looking that I’d forgotten to see?

That thought disturbed me and I made a conscious effort to shift my perspective as we continued our stroll. Instead of documenting for my blog, I walked around downtown Toronto with my dad, pointing out what I thought was cool, stopping here and there to visit a shop or taker a closer look at a mural, a poster, a unique building. It was interesting to hear what he noticed and how it differed from what I noticed and it was relaxing to just take a walk without feeling like I had to tell anyone about it.

Over the course of that afternoon, I learned something valuable. I learned that while I enjoy taking photos and writing about my experiences, I don’t have to do that all the time. Sometimes, it’s enough to just be present wherever I happen to be, with whoever I’m with. And I learned that I need to balance documenting a place for others and being present for myself.

When I recall my favorite travel experiences, there are no cameras. The travel moments that I  treasure the most – telling stories during long road trips after dark; utter chaos at dinner in the middle of a city; stopping at a farmer’s market to buy food for a picnic that we prepared in the trunk of the car; drinking jugs of sangria outside in the winter; tasting spicy cocktails in a restaurant that looked like a forest – are documented through my memory of smells, sounds, mental images, and feelings of warmth. There’s likely something scribbled in a journal, too, and I expect that my memory and the moments themselves differ.

So while I love taking photos, telling stories, and sharing them, I’ll be doing that with a different mindset. I’ll be looking, yes, but the goal will be to see.

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Cordoba, Spain – December 2014

Creating Hospitable Spaces

I love books. I love books and independent bookstores and used bookstores. I love reading and learning. I love being challenged by what I’m learning, or feeling my horizons expand. I love getting so deep into the notes and references and traveling wherever they take me, to other books and other authors. I love when books I’ve read are sources for other books, when writers I respect mention other writers I respect.

It was that love that drew me to BooksActually last weekend, one of Singapore’s independent bookstores. BooksActually is particularly special because it also operates its own publishing house, making it the go-to destination for books that are truly Singaporean and might not have a significance audience elsewhere. This is where I found I Will Survive, an anthology of stories from Singapore’s LGBTQ community. While much in the book touched me, it was a line in the foreword that first got me thinking. Juliana Toh writes, “I was left thinking of Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out, in which relationships are viewed as contexts for the creation of hospitable experiences.” This particular way of defining relationships was new to me and I found the idea of “hospitable” really compelling. Maybe it was because we’d just started school and my students were on my mind, or maybe it was because I was reading about LGBTQ young people, but I immediately extrapolated from Toh’s statement and began to wonder what our schools would look like if we moved from creating “safe spaces” for young people to creating “hospitable spaces” instead.

Defining
The word “hospitable” has two definitions:

  1. friendly and welcoming to visitors or guests
  2. (of an environment) pleasant and favorable for living in

It seems reasonable that a hospitable space would inherently be a safe one because anywhere that is “pleasant and favorable for living in” implies safety. I think this idea fits really well in the context of school settings. After all, school is where young people spend most of their time and we know that we all do better when we feel comfortable.

Take a moment to consider what we want for the young people in our care. We want them to learn, to grow, to explore. We want them to feel good, at ease, and valued as individuals. We want them to connect to each other, to create, and to become their best selves. We want them to see and care for those around them and we want them to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

Doing this work requires that our students feel more than safe, which is currently what we tout as a goal for our schools and classrooms. A learning environment in which the above aims can be realized would be closer to “pleasant and favorable” than safe.

Rethinking
In my eight years teaching, my classroom has always been a place where students wander in and out during breaks and before school and where they stop by after school to chat about a variety of things. Like the rest of us, students spend time in places that they enjoy, places that are welcoming and pleasant and where they feel affirmed, or perhaps part of a community.

So what would schools look like if we explicitly focused on creating hospitable spaces rather than safe spaces? The biggest difference, I think, would be in the ways we approach students as individuals. The goal of safe spaces is to provide a protective, inclusive environment that embraces diversity on a range of levels. I wonder, though, what would happen if we started emphasizing the need for welcoming, pleasant spaces instead of merely safe ones. A space can be safe without being welcoming, pleasant, and favorable, but places that are favorable to us, places we want to be, will more than likely also be safe.

Imagining
As a reader, I’m a believer in the power of language. George Orwell’s 1984 does a better job illustrating this than I could, so I refer you there. Now, let’s pretend “hospitable space” was a common phrase used to talk about schools, an idea accepted and embraced by the school community.

Creating hospitable spaces would require all involved to treat one another, at the minimum, as individuals with dignity. It would require authentic communication and connection, which would foster an environment in which adults and young people work together towards common goals and in which each learns from and guides the other. A hospitable space would be positive, energizing, and a place where we all enjoy spending time. It would be flexible, open-ended, exploratory, creative. It would be a space where we grow as individuals and as a community, a space where we’d recognize first our common humanity and then the diversity that makes us each who we are.

Imagine the learning that would happen in this hospitable space.

Moving Forward
Of course, not all of us work in school and with students. But we all develop relationships with others, whether friends or colleagues or romantic partners. We all want to feel loved, affirmed, and valued. We want to grow and help others grow, to become better tomorrow than we are today.

All relationships take on colors, flavors, and textures. All relationships are built inside a metaphoric space. So let that space be hospitable. Let yourself be open to others. All of our lives are better when we can take a breath and know that someone else is doing the same.

People-building

The difficulty in education is finding a balance. On the one hand, we’re tasked with delivering a curriculum. Be dynamic, we’re told. Get the students to discover, explore, and take responsibility for their learning. Give them options. Be accessible.

Oh.

And make sure they score well enough on the exam to get into a university of their choice. Show them how to be successful, provide ample opportunities to practice assessments, and give timely, constructive feedback.

Tension? Yes, without a doubt. But there’s also space. I think real learning happens within that space, learning in terms of how to be in the world.

This is the learning I like to think of as “people-building.”

The End
When it’s all said and done and our students graduate, what do we want? We want to know that we’ve raised good people who will do great things that have a positive impact on the world, on all of us. We want them to care about those around them, about their place in the world, and about who they are as individuals. We hope that they have grown as people, that they see themselves as agents of positive change, and that they recognize and uphold the human dignity of those around them.

At the end of the day, we hope we can say things like, “She’s come a long way” or “He worked so hard this year” or “I can’t wait to see what they become”. We worry about some of them, of course, but we hope we’ve set them up to live good lives.

We hope we’ve raised good people.

And we hope we’ve helped them understand who they are in the world around them, understand that they are part of building the world they want to live in. This is the learning that takes place in the space between curriculum and test. This is the learning that actually matters.

The Beginning
So how do we get there? Last year, I started the year asking my students about what they did not understand. A poster on my wall read, “What’s something you don’t understand that you want to understand by the end of this year?”. We returned to this question several times throughout the year and discussed it fully the last week of school. Some of the responses took me by pleasant surprise.

This year, though, I’m beginning with something slightly different. The question that I’m working on this year is deceptively simple:

Who do you want to be?

Not what. Who. Who do you want to be?

We spend a lot of time asking students about their future plans, even when we know their plans are often unrealistic and will likely change as they grow older and have more experiences. Becoming a certain type of person, however, matters a lot more as we choose whatever it is that we’re going to do.

Space
I’ve learned that there’s something special about asking a teenager, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. It’s a different question than, “What are your plans?” because it allows them to imagine and it doesn’t presume that they have plans. Often, a dream exists but they don’t know how to get there. Acknowledging the dream means starting from a place of possibility.

But I’ve also learned that this question isn’t enough. A deeper question is “why?” – Why do you want to be a doctor? Why do you want to be a teacher? Why do you want to run a hotel? Why do you want to be a millionaire? Why do you want to be a firefighter?

It’s the “why” that brings us to “who”. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be a teacher. It took me much longer to figure out that I wanted to be a teacher in order to help young people understand their world. Teaching was the way I knew I could get there. I know more ways now, and think about them often. But who do I want to be? I can fill in a number of adjectives and I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter what job I’m doing as long as I’m helping others see or experience something in a different way.

So what kind of person is that? Who is that? Those are questions I want my students to consider. I wonder what conversations would transpire if we focused on the internal elements of becoming rather than what it looks like on the outside. What we’re actually doing in any capacity with young people, really with all people, is making the choice to affirm or reject. The choice to love or be indifferent. The choice to accept or to disdain. This is what happens in the space between “dynamic curriculum” and “passing the test”. This is what matters.

People-building
Over the summer I met up with an old friend, also an educator now, and we talked about what matters with our students. At the end of the day, everyone will learn to read and write and do basic math. They’re going to be fine. The question is who will they become as individuals. In a perfect world, school would be about navigating what’s around us and about raising good people. But that’s not how the world is and that’s not how school is. There are other pressures, too.

I’ve found it helpful to remember, however, that what I want for my students, and what their parents want when we actually sit down to talk about it, is for them to be good people. What students usually want for the people around them, though it’s often harder to be introspective, is that they are good people. We tell students all the time, “This test doesn’t say anything about your worth as a person” and yet our education system and society are structured in a way that at least on paper, which carries a lot of weight, it does.

So as much as I can this year, I’m going to ask my students to think about who they want to be. Maybe we all have to play the school game to put them in a position to have choices, but good people generally turn out to do just fine. And maybe if we think more about who and why and less about what, we’ll be closer to a world that is better and more peaceful for all.