Friday, October 28, 2016

On practice

My community college students are beginning their research papers. As a community college grad, I feel a kinship to them. In my own educational journey, I had planned to get a job after high school and be done with the whole thing. But all my friends were going on to college; I felt lost and confused. And so, with a not-so-great standing in my high school years (save for English), I applied and was accepted into Kingsborough as a secretarial major.

Many of my CC students are struggling through our English Comp class (fyi, 4-year students struggle too), which is the last class on their agenda of what they want to study. I understand struggle in those years, to wonder if CC is the first step or the last. For me, it was the last, until ten years later when I returned for a BA, the most challenging endeavor, because I wasn't an academic. I was just an unfinished girl/woman who wanted a degree.

My students and I slog through lessons on how to write a thesis--something that took me hours (and hours!) to learn. We repeat these words parrot-like: a thesis isn't a question; a thesis goes at the end of an introduction. And then I get papers that have a thesis as a first sentence, sometimes with a question mark, and I pause to wonder, how did this happen?

Then I took a watercolor class last Saturday. My goal was to paint a scene of birds, something I was copying from a Trader Joe's greeting card. My birds were a labored mess. I turned to my teacher, Joan, and said, I bet you can do this in one brushstroke. She smiled, and said, two. Then she showed me. Tip of the brush to the paper, lay it flat and brush up, like a leaf stroke. So simple. And yet, I had practiced tons of leaf strokes in Joan's absolute beginner class. But there I was: leaf stroke?

After a terrible attempt at copying the exact image, Joan told me to use just one color. And she said: leaf strokes. I was relieved. Basic steps that I could successfully do. After dozens of blue strokes, I attempted birds, all in blue. Then I attempted colors. In the photo above, Joan's bird is lower left. The last of my dozens follow, until ultimately a pretty decent rendition, lower right.

I brought my practice-birds to class on Monday. I passed them around and the class laughed. They also saw where I was going: I'm terrible at watercolor, and when I leave my teacher, I'm lost. Even though I watched and listened, carefully. And so, I practice. I try not to get down on myself, although if you look close you'll note I tore out Joan's bird. I was going to keep that and throw all my terrible work away. And then I saw the lesson in my lesson.

I'm reminded of Anne Lamott's classic book on writing, Bird by Bird. One at a time. Whatever it is. Leaf strokes. A thesis. A lesson. Demonstrate. Repeat. And again.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

On being real

A friend is at home, recovering from knee surgery. The culprit--competitive yoga, I needed to do the full expression of the pose, he said.  And I said--if it caused you pain, then you weren't doing yoga. He is now persuading me, in my pursuit of a studio to study at, be careful!

Careful I was, last night at a studio on my list of places to take my teacher training. Because I was there, not just to practice, but to check them out, I was competitive in a completely different way. It began with the teacher not asking if anyone had injuries. I could have tried to get her attention and mentioned my right shoulder cuff issue, which eliminates "the full expression" of numerous poses. Instead, I noted her lapse on my imaginary list of "how I would teach differently." 

It's not a bad idea to note what is missing from my particular brand of a good class; my English teacher-self was formed by doing the opposite of my grad school teachers. Two, in particular, spent half of each class talking about themselves and their books. That set me up to almost never say anything personal, including my own writing. A student once told me "You have no ego," and that was my greatest teacher compliment. Slowly, I loosened the reins; at my community college classes, it's to my students' benefit to know I was a community college grad. Ditto on being the daughter of immigrants--so many of them are first generation. We have much in common, likely why I am a different teacher there than at my other schools where I'm more buttoned up and formal.

But I digress. As class went on, I began to crave the teacher's attention when my lower back issues (let's call them being-a-yogi-of-a-certain age) made any sort of expression a bad idea. I heeded the call of the present moment and got her attention, pointed at my back. She nodded, continued with her script (did I mention she is also a yogi-of-a-certain age?) My yoga-teacher-self crystallized as I pictured myself walking over to a yogi in need with props, suggestions, kindness, as most teachers do. The point isn't to cuddle, but to make a practice accessible to everyone. The alternative, sitting it out, shouldn't be the only solution.

It's good for me to remember that, when I'm in English teacher mode. Students who leave the textbook home, the assignment in the wrong notebook, a writing implement in the other backpack, and on and on, may be conveying something other than disinterest. How good am I at accommodating them? Two weeks ago when one-third of a class was unprepared, I told them the view from where I sat was dismal. I was relieved when at the next class, the view improved.  

Unlike many of my students, I have the luxury of crossing that studio-school off my list.  (Photo: view from the studio I won't be seeing) There are tons of others that I can choose from. And then there's the ultimate question I must get very honest about: am I up to the physical demands of this discipline? Did someone once say I had no ego? Not so. I understand why my friend (70+) pushed himself to the point of needing knee surgery. I hope I heed his message to be careful, and my own, to go forward--in yoga-speak, mindfully.    
         .