What the hell is water?
For the last couple years, as my senior AVID students entered the room on the first day, I played pomp and circumstance. Then we watched this commencement speech video about David Foster Wallace's essay, "This is water." Every time I read the words or see the video, I am moved by the simplicity of the argument but ponder the complexities embedded in the challenge for how we lead our daily lives. My intention is not to dwell on Wallace's description of a mundane existence where we, as "adults," do the same tasks over and over again, which breeds boredom and unnecessary anger. Instead, I hoped to talk about the act of choosing and the notion of awareness.
Wallace suggests that there is more to education than knowledge.
Sometimes, as educators, we forget that we too are surrounded by "water." It is easy to think, "oh that's not my problem" or "I can only control what happens in my classroom." Sometimes we even ignore the social context of our own classroom hoping that problems will solve themselves, the quiet students will soon muster the courage to speak up, or that the silent bullying will eventually go away. The hard lessons that teachers learn include the fact that nothing even goes as planned and there always has to be a plan B, C, and probably D. Being able to "read" the classrooms space takes practice and a willingness to make mistakes.
Teachers make choices every day: what do I teach, do I give a test, should I grade that homework assignment, do I go to that department meeting? The list probably goes on and on. But more importantly we make choices every minute: did that students really "get it," should I review that concept, do I explain that differently, do I need a visual, does that student need a minute to think? Quality teaching can only occur when one reflects on the choices made.
When that student walks in late every day, instead of chiding him or her for being lazy, unorganized, or unmotivated I should consider that something else might be occurring. Instead of yelling or intentionally mocking the student falling asleep every day during 1st period, why not think about the home environment that may or may not allow for a good night's sleep. And instead of telling the students who doesn't get homework done that they are going to fail, why not consider that he or she may not have a quiet space to study at home or time because of a family situation?
Wallace's video says that these types of questions are probably not suitable for all students. But teachers must reflect upon their "natural default setting." What does the setting say about how we think about students, learning, and schooling? We need to raise our awareness and consciousness to include the possibility that we too have choices. We choose to make each day a learning experience that will change each student's life. We choose to smile, wave, and joke with our students because we are all human and need to express our positive emotions. We choose to create spaces where experimenting, failing, and reflecting are normal processes.
There isn't one final answer (it's not a multiple choice test after all). But we must continually tell ourselves: This is water.
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