The fog comes
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches and then moves on.
–Carl Sandburg, 1916
[I read a reflection recently about the role of moments of wonder, joy, and even terror in classrooms, and it fitted so well with this Realms of Gold website that I decided to invite the writer to be my first guest columnist. That there are actually future teachers who want their students’ minds to explode with the pleasure of seeing into the heart of things amazes and delights me.
Dakota Balunis is a sophomore at SUNY Plattsburgh, enrolled in a combined BA/MST program, with the BA degree in biology and the MST degree in education. This reflection was written in response to course work in An Introduction to Adolescence Education, taught by Dr. Mark Beatham. She writes, “We have a nice spread of subjects – English, History, Bio, Math, and one Environmental Science major.”]
Moments of the Divine
Guest Columnist Dakota Balunis
This week we focused again on enthusiasm and language in the realm of teaching and learning. Right off the bat I would like to say that I really enjoyed watching the excerpts from Louder than a Bomb, even if my main focus isn’t on English or writing.
[“Louder than a Bomb is a film about passion, competition, teamwork, and trust. It’s about the joy of being young, and the pain of growing up. It’s about speaking out, making noise, and finding your voice. It also just happens to be about poetry.” – From a review ]
I can appreciate moments when you hear or read a line of poetry, prose, lyrics, etc. and get a little jolt that sets the hair on your arms to standing up. That “Oh damn!” moment doesn’t come frequently and it doesn’t come from the same things every time, but the wonder is worth the search and the wait. It’s the same sense of visceral-yet-ephemeral awe that I personally get when a concept in biology clicks into place inside my brain, when I link the nature of evolution to the almost-impossibly complicated workings of living things; at the risk of waxing poetic and overshooting, it’s as close to religion as I personally will ever get. I look at a cat wandering down the street and start thinking about skeletal muscles and sensory organs and predator-prey relationships, or I drink some water and appreciate how easy the action is to me when in actuality peristalsis and electrolyte balance is amazingly complicated. My brain feels as if it’s a hall of mirrors and the light of a single candle is being reflected all around; everything is clarity, but there’s so much left to see and understand. Some of it will never be understood fully, but the attempt is of itself important. Is that the “moments of the divine” we talked about in class? I think it might be. I kind of hope it is, because anything more revelatory than what I’ve described might be too much for me to handle. I’d like to skirt the absurdist cliff Kierkegaard talked about, not tip over the side into quasi-Lovecraftian madness.
[Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)is regarded as perhaps the first existentialist philosopher. He emphasized the priority of concrete human reality over abstract thinking. H.P. Lovecraft (1880 – 1937) is regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors of horror fiction.]
State Exams – Not Really the Point at All
Anyway, back on track. I understand that my students won’t necessarily be as interested in biology as I will be when I’m teaching, and I’m fairly certain there will be a disparity in enthusiasm. That’s a challenge every teacher has to constantly contend with, I think, especially since public schools have a way of taking even the subjects you like and twisting them around until you’re just waiting for the state exam so you don’t have to take any more lessons or do any more practice problems. That’s not really the point of education – that’s actually not the point at all, especially when it encourages load-and-dump methods of cramming information that quickly decays as it’s not applied – and at the risk of sounding somewhat arrogant that’s not what I’d like to spend my life doing. If I have students, I’d like for them to experience those moments of religious-visceral awareness of the nature of life, but then again I have to keep in mind that they might never experience that. If they don’t, that’s not a non-issue, but I can’t force it. You can’t force wonder the same way you can’t force religion. You don’t get to the soul that way, you only get to the meat – or the clay, really, since getting to the meat is arguably the point of biology. I don’t think it’ll be my job to force kids to appreciate things, or even to try to make them curious – axioms about horses and water aside, it’s unfair to students if I try to proselytize. That just perpetuates the system.
‘Golden Apples – Moments of Wonder, Joy and Terror
However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer them some proverbial apples, right? How do you get people to experience wonder and peel back the shroud of everyday living? (Or, for that matter, how do you do it without the involvement of psychotropics? I’m fairly certain those will still be banned in schools when I’m actually certified.) Do you explain things a certain way? Do you try to link what’s learned to interesting examples, or do you pick everyday moments where the knowledge is relevant? Do you flat-out say to students that they should be experiencing moments of joy and terror as they learn, or do you wait for them to experience it on their own and coach them through it? It’s hard to say. I keep wondering about it and can’t decide either way.
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,I know that is poetry. –Emily Dickinson