Way leads on to way.

Have you ever discovered a saying or proverb that really resonated with you? Perhaps you wrote it down and kept it in a special place. You looked at it often enough that you had it memorized. But after a while, it didn’t have the same impact on you that it used to have.

“Way leads on to way”, a line from the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is that kind of phrase for me. It describes the idea that even when we make plans for our lives, we don’t know if they will actually come to pass. Simply taking a step can lead us in a different direction than we first intended to go.

For me it became a good reminder not to make too many detailed plans for my life. Often when I have made plans for what to do next, they didn’t come to pass. Like when I decided to relocate to a new city in Japan, applied for what I thought would be the perfect job, interviewed for it and then didn’t the job. Later on, when I learned more about that school, I realized that I would not have been happy working there, even though I had been convinced that it would be the perfect place for me.

“Way leads on” is actually a Quaker idea.* We can try to identify what the next step in our career or life should be, but we don’t know where this step will lead us. Despite that, we step out in trust and faith, knowing that the results of this step will lead us to the next step.

We have to take the first step before we find out what the next step will be.

* I’ve also read about “way leads on” in Parker Palmer’s writing (probably in The Courage to Teach, but can’t cite it now since I’m on vacation without the notes on my laptop and writing this my phone.)

The lighting of a fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Apparently this wasn’t something that W.B.Yeats said, despite all the websites that say that he did. (They’re probably just quoting each other.)

No matter who said it, this quote speaks to me of the reality that learning never ends. We can, and should, keep learning for our entire lives. There’s always something new to discover about the world, about our students, and about ourselves.

It also speaks to me about the challenges of being a teacher. If education was like filling a pail, then at some point we would be able to say that our job was finished. But if the analogy of lighting a fire is true, then perhaps our job is never finished. A fire that’s lit needs to be tended. It doesn’t simply burn forever. Too much fuel can smother it. Too little oxygen can make it go out.

If this is all true, then the question remains — who helps teachers keep their fire lit?

The last thing you need?

Sometimes, the last thing you need is yet another activity for Monday morning.

Are you like me? Do you have a thick file of activities that you picked up at conferences and workshops? “Fail-safe!” “Fool-proof!” “Works with any level.” These are just some of the things that you’re told when you collect another one.

But what do you do when one of those activities doesn’t work? When the students don’t respond as you hoped they would? What about when an activity works well with one group but not a different group?

We can hide behind new and innovative ideas for only so long before we have to acknowledge that unless those activities lead to student learning we’re just wasting time.

Make small changes

After 20 days of successive posts, something a little different. I’m off to Portugal today for eight days and I don’t want to forfeit my “WNFIN” challenge. I won’t be able to write 500 words every day, but I will post something connected to my declaration daily.

Make small, little, tiny changes.

Small changes can have big impacts. (Think jalapeño peppers in a salsa!).

I-Thou-It – I

We teach who we are.

Parker Palmer

At first you have space for only one question – what am I going to do in this lesson? You might say, “What are we going to do?” But what you really mean is “what am I going to get them to do?” And the next day the same question, “What are we going to do?” And the next day and the next, until you think that the teacher’s most important task is to get students to do the things you want them to do.

This lasts a while as you figure out how to plan lessons and choose supplemental activities. You read the textbook and study the teacher’s manual and follow its suggestions and sometimes venture outside of your comfort zone and do a variation on the activity.

Then one day you try something different, maybe an activity that you created. And it works. At least, it seemed to help the students learn the material and be able to do something with it that they weren’t able to do before. They learned. And you helped them do it.

And you know that you are beginning to understand what helps student learning. Actually, that’s not completely true. You’re starting to figure out what helps your students learn.

And you’re hooked. It’s that pure joy when your students achieve their goals. When they are communicating, talking, laughing, using the words, phrases, sentences that you taught them. They’re communicating with each other – new information is being shared.

Some people think that because you’re a teacher you are noble and selfless, but you know that you need your students just as much as they need you. Maybe even more so.


I, Thou, It – THOU

This is the third in a series on frameworks. The introduction to I-Thou-It is here. The post on IT is here.

“Without a Thou, there is no I evolving. Without an It there is no context, no figure and no heat, but only an affair of mirrors confronting each other.” David Hawkins http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

Me  Myself   I, You  You guys  ThouThe Syllabus  The Material  It

I wonder if Hawkins did some preliminary brainstorming to figure out just the right combination of words for his I-Thou-It concept. Did he think about the connotations of each word before putting them together? I would be very surprised if he didn’t.

One reason that I like “I, Thou, It” is because Hawkins chose to use the word “Thou.” Unless we’re singing hymns in church or watching a Shakespeare play, we don’t really come across “Thou” very often these days. For me it is a word that has some important connotations for teachers.

Thou = respect

“Thou” is a word that implies that you view the other person with dignity and respect. The teacher does not look down on any student, but respects each student for who he or she is. Every student is a human being with a unique combination of skills, abilities, and the potential to learn.

Thou = unconditional positive regard

“Thou” implies an attitude of accepting the students where they are on their language learning journeys and supporting them as they work to reach their goals. They are doing the best they can and if they need second or third or fourth chances, then that’s all right.

Thou = love

Is it too risky to use this word? Love in this sense is a verb. It’s when the teacher is always working for the good of the students in his class. It’s when he meets the students where they are at and helps them make connections between what they already know and what they need to learn. It’s when he works to create a secure environment where mistakes are not failures, but “portals of discovery”.*

Thou is a wonderful word that represents a much healthier way to think of the teacher – student relationship than one that seems all too common – Us vs. Them.


* “portals of discovery” is a cool way to think of mistakes. I discovered it in Peter Buffett’s book Life is What You Make It.

Poem – Dust of Snow, pt. 2


Here’s the picture that I wanted to add to my post yesterday but I needed to ask the artist for permission first. Many thanks to dosankodebbie of http://etegamibydosankodebbie.blogspot.ca/ !

This one-of-a-kind illustration is the size of a regular postcard. It’s actually an etegami [definition from the blog: Etegami (e= “picture”; tegami= “letter/message”) are simple drawings accompanied by a few apt words.]

You can find the story behind this particular etegami from dosankodebbie’s blog here: http://etegamibydosankodebbie.blogspot.ca/2011/01/dust-of-snow.html

Maybe I should’ve mentioned yesterday that I remembered this poem because this etegami is framed and hanging on my wall? 🙂

Poem — Dust of Snow

This afternoon I was reading through Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach looking for a poem to write about today. (In the future I probably won’t be posting everyday, but for November I’m going to stick to the challenge that I set for myself). The book has a lot of great poems, but none of them really spoke to me and they aren’t ones that I used myself. Then I remembered my favourite Robert Frost poem (not just because it’s short and I can recite it…) It’s called Dust of Snow:

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree


Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

As I reread it here again I have to admit that this poem doesn’t really have a lot to do with teaching. It’s not particularly inspirational or life changing. But Dust of Snow has a lot to do with attitude and how we respond to the things that we can’t control in life.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, (here’s a link), that the only thing we can control is our attitude or response to what happens in life. Basically, we can think of the things that we don’t expect as either nuisances or gifts. In the poem the crow and the hemlock tree could be seen as signs of foreboding and perhaps even danger and, of course, the snow is cold. Yet the poet’s attitude towards what has happened actually changes his mood and turns a bad day into a happier one. The quick, light rhythm of the poem further emphasizes its positive feeling.

When teachers make lesson plans we tend to try to control everything to make sure that the class stays on track. Five minutes for warm up, ten minutes to present the topic, ten minutes to practice and so on. It’s understandable. There’s usually a lot of material to cover and limited class time to cover it all.

But there are so many things going on inside and between the students in each class. We can’t really control everything that’s going to happen. When something does take us off course, how will we react?

When a student’s interesting, yet slightly off topic remark leads us away from the lesson plan, is it a nuisance or a gift?

Be open to the unplanned, to the things that you don’t expect in a lesson. They really are gifts that can help us understand our students more deeply.



The other side of obvious

This afternoon I spent some time browsing in an antiques store of the “we buy junk and sell antiques” variety. The shop had (still has, actually) an old manual typewriter priced at $65.00.

Old typewriters are cool. Even when they look kind of rusted and are covered in dust, they are cool. When I see a typewriter I think, writing. When I look at my laptop (on which I’m writing this post) I think Facebook. It’s obvious that a manual typewriter is a machine for purposeful writing.

Doesn’t it also seem obvious that whatever was written on a typewriter must have been deep and thoughtful? Think of the effort involved in typing even one page – striking the keys, making sure that you hit them in the proper order (no autocorrect!) and then watching your words at the end of the line (no auto-return) so that you can hit the carriage return at the right time. The effort involved proves that the thoughts and ideas captured on paper were important.

Since I don’t have a typewriter, I can’t always tell if I’ve written something really insightful and deep (I’d settle for relatively insightful and not too shallow) or if I’m just stating the glaringly obvious.

Maybe you first have to state the obvious before you can get past it to see what’s on the other side?

What’s the obvious?

It’s the simplistic explanation for what’s happening in the classroom: If the students didn’t learn the material they must be lazy or unmotivated.

It’s the first answer you think of when you’re reflecting on a lesson: If the students aren’t motivated it’s because they don’t care.

Is it possible that what’s “obvious” is not necessarily true? Is it possible that what’s obvious is rarely true?

What’s on the other side of obvious?

It’s those ideas about teaching and learning that you can’t really put a finger on or identify. Then you read a book or an article or a blog post and you think, of course, that makes sense to me. Even though you’ve never thought of it that way before.

It’s the bunny trails you follow to see if they lead you to an understanding that makes sense.

It’s when the novel you’re reading helps you to solve a puzzle in your teaching practice.

The other side of obvious is where the questions you’re asking lead you to insights that you wouldn’t have found if you didn’t ask the question.

You can’t get to the other side of obvious without a question.

A good one to start with is “what if?” Another one is “why?” And “what else is possible?” And “what’s another explanation?”

Sometimes when I’m writing I feel like I’m really onto something interesting and insightful. Other times I think that what I come up with is breathtakingly obvious.

Time will tell, I suppose. Time spent writing and thinking. And teaching and reflecting. And asking lots and lots of questions.


What’s obvious to you now that wasn’t so obvious when you started teaching? How did that shift in thinking take place?




I, Thou, It — IT

This is the second in a series on frameworks. The introduction to I-Thou-It is here.

I, Thou, and It – a three-way relationship in which “I and Thou” are the people (often a teacher and child, though not always) and “It” is the content that compels both.     http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

A lot of what I’m doing in this blog is thinking through beliefs that I’ve held for a long time and ideas that I may not have challenged for awhile, if ever. This process of clarification means that I might write something this week that contradicts what I posted last week (or will post some time in the future). I don’t have all the answers but I will be honest about what I believe and think.

A couple of things struck me as I read about David Hawkins’ philosophy on the Hawkins Centers of Learning website linked above. I used to think of the “It” as simply the subject matter that the teacher and students come together to focus on. In that case the subject in the model could easily be switched with any other subject. But I-Thou-It isn’t a model for the efficient delivery of content. Instead it is a framework that sees education as exploring a common interest or passion. The last part of the quote above says, “…”It” is the content that compels them both.”

So the content is something that is compelling to both students and the teacher. In such wonderful classes the teachers have a keen interest in their subject and the students are intrinsically motivated to learn that subject.

At this point some teachers might be thinking that this framework has nothing to offer them because their students are unmotivated or their curriculum is prescribed and not compelling to either them or their students.

It seems that most models for teaching describe the ideal situation – in this case teachers and students who come together to study something that’s compelling and that they love. Not all of us teach in those ideal circumstances. No matter the circumstances, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to help students make connections between their own lives and interests and the content of the course. It is the teacher’s responsibility to help their students overcome less than ideal situations. But that doesn’t have to mean that the teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to be a reflective teacher.

Carol Rodgers offers an expanded way to think of the “It” from the teacher’s point of view.

Whatever the circumstances, with motivated or unmotivated students, with prescribed curriculum or lessons based on dogme principles, there is always something for the teacher to do. We need to thoroughly know the content we are teaching, understand how the learners are learning that content, and observe how our teaching is affecting their learning.

It seems that I-Thou-It provides a framework for the reflective work necessary to deeply understand all that is going on between the these elements in the classroom.


Rodgers, C. (2002) Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking, Teachers College Record. Vol. 4, Number 4, pp. 842-866.