Friday, January 23, 2015

Bravery Reconsidered: A Reflection on My Teaching Career

I talk about the topic of bravery reluctantly, in part because of the number of times people suggested that I was brave to teach in the Arctic for two years. The first handful of reader of this blog, those who stumble upon it through my posting of it on Facebook or Twitter will know more about my experience teaching in the Arctic and a few of them also have read my memoir of that time as well. During those two years I was regularly complimented for my apparently bravery in going there and it was something I regularly shrugged off, concluding that it was inappropriate to be considered brave for facing someone else's fears.  Alternatively, it is inaccurate to be described as brave when doing something you had the equipment or clothing to do.

In many instances there were people who suggested that it was brave to merely brave the elements of the Arctic. However, the extreme weather gear that I had separated me from those elements quite easily and I confidently and comfortably made my walk to school in -40 temperatures or colder.  As the daylight disappeared for a few months during the depths of winter, it was gradual. The darkness amounted to a prolonged period of daylight for a few hours a day without the bright sun appearing over the horizon and making itself known for a few months. Thanks to the gradual transition to that darkness the reaction to it was akin to a boiled frog - I essentially wasn't aware of what was happening and consequently did not react in fight or flight manner.  I simply got up each day and worked through the physiological responses to the darkness because I did not know any better.

Despite the physical challenges from the climate and locale, the professional challenges that I faced in the classroom and the privations that came with not having a convenience store or a working bathroom nearby, none of these made me particularly brave. I have been reluctant to declare myself brave for any of those things.  "Brave" is entirely the wrong word if we are going to talk about someone going 3-4 months without a toilet or 10 months without a television, especially when one had the choice to do otherwise.

There were threats during the time that I was in the community and the classroom there and I pondered them and weighed there significance as well as I could and in those cases, determined, undaunted or foolish might be better terms than brave.

My bravest moment may have been the one when I exposed my weaknesses or my vulnerability to my students.  There was a moment in the classroom when I set aside all notions of authority in the classroom and stopped pretending that the curriculum that I was teaching them was somehow appropriate to their needs.  Instead of trudging along through the curriculum confident that the Ministry of Education for the province of Quebec dictated to be as appropriate for my kids as it was for kids in Montreal, I stopped and asked the kids, "What do you want me to teach you?" - an admission that my charade as the authority who knew either a) exactly what they needed to learn or b) enough about education to come up with the ideal match for their lives and traditions without their input.  I gave them input into what had to happen in their classroom and they promptly and seamlessly transitioned in a matter of seconds from "empty vessel" or "blank slate" to partner in defining what they needed and made profound contributions as soon as given the opportunity.

I did not know what the outcome would have been when I asked that question or disclosed that I did not have all the answers, but the consequences were remarkable and beautiful.  And they resulted from me simply disclosing what I was not capable of figuring out for myself.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Precision and Satire

The discussion of free speech that has opened up since the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has not given much airing to the notion of responsibility when exercising free speech.  The most biting and effective satire has been thought-provoking and informed or guided by intentionality. With the cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo and perhaps the cartoons in a Danish publication in 2006 there may have been provocation, but not of thought.

The finest satire, even that targeted at religion, is informed by insights and a desire to make useful, constructive observations that are intended to amuse, provoke and critique.  Sacred cows are not spared and should not be, but the problem with the cartoons is that they seem to exercise the desire and opportunity to offend rather than to give people something to talk about.

Apart from the known and established umbrage that Muslims take upon the attempt to illustrate the prophet Muhammed the cartoonists offer no insights or demonstrate the knowledge required to offer the depth and precision of satire that comes from a perspective of communicating criticism.  In the cases of the cartoons that have been at the center of the controversy there is little constructive criticism.  Instead, the cartoons - apart from giving a poke in the eye to Muslims - demonstrate little insight about the Muslim faith or its foibles.  There is just the type of blatant stereotyping that we have collectively opposed for other groups.

The best satire is informed and while there may be a temptation among partisans to deny the truth which is often at its heart, it is still going to tap into a fountain of truth that will be begrudgingly acknowledged.  If the Muslim faith is going to be satirized as effectively as other faiths, ideologies or obsessions that it needs to be founded on a body of knowledge.  For all the navel-gazing on the topic of free speech that has emerged since the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there ought to be a consideration of what is being discussed, who is discussing it, whether or not they have any skin in the game and if they know what they are actually talking about.