Friday, March 14, 2014

Teaching on the Edge of "I Don't Know"

          What makes Ashley Wagner a figure skating champion is that she works the edge of what she can't do--the triple toe loop, the triple combination at the end of a long program--the whatever no one has done before. That is why she, as other figure skaters, falls during practice and competitions. In fact, she has fallen infinitely more times than I have--a non-skater. The same is true of champion gymnasts, snowboarders, boxers, and runners. But teachers are supposed to be perfect each time they enter the classroom--to know all there is to know about the subject, to have all the answers, to bat (using another metaphor) 1,000 all the time. How many balls did Willie Mays drop to become a Hall of Famer?

          This pressure for teachers to be calculably perfect all the time creates dummied-down teaching-to-the-test methods; litter box pedagogy for coverage and control; yellowing lecture notes; student worksheets with thick, over-copied words; and students struggling for their individuality in make-wrong environments. After all, isn't it all about guessing what the teacher's thinking? This model of teaching produces mediocrity and boredom--for teacher and students, both. It's as safe and predictable as never putting on the skates, at tall.

        Pablo Picasso said, "I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” So how to work the edge--the "that which I can not do" in the classroom? 

        Research? In this age of proliferation, no matter how many articles I read on Measure for Measure, there will always be more. If I spend my time ferreting articles and books--filled with anxiety that I will be missing something to tell my students, I will be so over-gorged with information that there will be no space for them to learn how to learn our subject, themselves.  What they will be learning is to take notes and tests. What they will be learning is that there is a right way to think. We will all be dutifully skating around and around the periphery of the rink--holding onto the rails.

         As a teacher, I am far more than a database. I am a coach, a witness, an energizer, a negotiator.  One of the most interesting classes I ever taught was an experiment: I did not reading the story we were going to consider the next day. Since I had nothing to say, literally, the students took off from the moment I asked "Did you like the story?"  They sensed that I wasn't waiting for them to stop talking so I could hold forth with some mythical perfect interpretation. I learned who they were as readers, what they noticed, what mattered to them.  I did NOT pull the "What's the main point?" shut-upping question, because there were so many points of interest that I, unprepared, would not have known. I asked a few open questions--didn't have time for more, because the discussion was so rich: Which character interests you and why?  Where in the text did you get engaged?  We discussed what they didn't like.

        In most classes, I am constantly choosing materials which I am newly exploring, haven't considered for a while, or not from some new perspective.  I come into the class excited, as at the beginning of most adventures, not knowing what will happen.  But I trust my students and I trust myself.  We explore together. We take pleasure in creating an interpretive community. What do I model by this? Curiosity. Perseverance. How to ask questions. How to learn. How to listen.  Let me repeat that one: How to listen. They learn to trust their own intuitions and insights.  They learn to trust me--that I won't ax them as wrong.  That it's OK to not know. They learn that knowledge is a vital, negotiable, changing process.  That learning how to fall is necessary for learning how to fly.

       What makes me a teacher is that I have made more mistakes than my students have--and learned from them. What makes me a teacher is that I am always pressing to learn more, to try new ideas and skills--to work/play with the edge of what I don't know. What makes me a teacher is that, as Socrates would have it, I know that I don't know. I measure the success of a class meeting by whether I learned something new.

        Let's not use our students to maintain our egos as all-knowing. Let's help them to develop their own strengths and confidence. Instead of fearing that I might be found wanting, I challenge my students: "Ask me what I don't  know. Know something before I do. Learn how to fall.  Learn how to soar."

       How are you working the edge of what you don't know?

© 2014 Susanna Rich


  1. This blog reminds me of the last class we had while discussing Measure for Measure. When I drew the connection between Angelo's crime and his reaction to Claudio's crime I nearly got so excited I lost my breath. I felt like I revealed my own slice of heaven and I was so proud of the mechanical process of my mind for creating such a thought. I felt invincible and my mind was engaged in the class from beginning to end. Throughout the class I stayed in my thoughts and fluttered around the playground in my mind, exploring other thoughts and points of view even if it was different from mine. I compared the play to other literature, Greek mythology, religion and psychology. (that is something I would have never done). I have been in classes that solely focused on "passing a state test" or exam. I have been in classes where I was not able to choose how and what to write a paper on. I have been in those night terrors and I am never going back.

  2. Julianna,

    I am SO delighted with your engagement in literature~your insights, genius, enthusiasm. Yes, I'm ecstatic, too, as the word "ecstatic" means standing outside of--in this context, soaring outside of the drone and requirements of canons, dogmas, party and state lines, quantifications of the human spirit. Thank you for posting here, and for your glorious presence in class and as an Entouragette~

  3. Here's a Facebook response from Lynne Hetzel Kivimaki, posted on Better After 50: "Susanna, I absolutely loved this post. When I went to college, my Dad told me I was there for two reasons: to learn how to think and to have fun, not necessarily in that order. What you're teaching your kids is invaluable--they are lucky to have you! This piece particularly spoke to me: That it's OK to not know. They learn that knowledge is a vital, negotiable, changing process. That learning how to fall is necessary for learning how to fly.
    Add pilot to your list of attributes! Feel free to repost this comment on your blog and thank you for all you do for kids."

  4. Yes, I am working with what I do not know because I am learning new things everyday. I am also working with what I do know as stated in this blog article. Because people are expected to know things, it makes it hard to live up to expectations. So in my opinion we as people should not live up to expectations. Or I will not live up to people's expectations anymore.

  5. hum how do I work on the edge of I don't know easy I tell my students every single day I am just a man who is unperfected in everyday and who knows nothing but because of my yawn for knowledge, freedom of speech and creativity I am a man who is a very wise woman who love to live on the edge and it works for me because I made it to college and soon will be a graduating senior with a Trist for knowledge and freedom!

  6. I appreciate that I have a professor who's interested in seeing their respective students grow. It's true. us students are ignorant because we don't know. Teaching is very synonymous to parenting and you know parents are supposed to teach their children the world in essence.
    I really liked the part where you stated what makes you a teacher :

    What makes me a teacher is that I have made more mistakes than my students have--and learned from them. What makes me a teacher is that I am always pressing to learn more, to try new ideas and skills--to work/play with the edge of what I don't know. What makes me a teacher is that, as Socrates would have it, I know that I don't know. I measure the success of a class meeting by whether I learned something new
    I really liked that you measure your class to see if we learned something new. that's how I know this class is full of substance because we're always searching for it. Plus, I liked the Socrates connection. Overall this blog was just the truth and just gave me a deeper understanding of who you are and I appreciate that.

  7. This piece dives into the place where too many teachers are afraid or prideful to enter… the level where their students are, that same level that they at some point in their life were also on.

    The tone is full of humility yet adventurous at the same time. There is a beauty in surrendering to the unknown and acknowledging the fact that teachers are not perfect, though many will never openly admit that.

    What strikes me most is your entire attitude. You are not one bit afraid of seeing things from within-the-box… for the sake of your students. When I say that I mean that it is incredible that you are not trying to peacock yourself to the world because of the degrees you have, you rather take on the stance of someone that will continue to learn until her last days. Which to me is not only inspirational but also unique.

    We see movies all of the time or hear stories of these incredible teachers that beat the odds to change the lives of their students, teachers that set themselves alongside their students rather than above them. Today there are many that hold the complete opposite quality, the dictator style professors that see everything in black and white, the same professors that traumatize students. Traumatize them through the countless penalizations given if they fail to fit the cookie cutter mold. Teachers are no longer the proponents of creativity or unique thinking but rather prefer that all students be the same. Professors are more concerned with semantics than entire ideas or concepts.

    I do believe teachers should learn from their students. Students are unique in everyway possible and each one has something to bring to the class, all of their experiences, lack of experience, successes and failures.

    I enjoyed reading this piece and look forward to the rest of the semester with your bright and humble outlook.


    1. Thank you, Jennifer, for your thoughtful response! We are by our students taught!

  8. Since last time I have taken your class my mate and I have been trying media freeze starting with not texting to communicate with each other. Now that we both have instagram we both came to an agreement not to use social media two days out the week to focus more on us. The reason is because I have notice we would be next to each other for thirty minutes straight before we even communicate which is horrible.


  9. nice article great post comment information thanks for sharing

  10. I have notice we would be next to each other for thirty minutes straight before we even communicate which is horrible.


  11. Dr Rich,

    All of my life, I have been a scared person. Too scared to try new things; too scared to do anything. My college experience has also been like that so far too. Before College, I was scared. Scared I was not going to be able to handle it and that I would drop out before I could even fail. Now I am scared that I have made the wrong choice when it has come to picking out a major. I feel as if though I am working the edge of what I don't know. I don't know if my major was the right choice. I don't know if I'll be happy with it or even if I will get a job in it. And if I do get a job, will I be happy? These thoughts consume me everday and every class I attend. Not knowing is what scares me the most, but sometimes your gut tells you more than what you don't know. I know I'll be fine, but I am scared.

  12. Dr. Rich,
    My favorite line from this post was “isn't it all about guessing what the teacher's thinking?” I can’t tell you how many times I have my students trying to guess what I am thinking rather than just saying what THEY think. The other day I had a question on the board that specifically stated, “Write what YOU think” and they raised their hand and asked, “Ms. Finis is this our opinion?” As if I had ever told them that their answers that didn’t come straight out of a textbook weren’t good enough. As a student, I have learned from your class and through this post, that discussing what the students like, don’t like, or find interesting will vary. The best part is that as a future teacher, I am not going to get the same exact answers when I ask my students those questions. Why would I want to ask a question like, “What are some character traits of the main character?” There’s no class discussion and nothing interesting about a generalized reading question. This feeds into what you spoke about next, feeling like the answer given was “wrong.” A lot of my students when it’s a story specific question won’t answer. They all sit with their hands down, but the moment I ask for an opinion on that answer it’s as if I’d just asked a Kindergarten classroom what their favorite color was. They don’t understand that not knowing, or giving me answer that I myself as the teacher maybe didn’t know isn’t “cool” yet. I have learned through colleges and your classes specifically that the best kind of learning is the one we can all share together, or like you said, “skating around….holding onto the rails.”
    -Alessandra Finis

  13. Dr. Rich,
    Trying new things in life has always scared me. I was so used to things I already knew, and things I was already used to. With college itself, I have been scared since the beginning. Scared of failing, Scared of getting bored of my major. Scared of not being able to handle all these assignments given to me at once. I was even scared of reaching the point of just giving up. Through my experiences of college in both community college up to Kean, I have learned so many new things that I would have never learned if I never took the jump. I have learned to become a more responsible, and independent woman. I have learned to take life one step at a time. I have also learned a lot from failing, and that it is okay to fail in life. What is more frowned upon is giving up and not trying. Now as I am about a year away from graduating, I can tell you how much my brain has absorbed new things. I feel like a sponge. I love learning about as many new things as I possibly can in a day. I am forever grateful of how many new things I have learned about Shakespeare, and that you have opened my eyes more to the beauties and wonders of him, and I can now say that I appreciate him more than I ever have. From this blog, I will carry these wise words of not being afraid to say "I don't know" and to not be afraid of trying new things in life. Life is all about taking that jump, and overcoming all of the obstacles life brings. We need to all have the bravery of taking that leap of faith into new, and exciting experiences. Thank you, Dr. Rich!
    -Valentina Quesada

  14. Dr.Rich,

    Working from the unknown is one of the scariest things to do as a human being. We love to control and be under the illusion of control. I have learned over time that control is nothing but a fantasy that we try to make reality. I believe that life is a cycle that flows in different directions and that not one road is permanent. Change is the only constant in life. Making mistakes is terrifying because it makes us feel small. It brings us back to that feeling of not being in control. I think mistakes are necessary in order for us to grow and become better human beings to one another. I have started to live life on the edge since March of 2016 and I will never go back. I chose the major that would bring me joy, I travelled to europe for the first time, I have my own blog to document my happiness and I have been working toward my goals, in the past, I would have doubted my ability to achieve them. My life is the best it’s ever been in months because of my decision to live more bravely. I wanted to add that teachers should be allowed to make mistakes, inside and outside of the classroom. No one is perfect or has all the answers.

  15. One thing I really appreciated about taking a class with professor Rich was that she was working on her piece while our class was working on their pieces. I could tell when we spoke in class that she was as stressed out with her piece as I was on mine and it gave me a sense that this is a human who, although has more knowledge and wisdom in writing, is still human and continues to learn. She isn’t selling perfection or even high grades, just learning along with her students while teaching them from what she has lived.
    I felt at ease.
    I appreciate you for teaching me more things in one semester than I have learned in my five years at Kean. These is wisdom that you have shared with me which has really stuck. As a future teacher I like the idea of measuring the success of a class by whether I learn something new. Not only did I learn how to be a better writer, but most importantly how to be a better human being. I KNOW I will be a better teacher by engraving into my brain that I must work with what I don’t know WHICH IS A LOT! By constantly being a student myself, I will be a better teacher.

  16. Well said DR. Rich. I used to be so busy trying to know a bit of everything that I forgot that I had LOT more to learn. that created this stressful aura around me. would stress about anything and never allowed to sit back and just listen to somebody. I would rather go find the answer myself. there is nothing wrong in trying to learn more through research. the point here is that I needed to be less mechanical and interact more, and maybe like you mentioned, Dr. Rich, I would've probably catch something I wouldn't on my own. And So I am not knowing much and eager to learn from other. It is so liberating, to interact and learn from one another.

  17. I love how you ended with “I have made more mistakes than my students have--and learned from them” because that’s what I was getting from this blog post. Failure truly is life’s greatest teacher and it is not limited to any sort of situation, we fall only to rise back up stronger under the added weight of knowing what to improve upon, and that drive to better one’s self adds strength. No one is perfect. I never go into a classroom thinking that my teacher will be perfect, my only expectation and hope is that they know enough about the content that they are enforcers of to the that I can learn something I went in desiring to from them. I relish in the idea of coming face-to-face with a professor that can and is willing to open their mind to improving themselves further and doesn’t just hold themselves to a high regard that they feel they are the leading authority on the matter. No one should feel the need to oversell themselves to the extent that they pretend to be and preach more than they know and are. Being a teacher should be just as much of a learning experience for someone as it is for their students. Being confident and competent enough in one’s role, especially as a teacher, is a preference to me over someone who has all the answers. Because who really has all the answers? I can honestly say that you are the kind of teacher that I would like to have for all the classes. Not only are you an effective source of information but you’re always willing to learn more, and you’re not afraid to let your students know that (as evidenced by YOUR willingness to take notes in class). You’re always improving yourself it seems, not just as a teacher, but in other areas, so you’re infinitely potent.