Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Shallow Breath of Standards: Seeing Beyond Things

My friend, Ethel's husband, Mark, loaned me a book today: The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life (John Daido Loori).  I started reading it and could not put it down. Early in the text, Loori describes an exercise he did that legendary photographer and teacher Minor White  provided.
Venture into a landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you. When you approach it, you will feel resonance, a sense of recognition. If, when you move away, the resonance fades, or it gets stronger as you approach, you'll know you have found your subject. Sit with your subject and wait for your presence to be acknowledged. Don't try to make a photograph, but let your intuition indicate the right moment to release the shutter. If, after you've made an exposure, you feel a sense of completion, bow and let go of the subject and your connection to it. Otherwise, continue photographing until you feel the process is complete.
Well, now that exercise is pretty clear to me as a photographer and one I anticipate trying this weekend.  I have experienced that odd exchange of energy between myself and my subject when I am in such a zone. It's as if my finger on the shutter and my eye in the viewfinder are no longer limited to my body, but somehow are deeply connected to the subject, located, if you will, outside of time and space.  What is central to these moments out of time, is the state of not knowing that defines how I see.  Certainty has no voice in these dramas. It is pure spirit.

This zen reading and thinking about art, reminds me a lot of what it means to be a teacher and how critical it is to not know, perhaps more so in this time of false certainty. Like my finger on the shutter and eye in the view finder, the space that is made in a classroom with students is not defined by the physical realities of walls, floor, or ceiling.  Something far grander is composed in these learning landscapes--something akin to what Maxine Greene labels as wide-awakeness.

Greene (2008) writes:
To open spaces for learning is to give learners a sense of absence, of open questions lacking answers, of darkness unexplained. If people respond to all of this with a blank disinterest, they are, often without realizing it, acquiescing in the “given,” the fixed, the unchangeable. (LEARNing Landscapes, 1, 3, p. 18).
Formal educational standards are the "given, the fixed, the unchangeable."   I have always been graced with students willing to wander into that unexplained darkness and a deep desire to venture along.  Perhaps that is why I find the standards movement to be at best a shallow breath, and at worse an impediment to all breath.  The use of educational standards assumes a decontextualized world where there is something called "the student" and a separate something called "the teacher".  The sad truth though is that this student can never be your subject, nor one whose presence resonates. Likewise,  "the teacher" can never venture into a landscape without expectations.  Such exercises are folly or in these days, perhaps even seen as sinister.

The given. The fixed. The unchangeable.

My exercise for myself this week is to find some darkness--an absence and reclaim my voice; to be truthful, and to stand against the certainty that is likely to doom us.  

What is Written. Image by M.A. Reilly. Tuscany, 2009.
I wish you, dear reader, an educational landscape sans expectations.

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