Tuesday, June 26, 2007

a little ditty I like to call "reality, perception, and the nature of truth"

Okay, so Natalie has set the bar REALLY high with her individual morning pages prompts (AND pictures—really, we’re all kind of hating her right now, but in a good-natured writing project kind of way). And I’d probably be tapping right away except that Stacey made the fruit dip that is so yummy, you really need your own bowl to stick your whole face in. But enough stalling…

Natalie’s posed a real doozy of a prompt for me:

“How do you tell what’s real from what’s perception? What I mean is, how do we determine the changes that occur as a result of what we do as t-rs and changes that would have naturally occurred anyway? How do we know what’s real—or does it really matter?”

Believe it or not, I’ve been thinking about the last question in particular, and Jason (Malone) and I were just talking about it yesterday in reference to students’ reactions to The Life of Pi, which Rebecca’s kids have been reading to mixed reviews in book clubs for the past couple of years. Well, you get the picture—more groovy serendipity in CSUWP. So it may be hard for me to think of these questions in the broader sense of t-r, but I’m going to try in the next 8 minutes.

This question really has to do with the nature of truth, I think (oh, yeah, like I’m gonna solve that problem in 8 minutes…). Okay, so I’ll take a stand. I do think that truth is in the eye of the beholder to a large extent, but I also think it does matter. Yes, there is such a thing as empirical truth, at least when it comes to inanimate objects, but as soon as something moves, well, so does the nature of truth. One of the things I’ve learned in my years as a qualitative researcher (and a human being) is that truth is to a large extent the story we tell to make sense of what happened (cf. Life of Pi again).

Maybe applying this to my recovery from back injury would be helpful here. Thankfully, I’m having more good days than bad days now, but the task of late for my physical therapist and me is often to figure out why that is and how to avoid more pain on the bad days or to replicate more wellbeing on the good days. She’s encouraged me to keep a daily journal to note what I did, what my pain level was, what adjustments I’ve had to make in my activities, and so forth. As a result of that journal, I’ve started paying attention to my body more than I did prior to the injury so that even on the days I don’t have time to make a journal entry, I still am writing one in my head.

The conclusion we almost always come to is that in both cases, we can’t pin down a single cause. Almost always, it’s a combination—I didn’t rest enough or was experiencing high levels of stress or did a handstand in the swimming pool (okay, that was pretty stupid), therefore I had a bad day. While we can both see the results of the bad day—visible spasms in my back—we aren’t always able to pinpoint the cause. However, because of I’m more aware of potential variables overall and am able to make accommodations to avoid them, I’m beginning to have more good days as a result.

So how does that connect to t-r? (I have 5 whole minutes to go here, so be kind if I miss the mark ☺) I think that one of the differences that teacher research and its concomitant methods make is that I become more mindful. I wonder more. I document my observations, so that I can reflect on them and draw conclusions that result in deliberate changes I make to my teaching and to my thinking about it.

The result for me as a teacher has been that I have more good days than bad. But more significantly, I think that my definitions of “good” and “bad” have changed. In fact, both have nearly been replaced altogether with “interesting.” To borrow an idea from Maclean and Mohr, the teacher-researcher mindset has allowed me to approach my teaching with more professional distance rather than automatically (and rather self-centeredly) assuming that I am responsible for every behavior or event that occurs in my classroom.

No matter how many classroom management books we read, we don’t have near as much control as we’d like to think we have (and this is also true in life, I’m afraid). Sure, we can set a tone and do what we can to help students maintain it, but kids are agents, too, and we can no more determine the exact experience they will have as individuals in our classroom than we can make sure everyone has a fabulous time at our next dinner party. We can work within our own set of variables to make one possible, but in the end, everyone is responsible for having her or his own fabulous time.

So going back to Natalie’s prompt, my perception—the story I tell myself—is also my reality to some extent. But teacher research provides me with some tools I can use to hone that perception so that I arrive at a more complex understanding of teaching and learning (both mine and my students’) and the nature of truth in both realms.


Natalie said...

Thanks for the in-depth response (wow all this in 20 minutes!). Your answer is much of what I sensed so it eases my fears a bit. The recurring theme I've observed, in myself at any rate, is the reliance on reflection. As I figured out earlier the pivotal point in the whole proces is reflection. Teacher research is about looking, reflecting, talking about what you observed, reflecting on input from other people, adjustments, and more reflection. It is indeed an inexact science, but a comfortingly human one!

Cindy O-A said...

It seems more humane than other research experiences I've had, too, Natalie. I think that's why I often find teacher research--esp. by someone like Karen Gallas or Bob Fecho--to be so compelling. I know that they've thought deeply about their practice to arrive at their conclusions, and they've used those t-r tools to give the reflection depth and validity.