Monthly Archives: September 2017

Doing or Being? Discovering Classroom Communities: Part 2

Keith Duffy

The following is the second installment of a two-part article. Part one, which was published as the previous post, asks the question: Must teachers always actively “build” classroom communities, or can communities reveal themselves without us exerting our power? Part two examines the general philosophy behind Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s book The Spirituality of Imperfection which answers that question in a surprising—and perhaps counterintuitive—way.

In the part one of this series, I started to explore whether classroom communities can be found by the members in those communities. In other words, can we as teachers take a more passive role in the formation of communities, allow them to establish themselves and evolve without our singular force or influence? Or do classroom communities, by their very nature, simply have to be fabricated and shaped by the hand of a teacher exerting his or her will? I realize I am presenting this in a rather binary (and maybe reductionist) way, and there are many shades of gray in between these two positions. However, my motive for introducing this as a polarizing issue is to raise the question: How much force (how much of our individual wills) do we actually exert in the formation and functioning of our classroom communities?

As I discussed in part one, when I’ve pondered this issue and reflected on my own practice, I’ve often turned to one of my favorite books of all time for insight: The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. In their book, Kurtz and Ketcham present a broad historical concept, representing a wide variety of doctrines, that suggests a particular kind of orientation or attitude that makes us available to our spiritual selves. As the word imperfection implies, the central tenet holds that we, as human beings, are essentially flawed. The source of our humanity—and hence our ability to be with other humans in community—is our very ordinary and imperfect nature. Though we may strive for perfection, such striving often separates us from our humanity, hence, our spirituality. Perfection denies the reality of our humanity, and it is within our human-ness as flawed beings that our spirituality (and ultimately community) finds its home.

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These are ideas are lofty, for sure. But as I dig a little deeper into the specifics of this philosophy, I begin to see how, just maybe, we’ve seriously limited the definition of community as literacy educators. Kurtz and Ketcham suggest it is this common, shared acknowledgement of flawedness that creates mutuality, the condition that allows people to come together without fear or facades. In essence, a spirituality of imperfection rests upon the paradoxical statement that people can be “made whole by the acceptance of limitation,” allowing them to participate wholly in community (Kurtz and Ketcham 197). According to this perspective, there are four key components surrounding the way communities form and operate: (1) community is dis-covered, or uncovered, when we (2) allow ourselves to be found by others who are (3) different, or limited, in the same ways we are. Finally, (4) because human beings are naturally imperfect, any relationship we enter into with other human beings can only ever be limited. For this reason, communities are limited, and this means they are inclusive and exclusive simultaneously.

In conversations with my colleagues about this last point, I’ve understandably experienced some resistance; for dedicated teachers, the idea of classrooms being exclusive in any way seems anathema to what we are trying to accomplish. But under the umbrella of imperfection, communities of any kind—regardless of purpose or location—are paradoxical. Since communities are composed of limited human beings, communities have both inclusive and exclusive forces within them (Kurtz and Ketcham 229).

The first time I encountered this idea of community, I bristled. My first thought: This contradicts my training as a composition teacher! As evidenced by the titles of the how-to books introducing part one of this article (again, see here), the pedagogical emphasis in literacy education has clearly been on creating community, not allowing imperfect human beings to dis-cover it. In our teaching tradition, classroom exercises are designed to help bring people together to solve common problems. As teachers, we do things, and ask our students to do things, in order to build community. Various classroom routines are established, and language is shaped, to help promote and nurture a communal identity.

I’m not saying these approaches are unnecessary or should be abandoned. But it’s important to notice how suddenly, in this universe of doing, there is very little room for being. What about the importance of being? The first two statements made by Kurtz and Ketcham clearly emphasize being over doing; community is dis-covered when we allow ourselves to be found by others. From this passive perspective, being becomes a kind of bridge that draws humans together. And doing, always doing, could very well short-circuit our coming together. Personally, I think this conflict is something worth paying attention to, if nothing else.

I’m a fan of stretching ideas to their limits. So, following this imperfect reasoning, let’s even consider this possibility:  Community may not be something that can even be planned. Likewise, classroom communities may not be entities that we, as teachers, possess or even control. I understand it may sound like I’m peddling mayhem and disarray; however, I’m not suggesting we willfully throw our classrooms into chaos or allow them to disintegrate into disorder. But what might happen to our classroom communities if we ponder letting go of them…at least to some degree? Community is absolutely something we can experience if we adopt a certain attitude. Per a spirituality of imperfection, a community is always there, but it needs to be dis-covered, somehow brought into our experience; a community must be allowed to reveal itself. Hence, relinquishing our will-to-control a community might be the first move in a new direction. For some teachers, this is a no-brainer; even as a student myself oh so many years ago, I experienced teachers who seemed to embrace this idea in a natural way. But for others—those of us who tend to grip that steering wheel, white-knuckled, with both hands (I’m looking at my own reflection in the rearview mirror here)—this concept can be alien and scary…and that automatically makes it feel like a challenge worth accepting.

Finally, I’d like to discuss the somewhat polarizing idea that our classroom communities may very well be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. The basic question is this: Do communities inherently act to include members or exclude strangers?

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In other words, do the boundaries between communities function to keep members in or keep foreigners out? Understandably, there are scholars in literacy education who have strongly argued that if the primary function of a community is to exclude, then this has no place within our pedagogy. I agree with this position. But let’s not ignore Kurtz and Ketcham’s fourth statement above: Within a spirituality of imperfection, communities are comprised of imperfect human beings; communities are, therefore, inherently flawed. And, because communities are flawed, it is highly possible they are both powerfully inclusive and exclusive; paradoxically, the boundaries surrounding most communities—even those of our classrooms—act to keep us together and keep us apart.

Although many see the boundaries between communities as a solely negative force, Kurtz and Ketcham argue that boundaries are important for their positive function: They define us. By setting limits in a way that gives identity, telling us who we are and who we are not, the boundaries between communities make it possible for us to fit, to belong. If we lived our lives with no boundaries whatsoever, it may not be possible for any of us to actually exist. Boundaries establish the real spaces where we live; this is an ancient idea that spans many spiritual doctrines—a boundary is not that through which something ceases to be, but rather that from which something begins to be what is, is free to be what is (Kurtz and Ketcham 237).

From this perspective, the exclusive nature of communities—even though we as teachers may blanche at the thought—allows them to be inclusive, protective; a boundaried community provides members with a place to fit, to learn. In a sense, exclusivity begets inclusivity; both parts of the equation are necessary to discover a community. By acknowledging the essential paradox that undergirds community, we open ourselves and our students up to the possibility of coming together.

How does a teacher put any of these complex ideas about community into practice? To be completely honest, praxis is not my strong suit. I suspect some of my own pedagogy has been positively influenced by these concepts, but I hesitate to offer up any concrete ideas or plans. In these instances, my go-to quote is from the article “Grace, in Pedagogy” by Richard L. Graves: “(Grace) is not something that can be called up at will, planned on, or included in a syllabus. Grace cannot be formally included or incorporated into a curriculum or mandated into a school system” (16, 20). Embracing these sometimes paradoxical ideas can be challenging; putting them into practice in our classrooms even more so.

Nevertheless, I pose the challenge: How do you approach community in your classroom? Have you ever tried letting go of your classroom community to see what might be dis-covered by everyone in the room? Or perhaps you’ve always nurtured learning communities without emphasizing doing and without having to possess or control them? If so, feel free to share your thoughts. Likewise, if any of the ideas I’ve explored here seem impractical or unrealistic, please share in the comments below.

 

Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.

 

Works Cited

Graves, Richard. “Grace, in Pedagogy.” The Spiritual Side of Writing. Ed. Regina Paxton Foehr and Susan A. Schiller. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997. 15-24.

Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Bantam, 1994

 

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Doing or Being? Discovering Classroom Communities: Part 1

Keith Duffy

The following is the first installment of a two-part article. Part one asks the question: Must teachers always actively “build” classroom communities, or can communities reveal themselves without us exerting our power? Part two, to be published presently, will examine the general philosophy behind Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s book The Spirituality of Imperfection which answers that question in a surprising—and perhaps counterintuitive—way.

A quick search for the key phrase “building classroom communities” at Amazon will retrieve approximately 250 distinct book titles. Spanning from 2017 to 1990, the products range from nuts-and-bolts workbooks and planning guides to philosophical treatises regarding ways to construct positive, productive learning environments. The pupils being discussed by the various authors range from budding elementary learners to jaded college students. The books focus on traditional classrooms where students and teachers are rubbing elbows on a daily basis to virtual classrooms where no personal contact occurs. A third of these titles include the exact phrase “building classroom communities,” while others opt for slight variations on the pedagogical theme: building character, building cooperation, building equity, building confidence, building understanding. You could conduct the same search at any online bookstore or library database and find similar results.

My point is this: For the last 30 years (and likely much longer), a slick educational industry has evolved that focuses solely on informing teachers how to successfully devise, implement, and manage—in other words, how to build—a classroom community worthy of our students’ time and attention.

So, what’s wrong with this? From the perspective of a composition teacher who has spent the last 25 years collecting battle scars in the trenches (and loving it), I can confidently say there’s nothing wrong with a little help. Teachers old and new need as many resources, suggestions, practices, and philosophies they can stuff into their teaching bags. I don’t know about you, but I’ve completely reimagined my composition classroom a dozen times since my professional marathon began in 1993, and I’m likely to redecorate my lesson plans several more times over the next decade before eventually calling it quits. We all understand that a healthy dose of collaboration among students and teachers leads to a more productive learning environment. Although there’s always disagreement about how to best accomplish this, we are mostly convinced that the classroom should be a safe, secure environment where students feel comfortable taking risks while having opportunities to engage in routine community-building activities of some kind.

Right about now you might be thinking to yourself: ‘This is precisely the moment where he’s going to use a pregnant transition word like however.’ Congratulations. You’re paying attention.

While the advantages and disadvantages of specific collaborative pedagogies have been discussed at length by teachers and researchers, I raise the issue of educational community-building activities for one purpose only: Our emphasis on doing things to create a sense of community in our classrooms is in direct conflict with some broadly defined spiritual approaches to community that emphasize being over doing. And some of these spiritual approaches might serve our classroom communities in ways that a cleverly marketed workbook never could.

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Communally speaking, here’s the big question: What would happen if students and teachers stopped doing and started being? I acknowledge that I’m presenting the issue in a very binary (and probably reductionist) way, but my motive here is to get everyone thinking about how much force (how much of our individual wills) we apply to the formation and functioning of our learning communities.

As you might imagine from that nebulous question, I’m not proposing any concrete ideas about how to envision or develop a spiritually sensitive classroom community; fashioning a curriculum from spiritual insights flies against the ephemeral nature of the spirit. Even worse, doing so would force us back into the same limited space occupied by those 250 books on Amazon I just mentioned. I generally agree with the widely held notion that the spiritual and material worlds are (at least sometimes) incommensurate. Indeed, the word spiritual was originally coined to denote “that which is not material” (Adler 1). For me, the being versus doing dilemma comes down to this: What variety of shapes might a community take—and what sorts of roles might students and teachers play—when the community itself is not manufactured but is found (or even better, dis-covered or uncovered) by those engaged in the enterprise of learning? What would happen if I decided to not exert control over the learning community in the classroom? What would happen if it established itself and evolved on its own with me as a member and not as its maker?

When I’ve approached the edge of this cliff in my practice (usually by examining and questioning my own penchant for overcontrolling the classroom, which I’ve openly confessed to in numerous articles over the years), I’ve sought insight from a specific source (one of my favorite books of all time): The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.

In the upcoming second installment of this article, which will be published here in a short while, I’ll discuss some specific concepts surrounding the formation of communities as perceived through the spirituality of imperfection lens. But prior to that, I’ll finish this first installment by explaining the basic principles undergirding this philosophy. A spirituality of imperfection is not itself a religious movement or doctrine, and it’s not an idea owned or originated by Kurtz or Ketcham, the authors of the book; instead, it is a broad historical concept that merely suggests a particular kind of orientation or attitude that makes us available to our spiritual selves. As the name implies, a spirituality of imperfection is based upon the idea that we are flawed. The source of our humanity is our very ordinary and imperfect nature. Though many of us strive for perfection, such striving keeps us separate from our humanity, hence, our spirituality. Perfection denies the reality of our humanity, and it is within our human-ness as flawed beings that our spirituality (and ultimately community) finds its home. Following this line of reasoning, any community dis-covered by human beings will be equally imperfect; communities can be negative and positive, inclusive and exclusive, stagnant and productive; all communities have the same limitations as the ordinary human beings who comprise them. Communities exist in a paradox.

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I’ll explore some of these ideas in part two of this article later. But for now consider this: A central idea according to a spirituality of imperfection is that community is always present; when human beings are together, a community is always already there. In other words, community does not have to be made or built or fashioned by any single person. Instead, a more passive perspective suggests community simply has to be dis-covered (uncovered, revealed, choose your own verb) by those imperfect people who constitute it. I realize applying this concept to a classroom may seem unlikely (and possibly even naive). But I’d like readers to seriously ponder the possibilities and feel free to reply here.

Could there be an alternative to building a learning community? How much control do you exert over your own classroom community in its formation? Have you ever overexerted control? As a teacher, have you ever taken steps to “let go” of your classroom to see how the learning community might establish itself? Or does this very thought sound antithetical to the idea of learning? On the contrary, perhaps none of these questions apply to you; maybe your teaching style already allows your classroom community the freedom to be found by its members. If so, how does that work and what does that classroom look like? Let us know.

As mentioned, in the upcoming second installment of this article I’ll delve much deeper into the Spirituality of Imperfection and ways it can problematize our existing notions of learning communities as literacy educators. Keep watching this space for part 2 and please leave a comment on part 1!

 

Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.

 

Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. New York: Scribners, 1995.

Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Bantam, 1994

 

 

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