Savasana, from the Sanskrit word for corpse. Dead body pose. Total relaxation.
I struggle. Stillness of body is no problem – I’m paralyzed with exhaustion. Stillness of mind poses a greater challenge. Be still, be still, be still, be – ah: clairvoyance.
My yogic epiphany: education should be a little more like Bikram yoga class, and a little less like… school.
1. Depth v. Breadth:
Let’s say Student 1 is on her second Bikram yoga class ever. She comes to the first step of the posture (pictured below) and holds it there for the duration of the minute-long pose. It’s a challenge for her and she struggles, focusing hard to keep her planted knee locked.
Student 2 has been practicing for several months now, and today is the day he strives to push his other leg out at a 90 degree angle and holds it there. He falls out of the posture about 20 seconds into it, but tries again.
Student 3 has been working on this pose for upwards of a year, can steadily hold her leg at 90 degrees, and is finally ready to tuck her chin for the final step of the pose:
Should we say Student 1 failed for only completing step one of the posture? Should we say Student 2 failed for attempting step two and falling out of it? Of course not. Each student pushed him or herself as far as he or she was capable of going that day. Each of them pushed further out of a personal comfort zone into a new level of mastery. They each demonstrate personal growth and achievement.
Unfortunately, this is not how our nation currently measures student achievement. If a 6th grade class contains readers ranging from a 1st grade reading level to a 9th grade reading level, they are all expected to finish the year on at least a 6th grade reading level. There is no award for a student’s growth from a 1st grade reading level to a 4th grade reading level, nor is there any disincentive for failing to grow the high-achieving student at the 9th grade level.
Expecting all students to learn and grow at the same pace is not only unreasonable given what we know about cognitive capacity, it’s also deeply unfair to teachers and students alike. If my yoga instructor was being evaluated on his students’ ability to reach step three of standing-head-to-knee, he would probably start looking to teach in a community with a high population of dancers and gymnasts, who have been touching their noses to their foreheads since they were 2 years old.
For exactly the same reason, there exists a routine exodus of teachers from urban centers to affluent counties where children have been exposed to, on average, 60 percent more vocabulary words than their urban peers by age 4.
A finite scale of learning is grossly antithetical to Deweyan education ideals of lifelong, interactive learning. Scoring 100 percent on anything suggests that you are done: there is no higher level of knowledge to be attained.
In the information age, many teachers are rightly moving away from direct instruction models that position teachers as the sole arbiters of information. With increased instantaneous access to information, the purpose of school is shifting away from memorizing finite amounts of knowledge and beginning to focus more on the skills of finding, analyzing, manipulating, and creating content. With the new function of education, so to should develop a new function of teachers as guides and facilitators on the educational journey, rather than solitary gatekeepers of knowledge.
What if there was standardized Bikram Evaluation? What if one day per year, the offical Bikram Evaluation Board stopped into classes all over the nation, assigned a seemingly arbitrary numeric score to everyone’s yogic practice, and that number defined all future yogic endeavors? If the Evaluators had stopped in on the day I was feeling ill, I surely would have received an unsatisfactory score. If they stopped in the following day, I would probably be deemed an above average yogini. In reality, neither of those days would provide a true measure of my overall practice. The only people who could give an accurate analysis of my practice and progress as a student of Bikram yoga would be the instructors, who have closely watched me practice and progress over the course of a year – but the Evaluators do not ask them, because they would be biased.
Once a year snapshots of achievement are insufficient metrics of learning, but again, this is exactly how we treat American students in K-12 education. As humans, we naturally have good days and bad days, which may be influenced by any number of factors. As anyone who has ever taken an important test can tell you, performance may be affected by what you did or did not eat, how much sleep you got the night before, your personal comfort, stress, hormones, emotions, or any number of life-changing events, like the death of a loved one or parents’ divorce. Given all these variables on the human mind and body, how can we expect to capture a true understanding of student progress and achievement with just a solitary snapshot once a year?
7. Teacher Collaboration
I once heard my instructor Julian say, “Hm, I’m not sure, let’s talk to Eddie and see if he has any advice for you.” What a superb approach to teaching. The messages conveyed to the students here are that the teachers are true colleagues, working together for a common goal, and that they continue to learn from each other. I frequently hear my instructors mention a tip or word of advice they picked up from another instructor. It’s congenial, not competitive, and the students and teachers both benefit from this spirit of collaboration. In addition to chatting in between classes, the instructors even take classes from each other, further conveying the message that we are all still learning together.
Whether due to scheduling, competition, or culture, I rarely see this level of collaboration between teachers at a school level. I see it more on Twitter than anywhere, but our students are, for the most part, deprived of witnessing this kind of esprit de corps, which is a real shame. As educators, we should strive to model our own pursuit of learning, especially in a collaborative effort with our colleagues. Another unfortunate consequence of the emphasis on evaluations and scoring is that many teachers have become afraid to speak up about their weaknesses. Lest there be a punitive check or note against them on the increasingly important evaluation score sheet, most teachers have bowed their heads into terrified silence. Admission of weakness opens a teacher up to scrutiny of her practice, which may indeed lead to punitive evaluations. Better to keep quiet and focus on what one does well. This culture of fear surrounding personal and professional development could not be further from the open, honest, collaborative professional learning communities teachers should be modeling for students and each other.
8. Come Back Again Tomorrow
“Great class! Come back tomorrow!” That’s what Julian, Eddie, Allison, and all of the instructors say to me after every class – whether I agree with them or not. Whether I had the sort of day when I had to spend 20 minute stretches sprawled on my mat or the sort of day when I held that standing-bow-pulling-pose until the last darn second, their response is the same. They trust that I have given it my all. I did the best I could today, and for that: good job! On the sort of days when I feel like I have not lived up to my yogic standards, I remind myself of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on genius:
Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Ole!’ And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Ole!’ to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.
So, the next time your student has the kind of day when she just can’t bear to pick up her head off the desk because someone made fun of her hair or she failed a math test or has a headache, remind her: “Hey – Ole! to you, nonetheless. Try again tomorrow.” And, no doubt, she will.