Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Insightful Question Can Change Everything

by Christina Carson

Fall was one of my favorite seasons because it meant school would soon start, and I was one of those nerds who loved to learn. Not that I didn't enjoy the seeming endless freedom of summer, for I surely did, but when the days began to cool and the drying leaves left their unique scent in the crisp air, I was ready to go back to school.

I hadn't ever planned on being a teacher. I preferred being a student, but through some unexpected turns of fate, I found myself in the classroom as a teacher. During my training, I quickly assessed that the public school system and I were at odds. I wasn't built to be a martyr, and my exploratory nature was not exactly appreciated in that one size fits all mentality of public education. So I went on to teach at a community college where I was responsible not only for the curriculum of each course I taught, but also the methodology, and that, my friends, was like dying and going to heaven. 

Most teachers want their students to learn and do well, but they are often up against poorly thought-through notions of both curriculum and method. Plus, with today’s eclectic mix of students in a classroom, supposedly done in the name of non-discrimination of some sort or other, we often diminish the effectiveness of the situation to some low common denominator for everyone.

As I went on in my teaching career, involved deeply in this creative line of work, I happened upon an educator from California, who even in 1970 wondered why, in such a litigious society as the United States, parents weren't suing the educational systems for non-performance. From that straight-thinking and bold educator, I learned one of the most effective systems for teaching students I've ever seen. I started out mentally arguing with him when he began the workshop I attended, as I tried to defend what I had always known as education. But he got me with this one stunning question:

If 60% is the pass mark, what was the 40 % that the student didn't need to learn and why was the student determining it?

I sat dumbfounded at such an obvious oversight, and that I had missed it entirely as I, the teacher, blindly trundled down the path I’d taken as a student. His next statement brought audible hoots of discredit from the group, when he then said, “What’s the problem with 100%?”

He didn't mean learn everything in the world. He meant learn everything the curriculum specified. “Why have you made that such an impossible dream?” he asked.
What he did next was present a system whereby that could happen, one that used educational objectives correctly—not as facts to memorize but as direction for what was to be learned and how. By tying each objective to one of the cognitive domains* ( the six ways our brain interacts with data), you would inform the student what it was they were responsible for learning as well as the manner in which they had to be able to interact with it. For example, in my Human Anatomy and Physiology course an objective might read:  Understand the histology of arteries and veins such that you can explain why an artery can snap shut while a vein cannot and the significance of that. Rather than the way I’d learned it: “What are the names of the tissue layers in veins and arteries.”  He had a system that in the process of learning content, the student also learned how to use his powers of cognition - how to think.

Sadly, I was the only one at the school to use his system, but I’m here to tell you, it changed lives. I coupled that system with one that also taught my students how to take personal responsibility for this part of their lives. I had 80 students (ranging in age from 18 to late middle age) in my classes, and I required that they learn 100% of the material. I then set up a system which made that possible.

No, my students didn't initially say, “Oh aren't we fortunate.” They howled. They petitioned my supervisor. They cried. But through it all, I just kept saying we are going to do this and here’s what you’ll learn beyond human anatomy and physiology:

         How very intelligent you actually are.
         How capable you are to set goals for yourself and aspire to them successfully.

The noise eventually quieted down. They were just very frightened. And in the end, every student made it without lowering any standards. They were amazed at how capable they were and since the greatest percentage of them were single mothers attempting to become RNs and give their children possibilities of a good life, their success meant another generation might be raised in a similar environment making that the legacy education offered, rather than the often dismal and demeaning experience it is for our children.

What I saw was how one intelligent question, honestly answered, could change lives unimaginably. Know any questions like that which haunt or challenge you? Maybe it’s time for you to imagine what answering that question might do for you or those you love.

I write books that speak to such questions:

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN – What is it we do as parents that drives our children from us?
DYING TO KNOW – Is there not another path to health and well-being?
ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH Trilogy– What is the true nature of unconditional love? (to be published this fall).

I suspect I’ll never stop asking such questions and seeking the change they offer for myself and anyone else who’s willing to walk with me.

*Cognitive Domains: Knowledge (Facts), Analysis, Synthesis, Comprehension, Application, Evaluation

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Where is Here

by Christina Carson

“In the beginning was the Word.”  Familiar phrase, eh. Much is written about that sentence and the meanings implied, and though exploring that is not specifically the intent of this blog, I was once again reminded this weekend of the power words have to impact our lives through the meanings we apply to them. What happened this weekend? Husband, Bert, and I were asked to speak at the funeral of a friend, Jean Gentry, who had passed on a week earlier. She lived a remarkable life and was someone whom it was our privilege to know. She had lived into her nineties, thus the crowd was not one typified by deep grief, for hers was a long life well lived. But since most attending were family, many of those there had had a significant relationship with her, and she was indeed missed.

When Bert and I finished speaking, we invited the group to participate in an informal storytelling session of experiences they had with Jean. Some stories were touching, some were funny, and through those personal reflections, the greater family, I believe, came to realize even more clearly what an extraordinary mother, grandmother and friend Jean had been. Bert addressed their deeper recognition that she was now gone by suggesting to them that she is, in fact, still here.

That’s when it hit me, the power we give to the meaning words carry. I’m not arguing for any particular life-after-death scenario, but it became clear to me that we humans, due to the meaning we've attached to the word here, have left ourselves in quite a bind. For most, here means able to be acknowledged by our five senses. Most specifically, if we can touch, see or hear them, we can accept them as here. We agree to that definition as fact, even though it was we who determined it. It didn't come to us from a proverbial higher source or ancient scrolls or laws, we humans are the keeper of our spoken language, and we bestowed that meaning on that word. Like a dog chasing its tail, we define a world with the meanings we give to it, which then create boundaries and limitation that we become imprisoned by.

What if our view about here was akin to Ramana Maharshi’s, an enlightened Indian who lived in our time? He defined here as
Sri Ramana Maharshi
everywhere present and lived a life that made it clear that was indeed true for him. Death didn't end anything for him except freeing him from his flesh form. As he lay dying, his young disciples sat about him in deep grief bemoaning his leaving them. His reply was simply, “Where would I go? I've always been here.”

Redefining our terms, literally describes our world anew. When Newtonian physicists originally defined subatomic particles, such as electrons, as entities of minuscule mass held in orbit around an atom’s nucleus, they organized the world of matter for us in a specific manner. It was much akin to concrete building blocks, orderly and measurable. But then quantum science came along presenting a different view when it became clear electrons were actually objects that instead had no intrinsic properties and were undergoing continual transformation. That suggested that matter, rather than having solidity and definition, now became something created from entities that seem like whimsy itself. Though that hasn't yet changed how we see the world around us, it is only because our minds are as yet unable to accommodate that view. Its seeming chaos and spontaneity frighten us. It was the view, however, that Ramana Marharshi lived from daily and why he made the statement that he has always been here.

 Maybe here does indeed mean everywhere present. But one thing for sure, our definitions represent our reality only as long as we agree to that arrangement. Here might be a great word to start with to kick the edges out a bit.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Why Do We Write – Really?

by Christina Carson

 His name was James Lane Prior, born in De Land, Florida and dying in Kathmandu, Nepal, sixty-two years later. The name under which he wrote and published was Pama Rab Sel. What he left for us, aside from a life that modeled what he wrote about, was a pocket-size pamphlet of fourteen pages, probably less than 500 words, in which he describes the moment as beautifully and fully as I've ever seen done. His brevity was born from his clarity, as it was obvious how deeply he grasped the reality of the moment.

I suspect that you may be wondering, right about now, why we are talking about James Prior or the subject about which he wrote. It offers an interesting explanation for why we write. Have you thought about it, why seemingly overnight thousands upon thousands of people are writing books, an undertaking that is not without its trials and demands of time and commitment? Have you thought about why you write? Yes, I know we create characters to love, hate, play with, and adore. We have message we want to share, and we write to escape our circumstances, create worlds we prefer and on and on. But if we dig underneath those seeming reasons for our commitment to writing, something more compelling emerges, something that speaks to a far more encompassing power that writing, and, quite frankly, all art forms, offer human beings. Without any study or practice, without trials or tribulations, it can usher us into an experience of the moment, our natural home, our natural state of consciousness, the one we came from, the one we’ll return to, the one we actually never left, but have expertly obscured from ourselves behind a novel entitled My Life told by a character bearing our name. As we've shown ourselves time and again, that story is not much fun and has but a nodding acquaintance with our true capacity for creativity. But when engaged in an art form, we experience minutes or longer where the art will tug us gently into the moment, and though we may not even realize we have left the world of Jane Doe for the expansive experience of selflessness, we do remember, in retrospect, how great it felt to be there.

Engaging with an art form saves us from ourselves, that small, petty self that organizes too much of our life. The more skillful we become as a writer, poet, musician, artist, dancer, or photographer, the more deeply it engages us and the longer and finer our experience of the moment becomes. And as an old Buddhist teacher once said to an inquiring student as to how he could improve his life, “Make the time between the moments shorter.”

We have given ourselves a gift of great measure, this involvement with art. The more conscious we become of what is actually taking place there, the easier it becomes to go sit down and write, to enhance the technical skills required, to raise our standards so our work increases in its capacity to fulfill art’s role in human existence, for it does have a most important role. Perhaps we’ll look at that in another blog, but for now, know that there is a power in the arts to change your life and those your art touches. Here is some of what James Lane Prior has to say about the moment:

Look around…ordinary?
Yet this is it, right now, the
exclusive message of the Cosmos to you!
This is totally and absolutely IT.
Look again, slowly, carefully…
Don’t bother with symbolisms.
Absorb the tone, texture and smell of Right Now.
Remove it all from the story like description in your mind.
Just look.
Just feel.
Hear the patterns of sound.
Slow down the tempo of your apprehension;
bring it to a still and endless moment.
This will do, will it not, for Eternity?
Had you something else in mind?
(Something a bit more grand?)
But this is where you are, right here.
The distance to Heaven is a blink of the eye.