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Does it sound strange?

Let me explain.

Parker Palmer is a person who has greatly influenced my own thinking about teaching, as readers of some recent diaries, Lessons from a Master Educator and More thoughts on teachers, teaching and students know.

Parker and I share some common interests.  Both of us have extensively read the writing of Thomas Merton.  One of that monk's works was a translation of poem by the Taoist poet Chuang Tzu.  I encountered one of those poem while reading another of Parker's books, The Promise of Paradox: a Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, to which I was drawn because - like Parker - I at least intuit that sometimes we cannot simply describe things, we can only fully understand them by holding both horns of a paradox simultaneously.

The Poem is called "The Woodcarver" and I will offer it immediately below the fold, and then explain why.  

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood.  When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lai said to the master carver
"What is your secret?"

Khing replied, "I am only a workman:
I have no secret.  There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
on trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

"By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell-stand.

"Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

"If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

"What happened?
My own collected thoughts
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood:
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits."

To see the trees in their own natural state -  the carver, by fasting and preparing, does not impose his vision upon any piece of wood, but rather sees the wood as it really is.  That is, he sees the fullness of its potential.  

As a teacher I may not fast physically, but to serve my students I must to a large degree see them as they are.  I cannot teach in a fashion oblivious to the persons before me.  I must attempt to know, to understand each.  If I remove my preconceptions of what they SHOULD be like, perhaps then they - like the trees in the forest to the wood carver - will let me perceive what I need to understand in order to bring alive the potential within it.

... all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away

To reach the goal of my students learning as fully as they can, I cannot come with the preconceptions of "the court" - I may have a goal for which I am responsible, in this case the content of the curriculum and the associated skills are roughly equivalent to the idea of the bell stand, but someone else's idea of how the student would demonstrate that, say by a score on a standardized test, may prevent me from finding the connection between that student and that material.

I am not equivalent to the wood carver.  I know that.  I do not shape the student in the way he shaped the wood.  But remember, what he produced was a direct result of stripping away his preconceptions and his possible desire to please others - the ruler and the court - and to acknowledge the particular tree, which then helped him fashion the bell stand.  

I do not know if the product of the experience in my classroom will be a bell stand, a bell, a sharpened stick, a pile of firewood, or something of which I cannot yet conceive.  Remember, the bell stand was something so surprising to the ruler and the court that they were sure it was a product of the spirits.  

What each student can accomplish can similarly be surprising. For some it may be in the content they can grasp and use.  For others, it will be in the to us new way they can organize the material, make use of it.  Or it may be in a fashion of which we cannot yet conceive until they show it to us.  

If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

Each student is like that "particular tree."  Each is unique, and that uniqueness needs to be acknowledged, not forced into a single pattern merely because it is convenient for me or other adults or society so that we can rank and sort them and classify them according to our own preconceptions.  That not only diminishes them, it cheats us of what they can be and thus contribute to all of us.

"What happened?
My own collected thoughts
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood:
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits"

My own collected thoughts - as a teacher, it is my preparation.  It is thinking about different ways I can connect the material for whose instruction I am responsible with the students before me.  It is also to be open to what the student tells me - by body language, tone of voice, facial expression, misstatement, enthusiasm even if seemingly misplaced.  

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood -  in the wood - in the unique individual student before me.  I once read words of Jerome Bruner that every student is capable of some degree of mastery in every domain.  Our task as teachers is to assist that student in achieving the mastery that is appropriate for her.  It might not be the same as that of the student in the next seat, and it is very likely to be quite different than what we might consider mastery for ourselves.  No matter.  The focus ultimately should be the student for whom the domain should empower, rather than the domain dominating the student to the point where the uniqueness disappears.

From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits

the key words are these:  live encounter.  The most meaningful teaching/learning experience is when the encounter is real, genuine, human - in short, not rote or canned.  LIVE.

I first read this poem many years before I thought of becoming a teacher.

In rereading it this week I realize how applicable it is to my understanding of teaching.

Let me suggest one additional way it applies.  I see myself not only as the wood carver, but also as the bell stand, at least potentially.  It is also my task to strip away enough of my own preconceptions, free myself enough from what others have said is my role as a teacher so that the bell stand within, the teacher I can be, can appear before my students.

Any truly effective teacher is at least as much of a learner as s/he is of an instructor.  For me, to understand the potential within each student I must be open to the potential within me to be the teacher that student needs.

A dead Cistercian monk years ago offered a translation of a Taoist poet dead for several millenia.   A man several years older than me included it in a book several decades ago, recently released, which I obtained because I was encountering him, one of my own most important teachers, for the first time face to face.  I re-encountered that poem.  It spoke to me about teaching.  

My words here are an attempt to explain what this poem spoke to me.  How it saw within me the potential for the bell stand.  How it helps me understand the potential in the living wood that is my students.

Peace.

Originally posted to teacherken on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 03:22 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  As a wood carver myself, the poem lost.. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Van Buren

    credibility when the carver spoke of going to the forest and seeing the bell stand in a living tree. This implies that he set about making his carving from a freshly cut tree. That sort of thing just doesn't work. Wood has to be seasoned for years before it can be used to make stable wood carvings. Maybe the carver was misquoted by the poet. He probably said he went to his cache of seasoning wood billets and saw the bell stand in the bottom piece in the stack and had to move 40 one hundred pound billets to get to it.  That's more likely how it went.

  •  The Horse's Mouth - Sir Alec Guiness (6+ / 0-)

    speaks to your theme.  Guiness plays the role of an artist who paints feet, and greets each large wall he encounters as a canvas for a particular foot.  The artist moves into a posh apartment/flat of wealthy friends who are away and, of course, paints feet.  Other artistic friends move in, one of whom was a sculptor who arrives with a massive slab of marble and throughout the movie, chips, chips, chips away at it until it is only a fraction of its original size.  The sculptor never found the image or soul that was within the marble.

  •  Today my focus is on teaching (5+ / 0-)

    I have my own work to do - a ton of tests to correct, which should consume several hours

    doing some tentative planning for next week - unfortunately my proposed guest speaker never confirmed so I have to rejuggle plans for AP

    finishing one book review

    waiting for approval of a piece at Huffington Post

    reviewing someone else's writing on teaching

    and in the midst of all this, ensuring that I take some time from doing to just let go and let flow -  thoughts about teaching, about my students.

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 03:52:41 AM PST

  •  I understand and yet (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dot farmer

    I do not like the analogy. The poem starts with

    Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
    Of precious wood.

    Teachers do not "make." Teachers facilitate or enable. Teachers do not take a person, precious wood, and make an improved person, bell stand. Teachers enable a person to become better.

    I also do not like the analogy of teacher to carver. Teachers do not carve people up and spit them up. Now if the teacher was about a farmer who enabled plants to be more beautiful or more nutritious, then I would say you were on to something.

    Yes there are parts where the analogy works for me, but in the main it does not.

    Great diary for getting me to think.

    Practice tolerance, kindness and charity.

    by LWelsch on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 03:55:21 AM PST

    •  I understand your concern (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ogre, tRueffert, JanL, LWelsch, Oh Mary Oh

      again, I do not take the poem literally, but as metaphor if you will.

      Taken that way, I think it can change our frame of thinking to understand teaching more deeply.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 03:57:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Too literal or not analogous (0+ / 0-)

        Let me take another example where you have articulated what it means to you.

        To see the trees in their own natural state -  the carver, by fasting and preparing, does not impose his vision upon any piece of wood, but rather sees the wood as it really is.  That is, he sees the fullness of its potential.

        Fasting is a way of imposing visions on the mind. The carver is not imposing his vision, the fasting imposes a vision, not of the wood for what it really is, but, of what his fasting vision sees. The fasting is a drug that makes the vision less real.

        But remember, what he produced was a direct result of stripping away his preconceptions and his possible desire to please others - the ruler and the court - and to acknowledge the particular tree, which then helped him fashion the bell stand.

        The carver never stripped away his preconceptions. His preconception was to make a bell stand. If the carver had come back with something other than a bell stand, then I might say his preconceptions had been stripped away.

        the key words are these:  live encounter.  The most meaningful teaching/learning experience is when the encounter is real, genuine, human - in short, not rote or canned.  LIVE.

        So what is a dead encounter? The very nature of an encounter is "live." When you speak of rote or canned, I suppose you include video, reading material, stage plays, . . . Yet those are frequently the most meaningful ways of learning.

        Practice tolerance, kindness and charity.

        by LWelsch on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 04:51:45 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  But he uses the word "hidden" potential (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Oh Mary Oh

          Not "fullness". Fullness of potential may better be applied to the bell stand not the whole wood. The bell stand exists in the wood before any wood is removed.

          The fasting is what sets the carvers "heart at rest" not to impose a vision, but to release the impositions of ego and external 'trifles' (the king's pleasure) so they do not interfere with revealing the virtue of the bell stand that already exists in the wood. So that only the wood itself dictates the "vision" of the bell stand.

    •  We are swordsmiths. We put our children (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      teacherken, Oh Mary Oh

      through a crucible and forge something beautiful.  What we do changes them, and shapes them for the future.

      "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

      by zenbassoon on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 07:22:58 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Also see the philosophy of farming (5+ / 0-)

    permaculture, e.g. Masanobu Fukuoka...

    "Oh, a lesson in not changing history from Mr. I'm-my-own-grandpa." -- Professor Farnsworth, in Futurama

    by Cassiodorus on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 03:56:57 AM PST

    •  Messy veggie gardens? (0+ / 0-)

      I read about his vegetable gardens a number of years ago, and my first reaction was, how messy they would look.  Messiness sort of goes against the psychological grain when it comes to farming regardless of how much sense Fukuoka makes.  

  •  I LOVE Chuang Tzu! (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, JanL, Oh Mary Oh, dle2GA, SoCalSal

    The cicada and the dove who can't fly very high laugh at the bird who soars; the flowers that live only one day don't understand the seasons.

    We are where we are, locked in our own epistemic perspectives.

    The most beautiful piece is the musing on his wife's death, that she is in another form rather than completely non-existent.  And since that form is as much a part of things as were her pre-born form and her living form, grieving isn't the  right response.  To accept what is, to challenge what is in a kind of accepting way, to be properly passive and properly in motion in a wonderfully mystical Way.  (deliberate sentence fragment!)

    Even if we can't step out of our perspectives, it helps us to sense that there are other ways to see and do.

    And of course, I'd be extra happy if Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg got the message!

  •  I've made my living as a painter (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Oh Mary Oh, dle2GA, SoCalSal

    and I've done some sculpture in clay and bronze but I've done only one carving from wood.  I loved it.  I went to the back of the sculpture studio where I went to school in San Miguel de Allende, and there was a pile of wood. Different sizes and types but in the pile I saw one piece that "talked" to me. I saw an old woman sewing seeds. It was four feet tall chunk of mesquite and weighed 70 lbs +-.
    I worked on that piece for two weeks day and night. I carried it home from school at night and carried it back in the morning.  I lived in an apartment 73 steps from the street. I counted and remember. My hands were bruised and bloodied but I just kept working. An experience I've never been able to duplicate.  
    It sold almost before I finished it, and then it was gone. Off to Florida.  
    a few years later the lady that bought the piece was back in San Miguel and we had drinks.  She had a photo not of the piece but one that the piece was visible in. It was standing by the door and being used as a coat rack.

    "Tiger got to hunt, Bird got to fly. Man got to sit and wonder, why? why? why?"

    by tRueffert on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 04:33:24 AM PST

  •  Thanks again! (5+ / 0-)

    This holiday weekend I am thankful for good writIng on a topic I am passionate about.  Teaching and learning ARE Important, keep reminding people.

    "Education is more than a luxury; it is the responsibility that society owes itself" Robin Cook

    by iTeachQ on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 05:54:20 AM PST

  •  Thank You (5+ / 0-)

    I just returned to teaching after a hiatus of almost fifteen years. I'm teaching Critical Thinking to college students at my local community college. I found your analogy very helpful. In the past I taught Freshman Composition. Critical Thinking is different; it requires that I deliver a more precisely defined content. I've been struggling with that. It is easy to fall into teaching "content" instead of teaching "students"... That's what came to my mind as I read the poem and your thoughts.

    I particularly appreciate being reminded that the outcome for each student will be different than what it would be for me, were I the student and someone else the teacher. I tend to forget that. I tend to think that I "know" what mastery looks like, what learning looks like, how my students "should" respond if I'm doing my work... You reminded me there's more to it than that. You said:

    Our task as teachers is to assist that student in achieving the mastery that is appropriate for her. It might not be the same as that of the student in the next seat, and it is very likely to be quite different than what we might consider mastery for ourselves. No matter.  The focus ultimately should be the student for whom the domain should empower, rather than the domain dominating the student to the point where the uniqueness disappears.

    You also said the encounter between teacher and student is a living one and must be treated that way, that "mastery" of the subject is not the only way to measure gain. You reminded me that if I remain open and aware, my students will show me what they have found in what I have offered.

    I am trying to teach thinking—a radical task, exciting, and absolutely about finding the tree(s) that can reveal mystery at their core, our core.

    You said you learn as you teach—that is part of why I have been so happy to be teaching again. It is vibrant and enlivening. So thanks, I am grateful for your good words. I've been around DKOS for years, but I don't comment much and rarely write. I read. You're one of the few people I follow—one of my teachers.

    In a time of universal deceit, the simple act of telling the truth is revolutionary--George Orwell

    by Circle on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 06:00:22 AM PST

  •  I find a lot of wisdom in ... (5+ / 0-)

    ...Chinese poetry, philosophy, etc. Sometimes, it take me awhile to understand it, but it usually is worthwhile.

    We Westerners have downgraded Kǒng Fūzǐ (Confucius) to a mere writer of fortune cookie pith. He was far more than that and much of what he actually said rings true even today.

    "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success." -7.75/-6.05

    by QuestionAuthority on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 06:36:30 AM PST

  •  When a katana is forged, there is a process (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh, FarWestGirl

    whereby the blade is rapidly heated and cooled.  This gives the blade its traditional shape, and makes the steel hard enough for the use to which it is put.  We put our children through this crucible time and time again.  And after each time, they come out stronger, and more knowledgeable than before.

    We teach the potential we see in front of us.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 07:21:36 AM PST

  •  Thanks for the thought-provoking diary... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Oh Mary Oh, FarWestGirl

    It seems Khing got out of his own way.

    The challenge for the teacher is not only to get out of his or her own way, but out of the way of the students. You've provided a doorway in to that awareness with this diary, teacherken. Bravo!

    The horizon is always receding. -- attr. Van Cliburn

    by CindyMax on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 08:17:34 AM PST

  •  This is beautiful (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cfk, Oh Mary Oh, FarWestGirl, iTeachQ

    --both the poem & your diary. Thank you.

    "Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass." --Barry Goldwater

    by Leaves on the Current on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 10:01:00 AM PST

  •  I miss my copy of The Way of Chang Tzu (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh, FarWestGirl

    It is lent out. It has eased my troubled heart on many occasions. I just finished Zen and the Birds of Appetite. A wonderfully comprehensible book once you get past his rather ruthless assault on the readers ego. It demands you give in and give up, to go forward in the book, and rewards you richly for making that choice. My name and tag are partly derived from his writings.

    Did you meet him? He died in Thailand while attending an interfaith conference two months after my father arrived there to fly missions over Laos. What a world.

  •  Metaphor (4+ / 0-)

    speaks so clearly to us, if (when) we listen.

    My own experience with good teachers is that -- in retrospect -- they loaned me their trained hands and eyes, and helped me carve myself from the billet of wood. Without their knowledge to guide the tools and their skills as carvers, the work would have been even rougher, and cruder, than it is.

    There are moments in teaching, just as there are moments as an artist, where one can see the shape of what could be freed--or drawn forth--from the raw material.

    "Be just and good." John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

    by ogre on Sat Nov 27, 2010 at 11:00:09 AM PST

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