Our public education system is designed for domestication. And, as designed, it successfully transforms many of our audacious, curious, and playful young people into individuals that are paralyzed by perfectionism, tentative about taking the initiative and unwilling to throw themselves and their work into the real world out of fear of failure.
The alarm goes off. We open our eyes. We stare at the ceiling.
“Go back to sleep” our demons say.
We flip back the covers and touch our toes to the ground.
“Get back in bed” they say.
We make our way to bathroom, lean on the counter and stare in the mirror.
“You’re too tired for this today” they say.
We get dressed.
“No one’s paying attention. No one cares. No one shares your work” they say.
We walk, pedal, or ride to that sacred space where we create.
“You suck. You suck. You suck. And, you’re stupid” they say.
We arrive. We sit down. We take a deep breath.
“You’re a fool! You’re going to embarrass yourself!” they say.
We touch pen to pad. We strike the first key.
I had a wall.
It separated me from my students.
It was constructed out of my understanding of “professional distance”.
Outside this wall laid the expanse of my expertise. Like any other expanse it had its limits. And, beyond its limits, there was wilderness. It was full of the unknown (still is). I used to give my students tours of this expanse twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes at a time. I built privacy fences to shield their eyes from the wild places that scared me the most. And, I strategically steered our discussions away from the things I did not know.
Although it was risky, every so often, I would entertain a “What’s out there?”
Honestly, it wasn’t a risk.
I could flip the kill switch by saying “We need to move on. We’re falling behind”. And, the qualifier “You know this is outside my area of expertise” gave me ample cover.
But, there were times when I would join them in pushing the boundaries of the theoretical framework, exploring nuances in the model, and discovering alternative angles in the analysis. It was exhilarating. It was iterative. It was back and forth. We were learning together. And, sometimes the learning would spill out of classroom and into the hallways, across campus, and into office hours. I could feel the hierarchy collapsing around us. I could sense camaraderie. It felt like we were on the verge of something sacred.
I have trouble articulating Tribal Teaching in traditional pedagogical terms.
I do not see it as project-based learning, service-learning or experiential-learning. Although it is all of these things. I see it as a quest, journey, or an odyssey.
I do not think of it in terms of “learning outcomes”. I think of it in terms of an “awakening”.
You feel Tribal Teaching. And, when it is working, this is how it feels – at least to me. (Warning: The following includes fantastical creatures and music.)
As we step out of the Honduran heat and into the blue-tinted shade of a tarp-covered classroom, a wave of fear and anxiety wash over us. It is palpable. It is also understandable.
Our sixteen weeks of talking, planning, organizing, theorizing, assuming and discussing have come to an end. We are here to meet our clients. And, the conditions are cacophonous. Kids are laughing. Dogs are barking. Babies are crying. And, soccer balls are ricocheting all around us. Our personal space is being encroached upon. Multiple people are seeking our attention simultaneously. We are out of our context. We are out of culture. We are out of our comfort zones. But, we have a job to do.
We’re no ordinary class. Other classes have structure and definitive standards regarding what constitutes an A, B, C, D, or F. We don’t have that luxury. We operate in the real world. The real world is chaotic. And, we learned early on that imposing too much structure only handicaps our ability to respond and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. So, we don’t have a grading rubric. We have a code, a culture, and 11 Promises.
Prospective members of our Tribe must commit to our way of life. Now, in the moments leading up to their membership, we know that they cannot imagine anything other than fulfilling their commitment. However, past experience informs us that some students will be tempted to spend more time and effort on classes and projects that have clearer assignments and standards. We know it. We’ve felt it ourselves. We feel it (all the time).
So, we’re left wondering “Is their commitment to our way of life credible?”
The answer to this question is intimately connected to the size of our Tribe.
Brian and Kevin were my neighborhood friends. They were also my neighborhood tormentors. Childhood relationships were complex on my small street. We played together on a regular basis. They kicked my ass on a regular basis. Well, that is, whenever my sister Amber was not around. Amber was only one year older than me. However, in my defense, girls mature more rapidly than boys at this age. And, she had the “do not hit a girl” social constraint working in her favor. Even Brian and Kevin had to adhere to that rule.
On one occasion, in Amber’s absence, Brian and Kevin got the best of me. Well, they always got the best of me. However, this occasion would turn out to be the last occasion.
After receiving my regular ass-kicking, I scurried home in tears. I feverishly yanked on the handle to the screen door. It was locked. My mom was standing on the other side. She looked down at me and said “Don’t ever come back to this house crying again.”
NOTE: This post and all future posts are draft sections of my upcoming book titled “Tribal Teaching: Rewild Your Students and Yourself”. Any and all feedback (probing questions, need for additional explanations and cutting critiques) are welcomed! And, all illustrations are my own.
As upright mammals, all of our fighting implements – fists, feet, nails, and teeth – are to the fore. Our back and sides, unarmored and unprotected, remain exposed and vulnerable during combat. However, aligned side-by-side, friendly warriors, barring those on the line’s very ends, can protect each other’s flanks and rear. When one warrior fights, holds her position in line, those around her can focus their effort on striking out at the opponent. Without having to fight any harder, by simply fighting together, every warrior is more effective.
The line is a feature of warfare in all its forms and epochs. However, its length, shape, continuity, the distance between neighboring warriors, or the number echeloned are relatively un-important characteristics. These geometrical dimensions have varied across societies, through time, and even throughout the duration of a single engagement. The key characteristic of a line is its perceived permanence. Does a warrior believe the line will hold?
When I am on my deathbed, I want to be able to look my loved ones in the eyes and say with a smile “I kicked some ass.” If you do too, then read these books:
1. “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?” by Seth Godin
Inside all of us is a Change-Making Animal. But, for a lot of us, it’s been tamed and caged by our standardized-testing-industrial complex. So, how do you return to your natural feral state of creative destruction? Read this book. Read it again and again and again. Read it until the binder breaks. Dog-ear it into an accordion. And, freely fill its margins with thoughts like “Let’s go break something!”