The day the fish died and the birds left the nest

Mr. Wigglebutt was his name.  Mr. Wigglebutt was a baby beta fish I got for my daughter after we spent the necessary time mourning the death of fish #1 (Bubbles).  Mr. Wigglebutt wasn’t with us for very long (a couple of months).  He died the day after Easter during the last week of classes spring semester.   Although he wasn’t with us long, any death, of course, brings a bit of heartbreak to a 7-year old.

“Why did we have to have another fish die on us?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  I wish I knew the answer to that” I replied.

“We’ll never see him again.  Why does that have to happen?”

“I don’t know, honey.  I don’t know.”

What does it mean to lose something?  In the grand scheme of life, the loss of a fish seems miniscule.  But there are many, many situations that bring loss to our doorsteps.  Some are difficult—losing a colleague to a new job or losing a friend because of a move to a new location.  Some are excruciating—losing a partner to a stroke, losing a house to a tornado; or losing a family member, mentally, to Alzheimer’s Disease. Others are simply part of daily activities—losing keys or a wallet; losing your way in route to a new place.

In each of these scenarios, losing something means different things.  And although it may seem strange, I believe loss is also at the heart of what we strive for in the classroom.  To explain—as a teacher, I hope my students will gain something from me.  And regardless of the content, much of what I hope students will gain is a new way of looking at the world (and if I am lucky, a new way of walking in the world) with regard to the particular topic of my course.  Yet that gain usually necessitates letting go of their prior way of looking at and walking in the world.  The gain usually necessitates a loss.

To illustrate– my primary goal in teaching qualitative research methods is to help students eat, sleep, and breathe the qualitative mindset.  Of course I want them to learn the nuts and bolts of the methods, but they might forget the nuts and bolts over time.  If they truly gain a qualitative mindset—a way of being in the world committed to questioning, listening, and letting go of prediction and control—this they are less likely to forget.  But gaining a qualitative mindset necessitates letting go of—and sometimes losing—a different way of being in the world.

Last week I had an appointment with a student about her course project.  At one point in the conversation, I jokingly said “you are thinking quantitatively—I thought I had gotten all that out of you by now.”  Her response was “old habits die hard.”

Yes, they do.  Yes, they do.  It happens every semester I teach qualitative methods.  There are always some that struggle, even fourteen weeks into the semester, with adopting a new way of looking at the world. The challenge, then, is to create a space within which students can let go—lose, if you will—of their own ways of walking in the world so that they can see, try on, and perhaps even adopt others.  Yet it is difficult to predict that process.  It is difficult to predict, as a teacher, what will happen with each new group of students.

On the first day of class when I teach methods, I do an activity where I tape large papers to the walls all around the classroom that say either “PREDICT,” “CONTROL,” or “GENERALIZE.”  I have students pick which of these “quantitative” ways of being is going to be most difficult for them to give up, take it down from the wall, and rip it up.  I tell them they should focus on one, but if they want, they can pull more than one from the wall.  I always participate in this activity and as I was walking to class this semester on that first day, I decided I was going to choose “PREDICT.”  There were a few professional unknowns in my life at the time, and I figured it would be good for me to spend some focused time letting go of my need to predict what was going to happen.

I started the activity and allowed the students to mull around, picking their words while I organized my notes for the rest of the day.  After the appropriate amount of mulling time, I called them back to their seats.  As I looked up from my notes, I saw right in front of me the ONLY paper left taped to the wall (this never usually happens and students usually just opt to pull one down).  There I was, staring at the one paper left, which was taped directly in front of my line of sight:


What?  Control?  I needed help with control?  Naaaaaaaaahhhh…..

And then it hit me. In deciding I was going to pick “PREDICT,” I was trying to control.  Yeah. I get it.

So this semester I paid attention to control.  Outside of the classroom was faced with particularly sad situations which resulted in losing two colleagues from different institutions—one to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and one to esophageal cancer.  Both were close to my age with young children.  I knew of three others fighting cancer, witnessed many in my home town lose their houses to tornadoes, and helped move my mother-in-law from independent living to assisted living.  I could not control any of these situations.  All were about loss in some way.

On the same day we lost Mr. Wigglebutt, we had some baby birds leave a nest that they were in on our front porch.  We did not see them leave the nest.  They were there before vacation and gone the morning after we returned. I was struck by the fact that my daughter had such a different take on losing the birds. She did not express much sadness over not seeing them again.  She was actually a bit angry, in fact (admittedly she was exhausted from a vacation weekend).  Why did they have to leave when we weren’t there?  Don’t they know we wanted to watch?  In true form, she proclaimed:

“They should have stayed so we could see them leave the nest. They could have waited until today after camp… then I could have watched them and not missed camp or vacation or anything.”

“They fly when they are ready, my dear.”

“Well….they should fly when I AM ready.”

I laughed.  Like mother, like daughter.  Control.
In the classroom, I can set up modules and activities and structures, but I cannot perfectly control learning.  I cannot control whether students can let go of their own ways of being and walking through the world.  Old habits die-hard.  Some students get it day one.  Others take all 15 weeks.  Others walk out of my classroom never getting it.  I can guide the process.  I am a fool to believe I can control it.

So, what can I do, then?  I can engage in every teaching and learning moment fully, be clear about what I want, and do my best to walk with my students through a process that is (by definition) scary, unknown, messy, and sometimes painful:  learning.

Sometimes the cost of what they lose is well worth it. Sometimes they gleefully walk towards that which is new and unknown. Sometimes they hesitate. Sometimes they give up and decide they cannot risk losing their way of being. Sometimes they just need a nudge and a bit of support. Sometimes fear drives them. Sometimes courage drives them. Sometimes they fall. Sometimes they fly…

But only when they are ready.

All these are possibilities when I invite learning into my classroom and ask it to take a place at the table.  When I invite learning into my classroom, seriously, I am not only inviting the “ah ha” moments, or the “I get it!” moments we see in many teacher movies, but also the moments that might not be movie worthy—the moments of questioning, struggle, loss, and fear.  And I’m actually trying to embrace these moments as they authentically co-exist with those that are brilliant in spaces rigorously committed to learning.

All are part of the abundance of learning.

The day the fish died and the birds left the nest was a difficult day.

One I am sure my daughter—and I—will not forget.

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