Thursday, August 7, 2014


I have stumbled over the concept of both/and several times in the past month.

Both/And  has stood in my path -- forcing me to converse with it, wrestle with it, and consider the hard truth of not-knowing-- eliminating black and white..   Both/And pushes me to think This is right, but... This is wrong, however.

I am learning to bring both/and thinking to an  either/or world.

So much of thinking is dealing with what is true, what is real, what is possible, and what is probable.
Yet, this is true  and so is that-- though completely contradictory,
Yes...this and that.

Yes...but accepting both/and thinking raises questions.

In their book, Living the Questions: A Guide for Teacher-Researchers, Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Miller Power, guide teachers in discovering and exploring those essential questions, but in their epigraph, a quote from by Rainer Maria Rilke, they  caution us:

... Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.

 Shagoury and Power also suggest the following:

... the resulting findings  are usually presented as narrative from the classroom, with metaphors a common means of highlighting key findings.  As Jalong and Isenberg note, Stories are both mirrors of our own practice and windows on the practice of others.(1995,174).  In teacher research, stories are a critical tool for illuminating the deeper theories or rules governing the way a classroom community works.

I suggest that as teacher researchers, our findings and resulting stories represent both/and thinking.

Our classrooms are rarely either/or places, but spaces that hold many contradictions in the students who inhabit that space, the conversations they hold there, the understandings that are being constructed both together and individually, the teachers facilitating the work , as well as the many ways to teach.

Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, 10th Anniversary Edition also asks us to engage in both/and thinking and to hold our minds and hearts open to contradictions and questions:

The courage to teach is courage to keep one's heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able,  so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.

Palmer further suggests:

We lose heart, in part because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability...Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life. 

I might add that we also stand at the difficult and sometimes unbearable intersection of both/and, while others would prefer to define us and our work as either/or.

Can we remain open as we meet our new students?
Can we hold at bay what we have been told about them or their parents or their situation?
Can we put aside our fears, prejudgments, and unreal expectations of them...and ourselves?

Can we put aside the easy-ness and safety of either/or and embrace the uncomfortableness of both/and?

Can we approach the task of teaching and learning as John Legend suggests in the lyrics of his both/and hit song, All of Me:

'Cause all of me
 Loves all of you
 Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections
Give your all to me
I'll give my all to you
You're my end and my beginning
Even when I lose I'm winning

Can we see ourselves, the students, the curriculum, and the process in all their perfect imperfections?

Can we embrace the not-knowing --the open-ended, the unfinished- in-process, the changes of mind -the open mind, the temporary and lasting upheaval of our mind-- that is teaching and learning.

Taking a note and measure from John Legend in her poem Imperfection, Elizabeth Carlson comes to love her own imperfections.  She invites us to accept our perfect imperfections, as well.

...Learning to love
 the open-ended mystery
 of not knowing why
I am learning to fail
to make lists,
use my time wisely,
read the books I should.
Instead I practice inconsistency,
irrationality, forgetfulness...
...Now the empty mind is what I seek
 the formless shape
the strange    off center
sometime fictional

You may read her entire poem here or in one of my favorite collections for teachers,Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach

This both/and, ambiguous, looser thinking on the way to knowing raises its head in writing.

 I am rereading  Critical Passages: Teaching the Transition to College Composition one my favorite books about thinking and exploring ideas created by and inherent in forms and structures through writing essays. The authors' notion of writing as not-yet-knowing is both comfortable and comforting to me as a writer.  In turn, it will prove to be a relief and a path to deeper truth and deeper writing for student writers.

Because demanding that students demonstrate more knowledge and more thought of then drive them to hide their excess or surplus thinking (i.e., anomalies, questions, and speculations) behind what they believe is a demonstration of knowing, we have begun to define good writing as taking that path which is able to sustain "not-yet-knowing".
This is the secret we needlessly keep as teachers and writers:  Good ideas are born our of long periods spent without a strong, authoritative idea, and periods of having too many at once.  This is a subtle but crucial belief for it suggests that suspension of judgement ( not lack of thinking altogether) enables rich thinking to develop.

Finally, there is no aspect of my life in which I have not walked and talked and even prayed with  both/and.

At the close of each  session with my spiritual director, she has me select a prayer from a small spiral-bound notebook.  I usually choose one related to our session and whatever is going on in my prayer life at the time.  She had me tear it out, prays it over me, has me pray it myself and then I incorporate it in my daily prayers.

At the end of our last session in July, the prayer I chose was appropriately and divinely entitled Both/And. 
And  regardless of your religious position and affiliations, I wish the following from that prayer for you.

May you hold the opposites of your life in equally gentle hands...
May you bring the blessing of a "both/and" compassion into an "either/or" world.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Consider an issue, relationship, situation,  problem, or question with which you are currently wrestling.

This should be something about which you are thinking, but have not yet come to conclusions, judgments, or solutions.

Freewrite about your chosen topic allowing both/and thinking-- not so much seeking an answer, but to discover your conflicting, contradictory, and complementary thinking, to follow your questions, to wonder, to pose possibilities and probabilities--simply think deeply about your topic.

Write an exploratory essay expressing your ideas.

Write a poem containing some of your resulting both/and thinking

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