Learning to let go: the elusive "a-hah!" moment

http://new.oberlin.edu/

My place of employment has begun a new marketing campaign in which people from our community are invited to tell their stories — “quick (ish) anecdotes that illustrate how unique this place is, and should be written in the first-person.” These stories, it is hoped, will form a collective narrative about the people, the places, the classes, the community in which we live and work and play. Many many stories loosely joined… forming a bigger story.

It is part media campaign and part storytelling… much like NPR’s Storycorps these stories go through a bit of a screening process, and, I would imagine, there is some editing that happens too. The goal is to accumulate 1000 stories (they now have 58).

I was mindlessly clicking the other day on the site, and I clicked on one of the stories. This one. And I was, quite frankly blown away.

I wrote to Avery and asked him if I could share his story with all of you, and he said yes.

What I find just so breathtakingly phenomenal about this story is how he describes, in just a few words, that “a-ha!” moment, that little epiphany, that moment when you see something differently… something that you have been seeing the same way for weeks, months, years (yes, for some of us, it’s years).

For Avery, his “a-ha!” moment came in the form of contemporary music… something that at first had seemed so cacophonous and impenetrable… what he calls “an ugly idiom that my ear could not, would not grasp.” I encourage you to read his account of the opening of his eyes and his ears (and his mind and his heart). It’s beautiful.

What Avery describes so eloquently are the very same moments that we want our students to have in our classes. Those perfect, crystalline “a-hah!” moments of realization, convergence, emergence, clarity…knowledge.

And yet, and yet…. these moments hardly ever happen within a classroom. They may happen in an academic setting but they hardly ever happen within a classroom. In fact, look at the “academic” stories on this site. Nary a one happened solely because of a textbook, a classroom, an electronic whiteboard.

And yet, and yet… the job of a teacher is not to orchestrate, plan, schedule, or manage these brilliant realizations. Rather, our job is to prepare a path, suggest a possibility, and then…just plain ole get out of the way. It’s not about us…the teachers. It’s about them, our students, and our job is to create a community that is conducive for learning. But we can’t manage or control their learning. Nor can we anticipate their epiphanies.

There are so many people on our campus (in our world) that are stuck in the same old mindset, seeing things the same way as always. That may never change. But as educators, our job is to help our students (and ourselves) at least be –open– to the possibility that there may be another way of seeing, feeling, hearing, sensing the world around us.

As I said to Avery, I am sad for the people who live, work, study, teach here (or anywhere) and who have not had similar “a-hah!” moments, moments when suddenly, as he said, the landscape comes into focus. And yet, the ability, the possibility, to have such a moment is all so incredibly simple: if you just allow yourself to let go of your fear, and crack open your mind and your heart and make some room, if you believe in the possibility that things could be different from the way they currently appear… if you do all that…it is absolutely extraordinary what amazing knowledge can come rushing in to fill that space. In oh so many ways.

Learning is about letting go… letting go of the things that hold you back and letting yourself see the whole, big, glorious, messy, disjointed, uncomfortable, complex world that surrounds us. When those blinders come off, such a vision can be frightening. Sometimes you have to be made uncomfortable –really uncomfortable– before you see a new light.

Learning is about confronting things that are complex, annoying, frustrating, even hateful… and trying to comprehend them without judgment, without malice, with an open mind and an open heart.

Teaching is about encouraging our students to take a step. Many steps. And then letting them go… wherever they may. What they discover is totally up to them. And totally out of our control. But if we lay the groundwork, if we offer them the tools, and if we encourage them to be honest and (ahem) fearless, there is no telling how many more “a-hah!” stories our students will return to write.

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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