BOOK REVIEW: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Up the Down StaircaseUp the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a humorous novel about a rookie teacher’s first year in a New York City public school with all the frustrations and victories that experience entails. It’s an epistolary novel – meaning it’s conveyed through a series of documents. Some of the humor is of a “kids say the darndest things” nature – though these are high school students, so the humor isn’t so much born of naiveté as it is a combination of teenage snarkiness and a maddening ignorance of concepts that students should have grasped by that age (i.e. laugh so you don’t cry style humor.) The humor from kids is largely conveyed by students’ comments in the teacher’s comment box as well as via homework assignments.

There’s a second kind of humor in the form of bureaucratic absurdism. Bureaucratic wrangling and lack of resources cause most of the protagonist’s frustrations. This humor is largely conveyed through memos – some school-wide and some specifically to the protagonist, Sylvia Barrett. Barrett also commiserates with her co-workers, and we see some of her frustration playing out through the post-it note equivalent of water-cooler conversations.

The epistolary form offers a challenging format for both character development and story presentation. However, the novel is strong on character development. It achieves this in large part by mixing long-form letters to a close friend with the short memos and comment box entries. The reader gets to see events unfold and responses by way of different documents. The longer letters give us some depth of feeling. There is even a point where Barrett is being swamped by correspondence and we hear nothing back from her, and in this we can feel the degree to which she is overwhelmed.

The book isn’t story-centric. However, there is a narrative arc that revolves around the question of whether Barrett will stay on at the public high school or move on to teach at a liberal arts college. She is torn because she feels she can do good at the public high school and that would be satisfying, but at the same time she is bureaucratically frustrated and demoralized by perceived failures. There are dramatic events here and there to elevate the tension from the run-of-the-mill school events, but not so much that the book ever moves away from feeling like the real experience of a rookie teacher.

The book uses drawings here and there, usually presented as student doodles, to add to the humor.

I enjoyed this book, finding it to be both humorous and illuminating. I would highly recommend it for those interested in the challenges of secondary education or who can appreciate the [bittersweet] humor of it.

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5 Lessons One Learns Teaching Kids Yoga

During the last half of April, I taught a kid’s camp at a1000 yoga‘s Kormangala studio. Below are some ideas about my experience.

Playful Scorpion

The Playful Scorpion

1.) Kids can’t down shift from 4th to 1st like adults. This was once a major point of frustration for me in teaching kids. When you ask kids to settle down after an activity they were really excited about, there’ll be a lag. There’s a temptation to see this unresponsiveness as a lack of respect, but it probably isn’t. (Which isn’t to say that the kiddies never attempt to test the waters.) The fact is that adults don’t get so amped up, and so it’s not so difficult for them settle down. Instead of getting frustrated with the kids, maybe one should feel sorry for the adults.

 

2.) Kids need a more advanced class, but not because they’re more advanced. Attention to detail isn’t a child’s strong suit. They have difficulty focusing on the finer points of alignment and breath–unless they’ve found a fun challenge in the pose. During the camp, we played with vrschikasana (scorpion pose) during the first few days. That’s not something I would do with adults. Kids get in the zone and, therefore, they don’t tense up and injure themselves so easily.

 

3.) Kids are natural flow hackers. If you don’t know what “flow” is, I’d recommend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, or Marer / Buzady / Vecsey’s Missing Link Discovered. (Depending upon your point of interest: psychology, athletics, or business, respectively.)  However, in a nutshell, flow is the state of mind in which we perform at our best because of a combination of concentration and the quieting of one’s inner critic. One of the keys to catching the flow is finding a challenge of the appropriate level. The challenge should be just beyond one’s current capability. If it’s too easy, one gets bored. If it’s too difficult, one gets frustrated. Children instinctively seek out the Goldilocks’s zone in challenges.

I noticed this when we were playing a game in which each kid had to cross the floor walking only on wooden yoga blocks. This helps with balance, which tends to be a weakness among kids. Every time all the kids have finished crossing, a block or two is removed. So, the game gets harder the longer it goes on. The position of the remaining blocks can be adjusted, and, after a while, the kids wanted to adjust the blocks themselves because I was making it too easy. In other words, they wanted to make gaps that they would have to stretch to their utmost to succeed.

 

4.) Don’t assume that kids experience fear the same way you do. I suspect there may be some readers who will say, “that guy had kids doing scorpion on their second day of yoga, he must be a complete lunatic.” But, adults superimpose their fears on children. Kids’ excitement more easily overcomes their anxieties. In my last post on yoga, I referred to a FaceBook meme that I saw recently that said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, never says, ‘I don’t think this is for me.'” Somewhere along the line, people become mortified of failure or the risk of a bruise, but it’s not in childhood.

Have you ever seen a child fall down and start to get up–everything apparently fine–until he or she sees the gasp from mom (or another adult,) and then the child bursts into tears? If you’re the adult in the aforementioned scenario, let me suggest that teaching kids physical activities isn’t yet for you–at least not until you can manage your own anxiety a bit better. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with such people, but a teacher’s job is to show the child a world of possibilities and not to infect them with his or her own limitations.

 

5.) Finding the balance between inner child and outer adult can be a challenge, but is necessary. My working theory is that kids don’t trust an adult whose inner child doesn’t show through at least a little bit. Kid’s yoga is typically taught differently from the adult version. When teaching adults, one doesn’t practice alongside the students, but that’s the norm in teaching kids. (Kids can mimic better than they can follow complex verbal instructions.) The kids enjoy having the teacher participate, but one must also ensure that it remains clear who is the teacher. Otherwise, kids may be confused. When you’ve been participating in practice, playing games, and letting the children have some say in what they do (which is also a sound practice to some degree) they may gradually start to forget about your role as authority figure.

9 Lessons Learned During Children’s Yoga Teacher Training

I recently finished the course requirements for Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training at a1000 Yoga in Bangalore. (As of this writing, I still have a kid-specific teaching requirement to meet before I can add this to my Yoga Alliance certification portfolio.)  When I did my seva (charitable teaching) requirement for RYT-200 at an orphanage, I discovered that teaching kids was a different monster. That’s what led me to take up this specialization, and I thought I’d share some of what I learned.


IMG_1580

1. Eight is [soon] enough:  The traditional age for introducing children to a practice of yoga is eight. This doesn’t mean that kids aren’t taught postures (asana) or other yogic techniques earlier, but for younger kids it’s typically done as play. Traditionally, surya namaskara (sun salutation), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and Gayatri mantra (a particular chant) serve as the core of the child’s practice.

Why eight? It has to do with a number of physical and mental development factors including lung development, the state of the pineal gland, and the arrival of abstract reasoning capacity.

Kids_contortionism2.) There are no youth-related contraindicated postures: I expected to spend a fair amount of the course learning what postures one shouldn’t teach children and why. However, instead we were told that kids could be exposed to any Hatha yoga postures.

Of course, this is predicated on: a.) the fact that one is dealing with a child eight and up; b.) one recognizes that the strengths and weaknesses of children will need to be taken into account and modifications or capacity building may be necessary in some cases. (For example, the flexibility of kids may allow them to achieve postures that few adults can, but at the same time their lack of strength and balance may be limiting factors for some postures.); c.) obviously, one needs to take into account that kids may have contraindicated conditions that aren’t age-related but are due to their particular physical condition.

It should also be noted that children are typically not taught breath retention (khumbaka) as part of their (breath exercise) practice. So it’s not true to say that there are no contraindicated practices.

3.) In stillness, your results may vary: One of the nice things about a yoga practice for kids is that it acknowledges that most kids, by nature, don’t want to be still. As opposed to mainstream education, which attempts to force stillness upon them, yoga offers a mixture of activity and stillness. However, it was interesting to see the range of abilities to remain motionless during yoganidra (“yoga sleep,” i.e. a hypnogogic state) practice. There is, of course, an age component to this. That is, young kids have a harder time staying still than older kids. However, that isn’t all there is to it. A few of the older kids couldn’t stay still in savasana (corpse pose) for five seconds, but a few of the young seemed able to be still for as long as required–not necessarily awake, but still.

the exception

the exception

4.) Balance isn’t in a child’s wheelhouse:  I knew that strength was ill-developed in prepubescent children, but I didn’t realize how challenging kids would find even simple balance postures. They’re a little like drunks in this regard.

Obviously, kids tend to be freakishly bendy, and so it’s not a surprise that most of them could learn to do chakrasana (wheel pose, i.e. a full back bridge) from a standing position in short order. In fact, the challenge for those who had one was more likely to be confidence with not falling on one’s head than with a lack of back-bending flexibility.

The moral of the story is that one must recognize that children are a little like senior citizens in this one domain. That is, consideration must be given to the risk that they will fall down during balancing poses. Unlike seniors, they don’t have too far to fall, and they’ll heal lickety-split if they do, but–still–they’ll fall like a drunken sailor.

5.) Teaching kids’ partner yoga requires a different approach:  The usual advice is that one should teach kids from “inside the circle.” That is, one shouldn’t set oneself off at the head of a class like one would usually do with an adult class. One sits with with the kids and does the class with them. (You probably won’t be doing 6 classes a day that way.)

I had the opportunity to teach a pairs yoga class and found that an entirely different approach was needed. First let me say that pairs (partner) yoga is a great approach for teaching kids. Many kids will enjoy the interaction, and they can learn about teamwork and (in some cases) take advantage of the stabilization of additional limbs / grounded surface area. However, because it requires so much attention to be focused on the partner, it’s best not to teach it from inside the circle. One won’t necessarily be able to see what one’s students are doing, and that can be dangerous.

6.) There’s a yoga for special needs children: Among our guest speakers, we had a yoga teacher from Prafull Oorja, which is an organization that teaches special needs children using yoga, dance, and various other methods. These approaches are used to increase bodily awareness, which is a common problem across many different afflictions. We learned about the range of challenges faced by such children and how the usual approach is varied to adapt to their needs.

 

The course included information about several non-yogic methods that could be used to complement yoga practice to achieve the objectives of a yoga course. I write this by way of explanation as to why the last few lessons seem to have little to do with yoga.

 

7.) Stories must be physical, animated, and repetitive for small kids:  These features serve to help adjust to the child’s limited vocabulary, while helping them to build vocabulary. We had a speaker from Kathalaya (House of Stories) who offered a great deal of insight into story-telling for kids.

Lest one think that story-telling is just filler in the yoga context, I’ve been learning a great deal about how our minds need stories, and am inclined to believe that one’s insight into the mind will be limited if one doesn’t understand story and why stories appeal to our minds. I recommend the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

8.) Games used in theater can go hand-in-hand with yoga practice:  I was completely new to the idea of theater games before this course, but we had someone teach us a number of these games, and the logic behind building our own. Games which aren’t too cerebral can go help build some of the same skills that are sought in a course of yoga. Such games include practices that help develop one’s voice and physical expressiveness. These games can also help bring some kids out of their shells so that they are more ready to actively participate in a yoga class.

9.) We need mental hygiene as much as dental hygiene: This actually comes from a quote by Sir Bat Khalsa, a Harvard Neurologist who studies the effects of yoga. When I was doing research for my final presentation, I ran across said quote, which goes:

“There’s no preventive maintenance. We know how to prevent cavities. But we don’t teach children how to be resilient, how to cope with stress on a daily basis… We’ve done dental hygiene but not mental hygiene.”

IMG_1582

Teachable and Unteachable Lessons

[Note: This is posted in my Jissen Budōka blog as well.]

Source: Wikipedia; Status:  Public Domain

Source: Wikipedia; Status: Public Domain

Miyamoto Musashi, who was undefeated in over 60 duels, claimed that he never had a teacher. Some historians refute this claim. Whether one accepts it or not, the statement astonishes.

Musashi wasn’t talking only about martial arts, but about the many areas in which he was accomplished. Not being a painter or a sculptor, I can’t say how important a teacher is in such domains. But it’s easy enough for me to imagine a successful writer who never took a formal class in writing; someone who read profusely and practiced his (or her) craft relentlessly could do it. (Certainly, one can easily imagine successful writers whose formal education was in some area other than writing because there are so many of them–probably at least as many as those whose education was in writing. Examples include: Vonnegut [Chemistry], Crichton [Medicine], Zane Grey [Dentistry], Ursala LeGuin [Anthropology], and J.K. Rowling [French]. That’s not even to start on the many literary legends who dropped out all together– e.g. Dickens, Faulkner, Twain, H.G. Wells, and Jack London.) This isn’t to say that writing teachers don’t make writing better, but just that there is a path to this skill that doesn’t involve being fed lessons.

However, I struggle to imagine a martial artist achieving so much without a teacher. Boiled down to its most workaday definition, a martial art is a collections of lessons about what works in a combative situation. This is what separates the importance of a teacher in martial arts from that of a discipline like writing. In writing, one has the leisure to make one’s mistakes, learn from them, and self-apply course corrections. Musashi was in life or death duels; he couldn’t learn lessons at such a leisurely pace and in such an iterative fashion.

A martial arts teacher has a number of roles, such as preventing inertia (slacking) from taking hold in the training hall. However, the most fundamental purpose is to pass along the collection of lessons so that a student doesn’t have to learn them all by way of personal experience. Most of us aren’t Miyamoto Musashi; we can’t survive the process of learning all our own lessons.

Needless to say, I am a firm believer in the value of a good teacher. I’ve had several over the years, and I received valuable lessons from all of them–all with different, but no less valid, points of emphasis and flavor.

Having said all that proceeds, there’s much that cannot be taught. Such lessons may be described or discussed, but they cannot be learned except through the initiative of the student. I said that most of us can’t survive the process of learning all one’s own lessons, but I’ve increasingly come to believe that one can’t survive learning none of them either. In the beginning, one must be fed the lessons from a teacher in order grow. However, as the decades pass, one increasingly needs the space to learn one’s own lessons. If one lacks said space, one will stagnate and eventually the wheels will roll off one’s training altogether.

So what are the unteachable lessons? Knowledge can be conveyed, but not everything that a martial artist must learn is knowledge. Confidence cannot be taught. A teacher may explain–or even show–how he or she became confident, but that won’t translate one iota into the student being more confident.  This is like a Buddhist monk telling one that “desire is the root of suffering.” One may understand that statement. One may believe the statement. However, one’s suffering won’t decrease because one has the knowledge.  One’s suffering will only decrease if one conscientiously does the hard work of reducing one’s desires.

Another area of unteachable lessons are the lessons that the teacher has never learned. Loyalty is a great virtue, and so there may be a tendency to restrict one’s learning to the lessons of one teacher. However, even if one has an outstanding teacher and are practicing a great lineage, blind spots happen. The only way to learn whether there is anything of value obscured in those blind spots is to throw off one’s blinders and have a look for oneself.

What blinders? An excellent and tricky  question.  It’s like when someone says, “it’s not what you said, but the way you said it.” We all understand that there is some intangible character in language that is commonly understood but not easily seen or defined. In any culture (and a dōjō contains a culture, believe me) there’s always a collection of norms, rules of thumb, ideas, beliefs, mores, credos, etc. that come to be taken so much for granted that they become an invisible filter through which one sees the world. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, and it’s probably necessary to produce sufficient order in a chaotic world in which to learn and grow. Having said that, some of the ideas and beliefs in our cultural filter may be arbitrary, or at least not universal, but yet we don’t necessarily see the potential for error because we are seeing the world through the cultural filter. We take for granted that grass is green, but what if we see it through a yellow filter? Then it’s blue. Right?

The Budō Fishbowl

I posted this on my martial arts blog, Jissen Budōka, but decided to re-post here.

fishbowlI’ve read and heard many quotes about the degree to which martial arts CAN’T be taught. At the extreme, there’s Miyamoto Musashi, who claimed to never have had a teacher of swordsmanship.

I recently found myself asking, “What if only 10% of budō is teachable?”

If that were the case, someone who was close to having all of the pieces that could be taught would think themselves a master–even if they were largely ignorant of the other 90%.

Such an individual would be like a fish in a fishbowl, thinking that there was nothing but emptiness above the waterline.

He would be like primitive man, thinking the stars were but pinpricks painted on a dome.

Or, in all likelihood, like the modern man who thinks that if we can just reconcile a couple sciencey bits–maybe experimentally validate string theory– that our picture of the universe would be complete.