by Jean Prokott
Part of an educator's job description includes insomnia, but nobody tells you that at teacher-school. It's more on-the-job training. The sleeplessness is nerves, mostly--did I remember to print those worksheets? how is that student's mental health? what if my zipper is down tomorrow?--but it's also anxiety-ridden in that instead of counting sheep, we spend hypnagogic moments counting our failures.
We make hundreds of decisions a day, and a healthy portion of them are mistakes. Failing hurts, and it is uncomfortable, yet we tell our students they learn through failure. It's only fair we know this for ourselves.
To reframe, we're counting the moments we learned. If a lesson plan goes awry, the students watch you flounder (if they're paying attention). If, like me, you say the phrase Netflix and chill in class thinking it's literally about relaxing while watching Gilmore Girls, you're going to sit in that for a while, and you're going to save Urban Dictionary to your Favorites bar.
Physiologically, we can attribute this to the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and which hangs out next to the hippocampus, where memories are retrieved. We recollect emotional experiences more precisely and colorfully because our brains are built that way. Theoretically, as educators, we know Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD), which they did teach us in teacher-school, and which explores the sweet spot of comprehension. In a parallel, one can look at this as emotional intelligence, this sweet spot where you feel just uncomfortable enough to remember. A student ignores or forgets a class where they are not emotionally or intellectually challenged. A student does not feel safe or confident in a class that challenges them, content or skill-wise, too much.
Our job is to hover in the ZPD. It's not easy to create these moments for our students, to get their hippocampi to remember how we made them feel and what we taught them. Especially because every student's ZPD is different. So is mine, so is yours. And they fluctuate.
But, as I mentioned before, we must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. Teachers might not experience the anxiety of feeling intellectually or emotionally unsafe in our classrooms (not to be flippant, but aside from the fact that a student could kill me with a gun, or that I could be fired for saying the "wrong" thing). However, educators can find themselves complacent in the nucleus of the ZPD. Not because of laziness, but because of survival. In those rare circumstances when opportunity and time presents itself to us, we should strive for the next layer.
Education, as its own institutional beast, struggles to evolve on its own. For one cog to move, myriad others in the government and community must be greased. Fortunately, (hopefully), teachers have control over their classrooms. To move to the outer ring, we can challenge ourselves with new curriculum, new projects instead of tests, cross-curricular activities if the school structure can be manipulated for it. With support from our administrators and colleagues, we can set plans in motion for "hard conversations."
It isn't a leap to explore how this, too, is exactly how poetry works. (Everything is a metaphor, even a metaphor.) Third Eye Education is ever grateful for the conversation and new poems from poet Taylor Mali, who opened a door to the joy of discomfort by way of poetry, teaching, and shaking dice for a symbolic gamble.
Mali's new poems, "Momentum," and "Are You Going to Come for Me'' explore the Gestaltian circumstances when we're thrust from our comfort zones. Mali tackles how one new experience can change our big picture.
In "Momentum," the speaker challenges his sister on the accuracy of her memories with their father: "I repeated a story he had only ever told to me [...] his brothers locked him in a windowless shed—/ piled firewood against the door outside—and dared him/to escape in under five minutes." While the speaker uses the story as evidence of "joy," his sister interprets the story as evidence of "destroying everything around him to become free," which warps the memory of his father. This discomfort leads the speaker to rearrange his past relationship with his father, and perhaps to question whether any of his memories can be trusted. I think, here, of how this ties to the lessons I've learned in my classroom. How might I look at my prior discomforts now, as a seasoned teacher? Discomfort breeds when our Truths are challenged. Do we accept this, or do we double-down?
Speaking of “discomfort,” the next poem contains content
that might make some uncomfortable. But isn’t that the point?
ARE YOU GOING TO COME FOR ME?
"Are You Going to Come for Me" directly addresses classroom discomfort, a textbook this-is-way-above-my-paygrade day; the speaker recounts a time while running a poetry workshop where he "needed/ to say something wise and not get fired for it later" when a student shares a sexual poem with the class. As a teacher, I think of the tight line we are always walking. What will get me in trouble? Is the risk of a hard, but important conversation worth it? For my job? For students?. What is the difference between a teachable moment and an uncomfortable moment, and what is too teachable a moment?
Thus, Mali's brilliance here speaks to the situation, but, really, to every circumstance a teacher finds themselves in the ZPD:
I gave my little speech about revealing, reviling,
In this moment, creative writing class becomes it-just-got-real class. This is the exact circumstance a student remembers, the same circumstance that impacts a teacher enough he'll write about it. The teacher and his students are equally vulnerable in this poem, especially at the end when they all “came/ to know” what they are afraid of is “what the world needs to hear.” The masterful pun at the line break reinforces that learning works best in a classroom with a strong, safe, fully vulnerable community.
Mali's poems prompt us to ask:
During our discussion, Mali explained the "discomfort of ambiguity." It is imperative to understand, finally, that discomfort is not a "yes I am," or "no I am not" experience. We must be metacognitive in this process. Why did this poem make me uncomfortable? Why did the way I led that discussion make me feel uneasy? Or, when encouraging students to write their own, why am I struggling to write about this topic? Getting students to write their discomforts (whether they show us or otherwise) is the place to start.
If you're not uncomfortable, you're not learning. These poems invite you to a challenge for your students and for yourself. One: get rid of the fill in the blank worksheet. Two: a blank sheet of paper and the word "go" is too open. Three: start with a metaphor, a book, a flame, a risk.
This is a lesson plan for Newton's First Law of Motion.
On the Joy of Discomfort
with Taylor Mali & Jean Prokott | 5.10.2021
In this episode we discuss how embracing discomfort can help with academic growth.
This is a two part series. To listen to part two please click here.
Keep in mind, content in the second part may cause discomfort for some (then again, that's the point...).
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.