THE SYMBOLISM

Discovering and creating meaning…

At the start of this project, I went to a medical supplies store and purchased two blank white labs coats. The more expensive, fancy coat would be my “good copy”, while a second much cheaper coat would be my “draft copy” (I pulled this one from the discount bin, finding it had a black mark on the sleeve).

The “expensive coat” still hangs in my closet untouched.  I guess it just intimidated me.  I never felt ready to approach it because I was too afraid I would “mess it up”.

The discount coat, however,  felt welcoming.  I said, “Try me on!  Play! Take a chance!” and so I did.

My first step was to boil a big pot of my favourite chai tea, which I often like to drink before the school day starts.  After enjoying some tea, I plunged my coat into the pot and marvelled as the fabric took on a rich, fragrant tan–a great way to help that first cup of tea last!

When I finally realized that this “draft copy” was becoming my “good copy”, I saw a parallel with how I create my Teaching Coat and how I create myself as a teacher in many ways.  This coat has grown from something simple marked and discounted into something complex, beautiful and meaningful, like the teacher I want to be. (On the other hand, that fancy, the expensive coat remains perfectly white, but unchanged and unevolved, like the teacher I never want to be).

As well, when I first started teaching, I worked hard to make my lessons “perfect” (like a pristine white coat).  But over time I discovered that the real fun and meaningful learning would happen when I was able to go with the flow, feel free to experiment, capture the teachable moments, and be alert to new possibilities.

And I am happy to report that the little dark spot on the arm of this discounted, “draft copy” coat has finally found it’s place as a punctuation mark!  It is finally at home now surrounded by the inspirational quotations I wrote around it–I got the idea to write these quotations here because of that little dark spot.  Isn’t it amazing how everything has its purpose?

Another powerful reminder I got from this experience is that we are more likely to create and take chances when we feel we have the permission.  Stark white coats, expensive blank canvases, quiet-as-a-pin classrooms…all of these pristine things can feel intimidating for some people sometimes.  My Teaching Coat inspires me to think about how I can make learning opportunities for my students that are more inviting and where students feel safe to take creative risks.

On the right arm…

On the right arm, to guide my “right” actions, are a careful selection of insightful quotations about teaching and leading.  These include the following:

  • “A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops.” -Henry Adams
  • “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” -William Butler Yeats
  • “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” -Benjamin Franklin
  • “The greatest sign of a success for a teacher…is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.'” -Maria Montessori

On the left pocket…

I wrote the following words from Parker Palmer’s inspirational book “The Courage to Teach” on the left pocket:

“‘We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us of who we are.’ Knowing, teaching, and learning under the grace of great things will come from teachers who own such a coat and who wear it to class every day.” (p. 113)

At the base of the pocket, I placed silk sunflowers.  These flowers are symbolic of the sun, warmth, happiness, adoration and longevity–all parts of my teaching career I hope.  As well, the sunflowers are a nod to the paintings of Vincent van Gogh which I love and which have also been a source of creative inspiration. On several of the petals I wrote words of virtue such as honesty and wisdom.

On the right pocket…

Attached is a mirror for reflection–to remind me about the role of this in both teaching and learning.  As well, when gazed upon by students, the mirror reflects back to them an image of who they are; this is a process I believe I facilitate as a teacher.  As a teacher, I am a mirror for my students, and I must be mindful of what and how I reflect for them.  As a teacher, I am also a mirror of my students, and I must be mindful of what I take on from others as a part of myself.

Inside the pockets…

I placed a small glass bottle of dust in one pocket and “gold” (sparkles) in the other.  Sometimes when people are nervous, or self-conscious when speaking in public, they don’t seem to know what to do with their hands. They may fidget, wave them wildly, let them hang like logs on the sides of their bodies, or tap their fingers.  Now, I will have a great place to rest my hands if I should ever need one.  The first time I wrapped my fingers around the bottles of gold and dust in my pockets, I was amazed at how well my talismans worked to help me feel connected and grounded.

On the collar…

I wrote the word “authenticity” around the collar.  The collar wraps around my neck and below my voice box, which is a place where my intentions join with sound to become words; I want to remind this place to act from a place of authenticity.  What does it mean to be authentic with my students and colleagues?  What has this meant for me in the past? What does this mean for me today?  What will this mean for me in the future? My Teaching Coat is a mediation on these questions.

Lining the inside…

An elaborate piece of crochet lace, handmade by my grandmother forms the part of my “Teaching Coat” that is closest to my skin.  Attached to it  inside is a selection of personal photos of myself and family to remind me of where I come from.

Photos of myself as a young child remind me of how it feels to be a student. Photos of my parents and grandparents remind me of my first teachers.  A photo of my son reminds me of the sacredness of each child and that each of us is somebody’s child.

Intending this weaving for use as a tablecloth, my grandmother bestowed it upon me along with its story.  The story was of how she worked for hours weaving, stretching, and turning yards of web-like thread until it was complete and doing so with the help of my grandfather.

To me, the lace and it’s story always seemed too sacred to bring out; therefore, like so many other sacred things, this beautiful artwork has spent its recent life locked away  unused, unseen, and “safe” on a shelf. But I must be brave.  I must dare to let peek out into the light a glimpse of what I hold sacred.

And I must reflect on those web-like threads which connect and embed me in something larger, more beautiful and durable than I imagine.  I did not come from nothing…I am wrapped in history.  These are lessons I want to share with my students.

On the right hand side…

Autumn leaves symbolize a time for “back to school” and harvesting learning, and this collage on the right hand side of my “Teaching Coat” creates a special, nature space around me from which my “teacher within” can emerge naturally.  These leaves represent my love for nature, reminding me of my favourite network of trails through the densely wooded “Watershed Park” near my home.  This is a place where I often walk with my dog for relaxation and reflection.  I go to nature to feel recharged and hatch new teaching ideas.  The spaciousness and connectedness I feel in nature is something I want to carry with me throughout my day in the classroom.

On the left hand side…

I sewed a patch with “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley in the location of my “Teaching Coat” that is over my heart.  The story reads as follows…

“One day a man was walking along a beach when he notices a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.  Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”  

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” 

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish?  You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said…”I made a difference for that one.”

This story is dear to me for some many reasons.  For one, as educators we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the task ahead of us: there are so many lessons, so many students, so little time.  This story reminds us to stay focused on what we can accomplish and to know that it does matter.

Secondly, the story reminds me of how at times I am like the man in the story and my students are like the boy with so much wisdom.  As a teacher, I learn so much from the young people in my practice–I want to be alert and sensitive to what my students have to share.

Thirdly, this story is a powerful counterpoint to the “drop in the bucket” fallacy that we can’t make a difference for others or for this planet as one single person.  We can.  And we do.  This story reminds me of that.

On the left arm…

At the top is a star, which illustrates the “Starfish Story” on the front left side, but it is also accentuates the pinnacle of “Bloom’s Taxonomy” of learning objectives.  Put forward by Benjamin Bloom, this hierarchy encourages teachers to understand that the task of teaching as more than just delivering facts.  Teacher must assist students in moving up through all of these stages, which include REMEMBERING, UNDERSTANDING, APPLYING, ANALYZING, EVALUATING, and CREATING.  The last three, analzying, evaluating and creating are “higher order thinking” tasks.  These are the most demanding–and often the most rewarding ways of learning.  As well, to give options for the “CREATING” level, I have written in shadow tones in this area dozens of creative “products of learning” including the following: essay, collage, script, project cube, board game, mosaic, puzzle, crossword, drawing, interpretive dance, and many more.

On the back left side…

I list the steps as I break them down to help my students create their own “Personal Interest Projects”.  Very often we have big ideas and goals, but they can seem overwhelming.  So it helps to remember the Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and that we can break big projects into smaller steps.  The following steps may occur in a linear fashion, these steps may happen concurrently or they may be revisited during a project–this was the case for my personal interest project of creating my Teaching Coat.

The “Personal Interest Project” Process…

  • 1:  Identify an Area of Passion
  • 2:  Narrow a Focus Question
  • 3:  Envision & Plan
  • 4:  Set Specific Goals
  • 5:  Researching & Exploring
  • 6:  Push for Deeper Understanding
  • 7:  Synthesize & Create
  • 8:  Organize & Assemble Product
  • 9:  Present/Share
  • 10:  Reflect & Assess
  • 11:  Celebrate Achievements
  • 12: Extensions & New Goals

On the back right side…

I like to share with others the notion of “Multiple Intelligences”: Existential, Naturalist, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Musical/Rhythmic, Visual/Spatial, Logical/Mathematical, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Verbal/Linguistic.  This multi-modal theory of intelligence put forward by Howard Gardener has impacted the way I understand learning and how I design learning in my classroom.  I believe it is important for students to explore their own styles of learning and then for me as a teacher to provide learning experiences and assignments that will challenge these areas.  I want this list of intelligences close to me as a reminder, as an instructional point, as a symbol for what I believe.  I also believe there is more development to be done on this theory.  Just as Naturalist and Existential intelligences were added after Gardner’s initial presentation of this theory, I believe there should be a tenth intelligence based on what I have experienced with my students: Humourist!

In the left pocket…

Here I keep a magnifying glass scored with a bold reminder to “EXAMINE”.  As a teacher and a learner myself, I don’t want to become complacent in my knowledge.  I don’t want to simply receive truths, I want to examine things for myself.  I hope I can model this analytical way of being for my students.   Socrates, one of my favourite philosophers, is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living.  I envisioning using this special magnifying glass as a prop to accentuate that point in a fun, dramatic way.

And so much more…

And there are some special details that are just for me, that cannot and should not be explained…details that are all just a part of the magic of my own special Teaching Coat.