At the heart of the human condition is the struggle to know one’s self. There is beauty in this endless endeavor. It is full of fluid edges, moments of joy, glimpses of certainty, and innumerable defeats. It is magnificent and messy and continuous. But it’s worth the effort because knowing one’s self, even only partially or momentarily, is the most valuable understanding one can ever gather and the only way one can ever endeavor to understand and teach another.
The struggle to know one’s self is central to human nature; the groundwork of teaching lies in understanding that same human nature. The teacher strives to measure the hills and valleys that have shaped the lives and learning of her students. In doing so, the teacher learns more about her unique self. Teacher and students travel together, walking each other home to self-understanding.
This writing stories particular experiences of teaching and learning in particular places – both inside and outside of school – where I have gathered glimpses of the being I am becoming. It is rooted in the understanding that my being is shaped by the interweaving of places, experiences, and stories. I, in turn, shape places, experiences, stories, and other beings. My internal landscape mingles with the external landscape.
Therefore, knowing who I am and where I am is requisite for good teaching.
Through this writing, I endeavor to know myself – deeper, clearer, and better.
Along the way, I’ll work through many ideas, but I will remain committed to understanding what it means to be me – here and now – in communion with a living world. As I write towards (momentary) understanding, I’ll consider how I live the truths of the being I am becoming in my daily learning and teaching.
This is a story of a being becoming. A being, like you, who is never static; rather, a being who is continuously living, growing, shifting – becoming. Walk with me on this messy, yet beautiful journey of self-discovery – a journey home.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I begin each semester with a return to Robert Frost’s “The Pasture” – a poem, a place. The introductory poem of North of Boston, “The Pasture” frames the compilation and positions readers in familiar Frost territory – New England farmland. These lines, spoken in the unhurried and uncomplicated language of the farmer-poet, set forth the course of the collection and underscore the interweaving of human life and the natural world.
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring; I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away (And wait to watch the water clear, I may): I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young, It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too.
I first read “The Pasture” in January of 2004; it was required reading for an Introduction to World Literature course I took with Bill Conlogue during my freshman year in college. Since then I’ve gone back to these words so often that the spine of the Dover edition I first held over a decade ago has worn in such a way that the text naturally opens to a particular place – page 27, “The Pasture.”
Most recently, I visited this place with students in my Literature and the Natural
World course. During the first week of the semester, “The Pasture” is the first literary text we read. In beginning here, I follow both Frost and Conlogue; I use the poem to offer direction, to underscore human and nature interconnections, and to invite students to work alongside me throughout the semester.
Together we read the poem and consider how the parts come together to make the whole. We begin at the surface. The first three lines in each stanza are written in iambic pentameter; the final lines are in iambic tetrameter. The stanzas follow an abbc deec rhyme scheme. The language is ordinary and the tone is informal; there are seven contractions in eight lines. A pasture is a grassy area suitable for animal grazing. It’s spring. The “I,” a farmer, speaks to “you,” a farmhand or child or friend. We, readers, overhear one side of the conversation. In the first stanza, the farmer informs his listener that he is going to rake away the dead leaves that have jammed the spring. In the second stanza, the farmer tells his listener that he’s going to collect a newborn calf to bring it into the herd. At the conclusion of both stanzas, the farmer invites his listener to join him in the work, assuring that it won’t take too long.
We move along the surface fairly smoothly; we generally agree that it’s a nice poem. But then I remind students that there’s more to the poem than what we see upon first glance. Digging in, we discover richer meaning. The “I,” the poet, speaks to “you,” the reader. In the first stanza, the poet informs the reader that here, and in what follows, he’s going to rake away the leaves – the pages, the writing – that have choked the water of inspiration, purity, and life. Removing the dead leaves allows the water to flow clear once more. That life-giving water will continue to sustain the pasture, the cows that feed there, and the poet who it replenishes – both literally and metaphorically. In the second stanza, the poet informs the reader that he’s going to gather the vulnerable calf, a symbol of new life. Much like the poet takes care of the pasture by cleaning the spring, “the mother” – the definite article makes this an archetypal mother – takes care of the calf by cleaning it; “she licks it with her tongue.” These images of cleansing suggest (re)birth, a theme introduced in the layered meaning of the word “spring” – a place where water emerges from the ground; the first season; the source, beginning, or origin. Both the poet and the mother give, protect, and preserve life. After each stanza, the poet invites the reader to join him in this work. The poem, of course, is nothing without the reader; the reader gives life to the poem. “The Pasture” is reborn each time a reader picks it up, engages with it, and understands what it has to say. So the poet invites the reader to journey with him, but makes it clear that there will be work – reading, interpreting, imaging, and creating – to do along the way.
Having cultivated a deeper understanding of the poem, we turn back to the title – “The Pasture.” A pasture is an enclosed tract of land, a bounded place. It is tended to land, managed by seeding, mowing, and fertilizing. Domesticated livestock – cattle and sheep, for example – graze there. Carved out of the wild terrain that surrounds it, the pasture borders need continual care. This is a perpetually made place. The pasture is a lot like a poem, another bounded and madeplace. Both are creations; both require work; both sustain life. “The Pasture” is the convergence of the past and the future – past[+fut] ure; dead leaves and newborn calves. Written in the present tense, the poem brings together the past and the future in one place. There is work to be done here and now.
In “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost (1972) explains that a poem
begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification…but in a momentary stay against confusion. (p.
440, emphasis mine)
I’m called back to “The Pasture” so often because it offers me a momentary stay against confusion. Literally, the pasture, a human-made place, pauses the chaos of the wild that surrounds it; it offers clarity. Metaphorically, “The Pasture,” a human-made poem, temporarily halts the disorientation and uncertainty that so often consume me. It reorients me and reminds me that we work; we come to know; we make meaning. The farmer clears; the cow cleans. I write.
Although I am not a poet and this is not a poem, I hope to follow the figure Frost outlines. I aim for writing that illuminates and clears, writing that concludes in a momentary stay against confusion. Along the way, I’ll work through many ideas, but the question at the heart of my inquiry will remain constant: What does it mean to be me, a human – here and now – in communion with a living world? As I write towards (momentary) understanding, I also consider the following complimentary questions: Who am I? How have I become – and how am I becoming – this being? How do I live these truths in my daily learning and teaching?
In his Nobel acceptance speech, William Faulkner (1950) said that the only thing
“worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat” is writing that emerges from “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” What follows is an exploration of the tangled questions that lie deep within my human heart. It is the knotting of places, stories, experiences, self, teaching, and learning. It weaves together threads of aggression and grace; separation and wholeness; hostility and hospitality; disruption and revelation; fear and truth. It is full of hope, courage, compassion, and love.
Connecting the writer’s life to the life of the sphinx moth, Gary Paul Nabhan (2004) describes the moth’s appearance “out of the darkness”; it hovers “suddenly about a freshly opened blossom, coming under the spell of its pungent perfumes” (p. 3). It “lingers before the illuminated flower for a moment, then dips into the ephemeral world hidden within the floral tube, where it draws energy from the flower’s nectars” (p. 3).
After another moment, “the moth is nowhere to be seen. It is loading up with pollen, which it will transport from flower to flower, enabling something potentially far more lasting to occur – cross-fertilization and regeneration” (p. 3). The moth darts “off through the darkness, seeking another floral encounter that might nourish its own life and open new possibilities for others as well” (p. 4).
In the text’s opening scene, Nabhan (2004) introduces the title and substance of his book, cross-pollinations. He points out that cross-pollination is much more than a metaphor; it is “a requisite for sustaining the diversity of life on earth” (p. 12). The sphinx moth’s “evolutionary dance with the flowering plants” is an example of crosspollination (p. 4). But it’s not just plants and insects that benefit from this intermingling; humans do, too. If we toil in isolation our “endeavors will atrophy, wither, or fall short of [our] aspirations” (p. 13). We need guidance and inspiration from other beings and other places to survive and thrive.
Nothing is separate here; everything is interconnected. Where I live and where I work; what I read and what I write; where I teach and where I learn. Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I’m perpetually trying to grasp what it means to be me here, now. In an attempt to nourish my “own life and open new possibilities for others as well,” this writing freely wanders through different places, times, disciplines, and genres (Nabhan, 2004, p. 4). It gathers lived experiences, stories, meditations, and theoretical thinking. Sorting through these things, placing them near each other, and layering them over one another embraces multiple ways of knowing while simultaneously reminding us that there is much we don’t know. The chapters that follow could be read in isolation, but they’re better understood in context, collaboration, and together. There is repetition throughout, because seeing through multiple angles at various points in time allows us to understand what we’re seeing more fully. An example of cross-pollination, this writing endeavors to offer a momentary stay against confusion – by momentarily staying amidst the confusion.
The place where these diverse ways of knowing converge resembles what ecologists call an ecotone, “a transitional area of vegetation between two different plant communities… It has some of the characteristics of each bordering biological community and often contains certain species not found in the overlapping communities” (Ecotone). The border along the pasture and the woods is an ecotone; this writing, which so often runs the edges of multiple ways of thinking, is too. We’re in a fertile place where new ideas, new understandings, and new life germinate.
The ecotone is a borderland, and borders are potentially dangerous, potentially wondrous places. John Elder (1998) warns that “[a] n individual venturing over the line in the quest for life more abundant may well end up as a meal for some pioneer venturing in from the other direction” (p. 4). But if we’re careful, if we pay attention, and if we go together there are abundant opportunities to be found along the rugged edges; there are new ways of understanding where we are and who we are.
This writing journeys many places, but it sets off from and ultimately returns to my native soil – the place of my “beginning, becoming, and homecoming” (Conlogue, 2013, p. 1). It picks up conversations already begun, carries them a bit further, and hands them off to whomever wanders this way next. My individual voice joins a collection of voices – poets and theorists, family and friends, teachers and students, foxes and hawks – that challenge, inform, enhance, and illuminate my own thinking; I hope to reciprocate this generosity as I meander, clear, and discover.
“My Mother Place” is a meditation on the simultaneous, ongoing, and overlapping creation of both home and self. Throughout this writing, I trace my (continuously deepening) connection to the land I call home and reflect on how that place shapes me and how I, in turn, shape it. My awareness of this place began on the surface – in childhood explorations. Eventually college beckoned me elsewhere, but I made my way back as a caregiver – for my mom and for this place; in this new position, I gathered a deeper comprehension of this place. Most recently, my work here – clearing paths, planting gardens, and writing stories – has offered me a more intimate understanding of my place. Along the way, I’ve witnessed the maternal care present here. In the diligence of the mothers who surround me, I’m reminded of the courage and love of my own mom; her generosity mirrors the abundant offerings of the shared place we all call home – (mother) earth.
“Story, Place, and Experience” shapes the earthen story methodology that holds together this entire text. In this essay, I draw on theoretical thinking, canonical literature, and my own lived experiences to construct my conceptions of story, place, and experience. In addition, I consider how these ideas naturally braid together; we come to richer understanding when we consider them in relation to one other. The conversation deepens when I dwell in the (ongoing construction) of self and suggest that our beings are very much fashioned by the stories we hear and tell, the places we’ve been and are, and the experiences we’ve had. This writing concludes by explicitly introducing the aims, means, and assumptions that guide this text.
“There’s a Bug in Here” is a phenomenological inquiry that explores the precariousness of my studenting in the classroom. I begin by overviewing the concept of identity negotiations and underscoring the implicit and explicit expectations of acceptable student identity. To explore my understanding of my own studenting experiences and to offer alternatives to the standardized student identity, I develop a stream of consciousness narrative (a text-within-the-text) that draws on my own lived experience, (deliberately) disrupts (stifling) academic discourse, and opens a conversation about the importance of cultivating cohesive classrooms.
“How We Go On” is my philosophy of education. This writing critically
examines the models we replicate and the stories we tell. This discussion is rooted in my analysis of Gary Snyder’s “For the Children.” As I explicate the poem, I simultaneously develop my understanding of where we are, where we might go, and how we can get there. I consider where we are by examining larger cultural stories and thinking about how our commitment to efficiency and pursuit of progress produce damaging narratives that are reproduced in school. I introduce the homecoming curriculum as a counter to the standardized curriculum-as-plan and as a way to nurture healthier, more connected places, beings, and stories.
“Where I Teach” grows from a homecoming question: What has happened here? I develop the parallel histories of Penn State Wilkes-Barre and the Conyngham family, the original owners of the property where the campus now sits. Both were committed to education and local community advancement. However, both contributed to the extraction (of coal, money, ideas, people, hopes, etc.) that, ultimately, undermined northeast Pennsylvania. I shift the attention to our present place and tie our campus theme of movement back to the disruptive movement narratives that have made this an endangered place. All the while, I weave in observations from my classroom and the students that inhabit it. I conclude by suggesting a more meaningful, placed language that reorients us and encourages us to think about who we are, where we are, and the work we do – here and now.
“Writing Here” outlines my place-based freshman composition course. I begin by explaining how I lost my place in my teaching. I taught generic, standardized, packaged material; as a result, my students produced generic, standardized, and packaged reading, writing, and thinking. After much reflection and analysis, I recalibrated my curriculum and pointed the conversation back home. I analyze literature that underscores the interweaving of place and writing and I highlight the importance of placing the curriculum, especially in such a significant course – one that every student will take, most often, in their first semester. The second-half of the essay overviews my Writing Here curriculum. I conclude by dwelling in the possibility of this course as an enabling ground that brings students to new awareness of who they are and where they are.
“Teaching Tayo” is a return to my literary roots and a reading of Leslie Marmon
Silko’s Ceremony. As I unpack this story, I pay particular attention to what the text says (explicitly and implicitly) about the responsibilities of teachers who compose the narratives in classrooms. Tayo encounters many teachers along his journey; three, in particular, offer different, sometimes conflicting perspectives. One teaches the old-time traditional ways; one believes the new, white ways taught in school; one negotiates both horizons. Ultimately, Tayo learns how to dwell within the tensionality of the binaries that surround him. In this dialectic middle-ground, Tayo – like good teachers – gathers from both sides and shapes a new, alternative, all-encompassing narrative of vitality, health, and interconnections.
“Bringing English Education Back to Earth” builds an argument for placing teacher education, particularly English education. In this writing, I note my concern about the sparsity of place in curriculum literature. I suggest that to develop and grow, curriculum theory cannot remain in the abstract and standardized; it must be rooted in the uniqueness and fluidity of place. I offer the integrated curriculum as a pattern we might use as we craft place-conscious curriculum. This writing reminds us that teachers teach from their experiences; therefore, teacher education programs must provide opportunities for place-conscious teaching and learning. This should not be difficult to do, especially in English education courses which already focus on relationships and representations.
To demonstrate one possible way to place English education, I detail my Earthen English
“What I Know and What I Hope (for You)” grows from the idea that what we know shapes who we are. I linger in this thinking and wonder about what I know. In doing so, I realize that much of what I know is place-specific. From there, I turn my attention to my nephews. Speaking directly to them, I develop my hopes for them. Each of these hopes is rooted in the earth. I hope they grow to be conscious of their places and I hope they feel the threads that gather us (past, present, and future, human and morethan-human) together. I conclude acknowledging that for them to live these hopes, there is work to do – here and now.
“Homecoming” returns to where we began, my homeplace – Ann Lane. In this
writing I dwell in the idea that we are all walking each other home.
Fourteen years ago, Robert Frost offered me an invitation. Today, I extend the same invitation to you. Come with me on this crossing through stories, places, and experiences. There is work to do; I long for your companionship and your help along the way. We’ll clear the water, tend the pasture, care for the calves, and stay together. Here, along the borders, in the stories, and with(in) each other, we’ll find a momentary stay against confusion.
 Teaching is folk art. We borrow bits and pieces from those who came before us and stitch them into our own teaching. I’ve learned from some master teachers; they’ve handed down stories, techniques, and patterns that I continue to weave into my own classroom. My reading of “The Pasture” is one such example. In 2004, Bill Conlogue shared it with me; it continues to guide both my teaching and my living.