Kili Karuna #6

Heartfelt Greetings to All,

My thoughts are buzzing around in my head and quickly plugging the outlet as they compete to come out through my fingers. I’m listening to Con Te Partirò (Time to Say Good-Bye). It was one of the pieces of music played at my colleague’s funeral this week. It was a piece of music I first encountered at the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas. The rhythm of this piece of music on every occasions I’ve heard it reaches so deeply into me that I suspect my heart responds and beats in time with it. Since Frank’s funeral, I have listened to the song over thirty times as I’m want to do when an occasion touches me through and through. I spent much of this week leading students in the woods and each time I was there, I felt Frank’s spirit there watching over in his gentle, fatherly way.

I had a funny time before the funeral that I’m sure Frank would have enjoyed. I was wanting to have some comfort food so I put on a box of KD (Kraft dinner) to cook and then realized that I had just enough time to bake a cake for a potluck the next evening. I got out the cake mix and followed the directions while the macaroni bubbled away in the pot. As it was a marble cake, I mixed the white batter and then poured most of it into the pan. I was to leave some to mix with the chocolate that came in a small rectangular packet. I reached over and grabbed the nearest small rectangular packet, tore it open, peered inside and mentally noted, “That’s not the color I was expecting.”

I failed to pause and ask why it didn’t match and dumped it in. The light yellow powder had a small hint of orange to it. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Maybe a chemical reaction will turn it brown and more chocolate like.” I started to mix the powder in and the batter instantly turned a phenomenal shade of orange that would have made my sponsors at AppleCore Interactive proud (their corporate colors are orange and green). The penny still didn’t drop as I mixed the batter until I looked over at my boiling pot of lunch. I finally put all the pieces together and realized that the small rectangular packets were almost identical and I’d just dumped my cheese sauce for the KD into the cake batter.

“So much for all that Buddhist mindfulness practice I’ve been doing,” I chuckled. What to do? I opened the second small rectangular packet and don’t you know, it looked like just chocolate. I sprinkled it over the remaining batter and mixed it in. “So much for the marbled effect,” I whined. I then drained the macaroni and added some of the “cheesecake” batter and it started to bake instantly onto the hot macaroni. I tasted it. “Not exactly the savory comfort food I was craving, but not bad either–kinda like a bread pudding.” I told myself to pay better attention through the rest of the day. I had noticed that the previous tough month had taken its toll and I needed to be even more mindful than usual. I got away with a sweet lunch but high on a mountain, a lapse in mindfulness can have much more severe consequences.

I took my winter outdoor activities class out for their “sleep in snowballs” weekend. It’s both a culmination of their semester’s learning and a rite of passage for the program. Classes that have completed the winter campground pass on their hints and stories from when they did it. Nerves and anxieties run high through out the snow piling and digging process but smiles of achievement abound the next morning when each student crawls victoriously from their snow homes.

Near the end of the week, it was announced publicly that I had been awarded a 2008 3M Teaching Fellowship. I’d been informed about three weeks ago but wasn’t allowed to tell anyone so Maclean’s could make the public announcement. The 3M Teaching Fellowship recognizes teaching excellence and educational leadership in Canada. This year there were 52 nominees and ten were chosen. I join an illustrious group of 228 educators that have received this recognition in the past quarter century. Here is a link to a story about the award:

Given the award, how I spent my weekend, and having been out hiking with some of the members of my Kilimanjaro climbing team, I want to share a piece of writing related to my teaching philosophy. I wrote it as part of the dossier that was submitted to the selection committee and it speaks, both to how the mountains teach me, and I, in turn, teach others.

Mountains are my teachers. They exact deep lessons. When I climbed Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, I wrote these words:

Hardship. That’s life at extreme altitude. Vision. Views from high places. Stark understanding. Rising above. Seeing nothing higher. Seeing in new ways. This is what makes the hardship both bearable and worth it. Seeing and then coming down having seen. Pushing through. Giving up comfort. Working with my mind. Finding small pockets of fun and absurdity and laughter and connection. Seeing the morning light dance circles. Watching the evening sun drain from the hills. Sinking into a rich rhythm of physical exertion and mental stamina. Learning the lessons that come from days and days of outdoor living, the whispers of the stars, and the drone of the wind.

I teach my students like the mountains teach me. With vision. With struggle. Asking them to reach up and out and to reach for an unknown sky. To learn while filled with uncertainty and sometimes with joy and mirth. I ask for mindful engagement always – to climb or teach or learn without focus leads to unwelcome consequences.

Mountains are both solid and moving. They are stead, wise, and seemingly unyielding while at the same time they are changing through erosion and time. As a teacher, I seek to provide a solid presence for my students. I am reliable, accessible, and my students come to know they can depend on me both inside and outside the classroom. I also move and change. I reflect on my life experiences and bring change to who and how I am which in turn, shifts how I teach. I teach differently over time and season, continuously trying to improve my ability to facilitate student learning.

Mountains are both demanding and compassionate. The obstacles to their lofty peaks are many and danger lurks for even the most prepared mountaineer. Amid the perils, however, shelter, beauty, and meaning can be found. I am a demanding teacher. I have and communicate high expectations for my students. I want them to work hard, engage deeply, and explore new ground. This level of expectation can feel dangerous to students as I ask them to learn in ways less familiar to them. I frame courses as journeys of learning and provide opportunities and activities that encourage the development of community within the class. I strive to create an atmosphere of kindness, compassion, and understanding that provides a belay. This foundation of care and respect offers a safety line allowing students to take greater emotional and intellectual risks.

Mountains are both journey and destination. They summon us to climb their slopes, explore their canyons, and attempt their summits. The summit, despite months of preparation and toil, is never guaranteed though tastes of sweet nectar when reached. If my only goal as a teacher and mountaineer is the summit, I risk cruel failure if I do not reach the highest apex. Instead, if I accept the mountain’s invitation to journey and create meaning in each step, success is manifest in every moment. As a teacher, I seek to balance “the view” and “the footsteps.” Without the view, my students and I are lost.

Without the footsteps, we don’t move from where we began. I create a flow in my teaching that seeks the summit, the learning objectives for each course, and which honours the journey, the experiences and learning along the climb to it.

Mountains are both mirror and void. The brilliant white flanks reflect the blazing sun magnifying its power to illuminate. The dark recesses of crevasses absorb sound and light leaving a quiet potential space. As a teacher, I offer students the paradoxes of
light and dark, of reflection and absorption, of heights and depths. I offer my entire self by sharing my life process on my website. I allow students to see me as fully human, fully fallible, fully engaged. I actively facilitate reflective processing of experience in my classes. I hold up a metaphorical mirror that allows students to glimpse themselves in new or different ways. I also become a sounding board who can listen and absorb their pain, confusion, or loss.

Richard Bach in Illusions said, “I teach best what I most need to learn.” It was a sentence that stopped me cold when I first read it as a 20-year-old undergraduate and has been my constant companion throughout my teaching career. In recent years, mountains have taught me so much and so, in turn, I seek to teach like the mountain, sharing both the high summits and deep valleys with students in my classroom.

I had a rich and full rest week and I look forward to being back to full training again this week. I had a bit of a back injury from an awkward hockey fall on Tuesday but it seems to be on the road to recovery. We’ve got ten folks on the climbing team and it was a big week of purchasing airline tickets and paying trip deposits!

Take good care,


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