Don’t Get Too Comfortable

We want kids to feel safe in our classes so we can make them feel uncomfortable in productive (instructional) ways. This is called "getting them outside their comfort zones." If we are comfortable with where we are, we are not growing, and thus not learning. Kids don't come to school to learn what they already know.

The root for education itself–educare–means to draw out, which suggests drawing one out from the known and familiar into the unknown and unfamiliar. What else does a great book do if not disorient us, challenge our assumptions? As Kafka wrote, "Literature must be an ax that breaks up the frozen sea within us."

Literature is not the only means by which to cause such cognitive disorientation. Questions are quick to do the job. Today in both my freshman and senior English classes, we huddled the desks into a large circle and used questions to get us thinking. It was in the freshman class in particular where the questions inspired useful discomfort. "Is it better to be comfortable or uncomfortable, satisfied or dissatisfied?" I asked in response to Adam's remark. Everyone jumped in to say "comfortable," as if mine was the dumbest question ever asked.

I asked, "What would happen if Antonio (in Bless Me, Ultima) stayed home, nestled in the loving arms of his mother and the warm soothing language of his native Spanish? What would happen down the line if you made all your decisions based on being comfortable?"

Furrowed foreheads, thinking. Hmmm. Light bulbs over heads.

We needed the rest of the period to consider the subject, one which it turned out was related to both their own lives and those of the characters, and were far from finished when the bell went off half an hour later.

At the end of the period, Jennifer dropped a binder-paper origami basket on my desk (a student desk I had sat in during the discussion). I said, "Hey, thanks, Jennifer. What's this?" She said, "Turn it over and read the bottom side."

On the bottom of the little origami basket, she wrote, "We come into your class every day and you find new ways to open our minds and fill them up with new ideas."

By the time I looked up she was gone and the week was over. I thought of Yeats' line, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire"

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One Response to “Don’t Get Too Comfortable”

  1. I love these snapshots of your classroom Jim. Lighting fires is a much better metaphor than filling pails … but I think your classroom seems to be doing something slightly different from lighting fires. It’s about productive discomfort. I’m not sure what the metaphor is – maybe more about shaking the foundations so that your students think about the house they’re in, and maybe even contemplate leaving it and venturing out a bit?

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