Finding the Beat

The systole is the point of most tension in the heart’s rhythm; the apex of the sinus. It is the beat we hear and feel, what we might identify as metronome to our every function. It is the pointing baton of the conductor in our electric orchestra. What can distinguish a conductor from a metronome? Both keep time with the beat, both determine tempo, and both guide the musicians. The difference is cardiac, pulse: diastolic.

The diastole is where you end up between beats, when the conductor’s arms are waving about and cueing the coming crescendo. Trace the graph of this sine wave from peak down into trough with your finger and you’ll feel a tingling between the crevices in your skin. You’ll start to find something the metronome can’t reproduce: a sound (music?) shape that is alltogether dynamic and static. The conductor’s chambers produce a charge of their own between the beats. Strings and horns follow the pointed peaks with each measure to stay on track, but it is the space between each beat where music is made.

When a teacher expects only to stay on the beat, to follow the script or the tempo suggested, the heart becomes stressed and the life quickened. A writer concerned only with words, neglecting their phrasing and negative space is apt only to draft in straight lines rather than composing in beautiful curves and dips. The true author of learning is the heart. Teaching with respect to pace over people is like putting a pendulum in place of Gustavo Dudamel’s podium; the sounds will still play, even keep time, but it will not be music.

If we’re to seek a kind of teaching which goes beyond the accountability of a tempo, we must consider our hearts at rest. Teaching that cultivates real learning is about the filling the spaces between instruction with meaning befitting to each student. A classroom like this at work is not evaluated by recording descriptions of “time on task” and “compliant and quiet.” Those are symptoms of tempo, meter, and order, but not learning. Deeper learning is described in the language of “curiously seeking” and “exploring and reflecting.” Phrases which both denote an independent sense of ownership on the part of learners.

Composing a classroom of such habits involves conducting with tempo, of course, but not speaking to its sole value. The driving force of a learning community must be the sound of conversation between teacher and student, between school and teacher. We may design procedures and protocols all we want for reading, writing, and organizing our class strucutre, but what do our students ultimately talk about when they describe class? If they talk about what page they’re on, the chapter headings, or the number of required pages they have to write, something is amiss. We need to identify the beat of our classrooms, what kids “work on” and stress over: their systolic tasks. We should do this with a mind not just to help them “rigorously” pursue the next thing, but to teach them to see how to settle into the perigee–that point farthest from what they expect “school” is about. Then, not only will they learn, they will begin to understand how they learn best.

10 thoughts on “Finding the Beat

  1. Thank you for reminding and inspiring me, Steve. We don’t choose to teach because we enjoy pacing guides. We teach because we want to watch beautiful young minds to blossom. I needed reminded of that as we have been caught up in procedures quite a bit this school year. Thanks for the nudge back in the direction I know I need to go.

  2. It’s a hard nudge to push yourself through I think. It’s been hard for me, in my new position, to find my own beat, but I need to remember that I love this challenge. It’s the same challenge that I ask my students to go through.

  3. This all came out of a GKCWP day of writing a few weeks ago. We had a beautiful place to write and a lot of supportive TCs there building an atmosphere conducive to reflection on practice and theory.

  4. Great piece of writing, Steve. I’m thinking about two conversations I had with kids lately. You’ve given my something to think about and, as I unpack my thoughts, write about. (And Steve, that is one descriptive piece of writing — beautifully put.)

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