cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Stalkers and dreamers

I've talked about this before: there are those who learn by stalking — step by step, one day at a time, one skill at a time, little by little. And then there are dreamers: those of us who try and fail, try and fail, try and fail. Carlos Castañeda makes this distinction between stalkers and dreamers, and it has been a useful distinction for me from the moment I encountered it.

I am a dreamer. I first became aware of this learning pattern when I was about five and learning to ride on two wheels. My dad removed the training wheels from my little red bike and I would practice.

I practiced riding day after day for weeks.

And day after day, for weeks on end, I would fail.

I fell everywhere — on the sidewalk in front of our house, in the driveway, on our block at low-traffic times.

I fell on smooth pavement, on concrete, any time I encountered gravel.

I was frustrated and pretty scuffed up. But in my mind's eye at night, I could imagine riding perfectly.

When I dreamed, I could feel myself rolling smoothly and swiftly on two wheels. In my dream life, I was a person who could ride on two wheels, and I could do so successfully anywhere.

A little less so in my waking life.

I skidded, slid, or toppled over after only a few feet. I still remember how it felt to fall at different moments and on different surfaces. I have a vivid and complete felt sense memory of rolling onto a patch of gravel and sliding to the ground at the intersection of Lenox Road and Hershey. I distinctly remember the feeling of gravel biting into the skin of my knee.

I must have wanted it bad to keep on trying.

Then one day, it just happened.

I had steeled myself yet again for the failure that had become my 'normal,' and I readied myself for more cuts and bruises and wounded ego.

But I didn't fall over.

I was so excited I parked my bike and the garage and rushed inside to tell my mother what had happened. It was the most exhilarating thing I could imagine at the time.

Still, though, I assumed it was a fluke. I continued to prepare myself for further failure.

But then it happened again. And again. And again.

The story of the larva that becomes a butterfly had taken hold of my life. Even after you emerge from the transformation, it takes a while for your awareness to catch up with your changed reality. It took several days before I realized I had stepped into a new normal.

I'd been afraid to hope.

Nowadays I wonder how my students experience transformation from people who believe they can't do math into people who understand that they can. It's hard to trust transformation. As A.H. Almaas says, you've been a larva crawling around all your life, and you believe that the best you can hope for is to crawl faster and to become a bigger, fatter, happier, more successful larva. You see butterflies flying around and you classfy them as anomalies. Most of us never automatically think, gee, that's where *I'm* headed too. Most people think, "Wow those are really interesting beings. I wonder where they come from. I wonder what it would feel like to be one of those."

In math, as in learning to ride a bicycle, it never occurred to me that I could take what I know from other areas of my life to help myself become one of those magical creatures who can ride a bicycle or do math. I did not know it was my birthright to be good and successful at those things. I thought I was destined to remain an earthbound larva.

For a lot of us, it's not enough to say, if you can't do these problems fluently after this investigation, then that means you need to seek out more practice. I needed both experience or discovery and also practice. I needed opportunities for practice and maybe a choice of activities that allowed me to seek out the practice I needed while others were ready for more discovery. Maybe this takes the form of a branching of activities — a practice table and an extensions table, for example. All I know is that students need support and opportunities to self-diagnose and to seek out the experiences they need in that moment. Stalkers need space to stalk further while dreamers need space and time to practice and fall down a lot more.

There is a mystical part of this process that cannot be discounted. 

At times when I feel discouraged about my teaching practice, I have to remind myself about all of this. I feel like I am trying and failing, trying and failing, trying and failing. I have a lot of psychic gravel chewing through the skin on my psychic knees from falling down. I have to remind myself that this is my process.


  1. Indeed...and as teachers, we too need support and opportunities to self-diagnose and to seek out the experiences we need when our psychic knees are getting torn up. I wish our work days included time to unpack and reflect in the way we do in the blogosphere.

    1. I could not agree more, Kristina. In fact, I think time for actual reflection would be much more supportive for new teachers than the endless checklists that comprise most induction programs. That's why I so appreciate the #MTBoS.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Rebecka! I appreciate your stopping by and commenting.

      - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  3. <3 this, Elizabeth. Thank you for putting it into words. I would also wonder if we as math teachers can accept kids' varying levels of comfort with failure and with not understanding fully. I have been thinking a lot about that lately: what makes a student believe that they understand?