Lower your standards….
Shocking! But let me explain. Many years ago, I was privileged to meet and visit at length with William Stafford, a poet who in 1970 was named to a position that was later designated as Poet Laureate. We “clicked” in part because we had been born in Kansas towns only 25 miles apart, and because we were both published poets. Well, he’d out-published me by a poem or two – or a couple thousand. In fact, before his death in 1993, he had published 57 volumes of poetry and won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry.
Bill Stafford was also one of the most highly regarded teachers of creative writing in the country, and his students considered him a master of inspiration. When we visited – at the University of Tulsa, where I was a graduate assistant teaching a creative writing course, and considered a master of…well, I was teaching anyway – I had the opportunity to ply him with questions. I’ll reflect on just two that made a lasting impression.
First, “Bill, what is at the heart of great teaching?”
William Stafford: “Figure out where your student is, and help him get to the next step.”
I admit to feeling slight disappointment. But he went on to explain that teachers often expect students to make great leaps in short amounts of time – sometimes more for their own sake than the student’s. He noted that a writer, a student of any subject, can only learn according to a kind of complex internal mechanism teachers can’t control. Figuring out “where a student is” is an extraordinary mystery in and of itself – a monumental task for any teacher! Then, to inspire that student to move himself or herself on to the next step, the next awareness, the next level of understanding – that’s an equally difficult, even more herculean job.
Second, “What do you recommend to your students when they get writer’s block, Bill?”
William Stafford: “Lower your standards.”
Whoa! Lower one’s standards? I thought great writing, great learning was based on high standards, on high quality. And here was one of the country’s most preeminent writers, someone compared to Robert Frost, saying “Lower your standards”! Again, he continued by explaining: virtually every young writer – and often the experienced ones – holds such ridiculously high standards that it can block the creative process and choke inspiration. When you lower your standards, you expect less perfection, you start writing again, you get into the flow – and eventually, over time, your writing improves. Staring at a blank piece of paper can be paralyzing, even for a talented individual. Glaring at that paper and expecting to produce greatness right from the start can make one comatose.
I think we expect teachers to work miracles, and that we as teachers – and parents – often expect our children to produce miracles themselves. We want every child to think like a writer, a scientist, a mathematician, an artist, an athlete, and the like. But that in itself is not really the dilemma. The problem when we don’t respect the human mystery of children’s internal, God-given development, the unique unfolding of each child as an individual soul, mind, and talent. Ideally, each child should be inspired to go on to his or her next step so the learning is deeply authentic and lasting. So when the child’s learning is blocked for some reason, set do-your-best expectations aside and let the student ascend the learning ladder in a way that excellence comes naturally, as the result of hard work, resilience, and the application of passion.
But make no mistake: all this stuff I’m describing is not soft and mushy in the least. Hard work has to be part of learning in life. So much is said about the fun side of school that it is all too easy to forget that delayed gratification, serious dedication, and heartfelt commitment have to be part of the education equation. While lowering your expectations is a tool to overcome a blocked work process, once the block is overcome, writing, rewriting, editing, more rewriting, and proofreading have to be understood by the student as necessary before a fine piece of writing can be prepared for a reader. The same applies in all areas of learning: science, law, medicine, business, the arts, technology. Our express-lane solution to things works for a few situations, but not for children’s education.
Challenge, engagement, and exertion are integral parts of authentic learning. I’m not a believer in tedium for tedium’s sake, and in the U.S. too much “old-fashioned” pedagogy still burdens us. But not all learning will have the sparkle of a video game. William Stafford wrote over 22,000 known poems. But of those, “only” 3,000 were published. He kept a daily journal – for 50 years, as part of his writing process. That’s hard creative work. But it was necessary for his ongoing learning. Out of his industry came beauty. In praise of that beauty: accolades.
William Stafford had an immense impact on my own teaching, as well as my writing. After I shared his views with my undergraduate creative writing students, they wrote more, with a little less pressure on themselves. And their work slowly improved. (Also, two of them got married, and had a daughter, who became my goddaughter, who last year published her first novel, to much acclaim.)
Learning is complex. In my opinion, a child learning to read is the equivalent of sending a rocket to Mars. Learning is psychological, neurological, chemical, biological, social, and a boatload of other things. But learning happens all the time, everywhere, with everyone, through some means or the other. When it happens with respect for each child’s uniqueness, with appreciation of the internal mystery involved – “standards” and data aren’t the issue ultimately. Our aim should be learning fraught with astounding accomplishment, boundless achievement, and thriving in ways exciting, unknown, and positive. Aren’t those the goals we want to be at the real heart of the matter?