On Being a Bird of Space

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts; And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime. … For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

~Khalil Gibran

When I read these words for the first time from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran my mind exploded. It simultaneously made me question the act of reading and my ability to express literary insights through my own written words. It amazed me that Gibran could use the same methods he condemns to so poetically criticize the foundations of our educational system. This quote first came to mind while reading Seymour Papert’s “Yearners and Schoolers” from The Children’s Machine when he mentions his coining of the term ‘letteracy’.

Thought, and therefore knowledge too, is a bird of space. When it comes to educating future generations I have to agree with Papert that words written and read on a page will not be nearly enough to continue to educationally engage our children and our children’s children. Not in the immersive multi-media world we are rapidly inventing and enveloping them in. If anything it will be letteracy in the languages of computing and code- learning the words and syntax that computers can understand too-  that will surpass standard alphabetical literacy in importance. But I believe that there will also be strides taken towards Papert’s so-called “Knowledge Machine” that will make reading and writing much less relevant for learning. I have already experienced incredible advances towards educational virtual reality- where you learn Egyptian history by walking through the Great Pyramids or travel along the synapses in the human brain to learn about neuroscience. This virtual, experiential learning offers unprecedented opportunities to transcend typical word-based pedagogies and encourage the auditory, exploratory learning of toddlers for learners of all ages through their lifetimes.

But there is something else earlier in this Khalil Gibran quote that really resonates with the idea of finding your authentic teaching self: “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts: And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart…”. It is the true understanding of self through self-compassion and self-love- that must precede the discovery of your true inner teacher. We must really get to know ourselves before we can interact and educate others. Sarah Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” really gets at this idea. It wasn’t until she embraced her earnest intensity and her detail-oriented uncoolness that she became authentic and therefore effective in the eyes of her students. The more you accept yourself for who you are, the more you can be at peace with your thoughts and the direction of your heart, the more of yourself you can actually bring into the classroom and share with your pupils, the more you breathe your whole being into your teaching- the more your students will leave your classroom truly inspired, transformed, and ready to take on the world.

Even these confident, self-assured, impassioned lessons would be limiting in the mind of Gibran- he is getting at the insufficiency of any words, spoken or written, to articulately convey our thoughts. But Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills” reinforces that there are wordless ways to best project the voice that we have in communicating lessons to our students. In fact she claims only “10% of effective communication happens through what a presenter does with the words (including the actual words used)”. The other 90% is through body language and expression; through stage presence; through making the body into an instrument that can effectively convey the passion and the energy that a good teacher brings to the classroom every single day.

And so know that words are just the very beginning. I challenge you to break through their cage and let your thoughts fly through the use of other media and means of expression. I challenge you to educate and inspire on the basis of being a bird of space.

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4 thoughts on “On Being a Bird of Space

  1. Thank you for sharing the lovely poetic lines with us. They blew my mind too. In my experience people who find themselves uncomfortable in any way tend to over-talk (I do that a lot of times) but people who are comfortable and know themselves and have embraced that can stay quiet for a long time and say a sentence that is of mic drop intensity. It is all personal journey to some extent but do you think there could be a way to facilitate true authentic teaching selves in people who want to be educators??

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    1. Yes regardless of the profession I think finding your authentic professional self starts with finding your authentic personal self. This gets back to some of the mindfulness and awareness techniques we have discussed in previous weeks. In Buddhism the ultimate goal is actually seeing the sameness in your own self and the Universal Self- all other beings, objects, and ideas. This might make for some monotonous lectures when translated to teaching but would certainly facilitate the compassion necessary for quality learning.

      By the way I think Debussy was getting at the same idea of breviloquence when he said “music is the silence between the notes”.

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  2. Don’t laugh, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how we communicate with other animals lately, and am trying to become more aware of how important non-verbal communication is in a range of contexts — from the classroom, to the department meeting, to the dog walk, to the encounter with the deer in my driveway. We (humans) are so fixated on the logos, but the bird of space is at least as important.

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    1. Agreed. While you are at it you should also think about how trees and plants communicate in the forest. There is an amazing book called the “Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben that gets into many of these ideas. Conventional speech is indeed just the very beginning.

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