The Ecological Heart of Teaching: Radical Tales of Refuge and Renewal for Classrooms and Communities
reviewed by Kathryn Strom - January 25, 2018
Title: The Ecological Heart of Teaching: Radical Tales of Refuge and Renewal for Classrooms and Communities
Author(s): Jackie Seidel and David W. Jardine (Eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433132354, Pages: 265, Year: 2016
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The Ecological Heart of Teaching: Radical Tales of Refuge and Renewal for Classrooms and Communities, edited by Jackie Seidel and David Jardine, is a collection of stories, essays, creative writing, poetry, and letters written mainly by practicing teachers over three years of graduate study with the editors. The courses, as described by the editors, purposefully broke with the rapid-fire pace of many educational programs of study and instead offered a reflective space to read, think, and dialogue about the work of a range of educational theorists and philosophers. These included those that might be encountered in many graduate education courses with a social justice or critical focus (e.g., bell hooks, Maxine Greene, or Elliot Eisner), but also stretched beyond to include thinkers such as complexity theorist William Doll, political sociologist Ashis Nandy, poet Don Domanski, Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, and novelist and environmental activist Wendell Berry. The ideas of these philosopher-artist-activists are woven throughout the pages of the text.
In the introduction, the editors articulate a dual purpose for the book. First, the writings are meant to be a refuge of encouragement for those unsatisfied with the current conditions and status quos of schooling. Second, the text is meant to serve as a scholarly and ancestral sourcebook for that refuge that offers guidance for a range of educators and students (p. 3). Further, there are three main lines of thinking that guide the writings: ecology, Buddhism, and hermeneutics (although perhaps the last is more of a methodological approach of interpretive storying).
From a theoretical standpoint, bringing ecology and Buddhism together provides an interesting, complex, and at times contradictory lens through which to engage with the stories and artworks presented. Although the editors only provide a brief description of their theoretical orientations, throughout the book various authors emphasize multiple ecological ideas that present a radically different ontology; one that is vital, (neo)materialist, post-anthropocentric, and interconnected. For instance, several of the stories foreground materiality and material conditions or make other-than-human species and objects the central focus of the story (which disrupts the privileging of mind over body or human over planet/non-human that tends to characterize common sense thinking patterns). Some stories focus on environmental and earth-based concerns, such as Karen Schweighardts reflection, Teaching Everything, in which she commits to make the needs of the earth (p. 52) central in her teaching, or Scott Hassetts essay focusing on efforts to nurture his farm as a microcosm of environmental care (There is Only this Farm, pp. 177179). Several chapters also decentered the notion that humans are the reference point for the universe (Braidotti, 2013). For instance, in All Beings are your ancestors, David Jardine tells the story of spending a moment in nature with a bear, seeing the bear as a relative, and reflecting on the profound co-implication of all beings (p. 30). In Tortuga, written by Deirdre Bailey, the turtle becomes the teacher, coming into relation with her and her students to provide lessons about trust, imagination, forgiveness, and life balance. Other authors centered everyday objects in their writing, as in Kristen Varners poem The Typewriter, Stephanie Bartletts School Storage Bags: Not as Innocent as They Seem, or Ian Walshs Interview with a Gym Water Fountain. Throughout these stories, a monistic philosophy is offered that emphasizes the interconnectedness, yet heterogeneity, of humans, non-humans, physical spaces and objects, material conditions, environmental elements, and incorporeal forces like discourses and memories.
Alongside this ecological perspective, which is a major disruption of business-as-usual thinking in schools and education more broadly, ideas drawn from Buddhism, such as mindfulness, breathing, peace, and refuge, are also explored. Co-editor Jackie Seidel, in Meditations on Contemplative Pedagogy as Sanctuary, takes up the idea of school as sacred space, sanctuary, or temple, arguing that these ideas disrupt linear discourses of schooling that promote and produce competition, individualism, anxiety, and rushing. Within this sanctuary, one can reconnect to a time that is non-linear; one of love, of healing, of peace. Although Seidel acknowledges that to enter the sanctuary is not an escape away from the so-called real world (p. 69), the notion of the school as something separate, whether an idea or a reality, both conflicts with a philosophy of immanence (that none of us are separate from anything else) and fails to locate the educator within systems of schooling that perpetuate massive inequalities and reinforce White supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalized ways of thinking. We are never outside the system and can only forge new realities when we are accountable for our own relationship to it (Haraway, 1988; Braidotti, 2013). Notably, while several of the teacher-authored stories, essays, and poems reference breathing and mindfulness, they do not engage as deeply with these subjects or with the notion of refuge as they seem to with ideas related to ecological thinking, which may hint at a difficulty reconciling zen concepts and practices with the authors classroom experiences. Perhaps the poem by Jodi Latremouille, Hypocrite (p. 153), might shed some light on the tension that may have arisen between the participating teachers lived experiences in schools and the notions of sanctuary, refuge, and mindfulness:
I know what you need, dear...
You need to be fully present with your students, expand your sense of time.
(Who is that kid knocking at my door?
Dont they know Im busy writing deadlines?)
Despite this potential disconnect, the stories presented espouse an affirmative, productive stance which is very much in line with recent critical posthuman work that also advocates for similar ecological perspectives (e.g., Braidotti, 2013). Authors participate in the naming of and resistance to multiple harmful status quos while deliberately producing counter-narratives that disrupt common sense notions of schooling. For instance, multiple works in the book address the existence of dominant narratives and stories, cautioning new teachers, as Kristen Varner does, to be open to multiple interpretations and perspectives and to avoid seeking a single truth. Authors also articulate questions about the basic purposes of schooling, as in Karli Molnars Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, where she queries about one of her students with this illness: Why is it necessary that a young, terminally ill boy be required to go to school to learn how to become an efficient member of society? (p. 91). In a similar vein, Scott Hassett tackles his brothers experience of marginalization as a student with special needs, offering the following counter-narrative: what matters, is not how school failed him, but how they failed to realize the opportunity of his presence (p. 62).
To begin to do things differently in schools, we must learn to think differently, to work with ideas that emphasize heterogeneity, connectivity, vitality, and collectivity (Strom & Martin, 2017) while engaging directly with the material conditions of schooling and the world. Further, we must make these ideas accessible to a range of audiences. The Ecological Heart of Teaching: Radical Tales of Refuge and Renewal for Classrooms and Communities does both, offering generative and complex lenses for becoming-otherwise within our current school realities through vibrant, rich stories, essays, and poetry that will be of interest to a broad spectrum of educators and researchers.
Strom, K. & Martin, A. (2017). Thinking with theory in an era of Trump. Issues in Teacher Education, 26(3), 322.
Braidotti, R. (2013). The posthuman. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), 575599.