What is something you’ve never done before?
My last year as a creative nonfiction graduate student at the University of Iowa, I scored a teaching appointment. All new rhetoric teachers were required to enroll in a one-credit teaching seminar staffed by a faculty member and an experienced graduate student. Our teaching materials passed through this group, before they went on to our students, and it was here we found support for grading and handling classroom disturbances and even what graduate instructors might wear to teach. The seminar, known to me today only by its acronym PDP, met for three days before the semester began and then on Thursday afternoons thereafter.
My very first class met at 11:10 in a building where once I attended first grade, North Hall. As I stood in front of the circle of desks, four of them occupied by the biggest freshmen you can imagine, members of the Hawkeye football team I would shortly learn, I felt sweat start to trickle between my shoulder blades. I got through that class standing as straight and tall as I could, barely moving, trying to keep the shirt from sticking to my back. By the time all four football players came to stand around the big desk where I was gathering my papers to tell me they might have to miss class for the team once in a while, the trickle had turned to rivulets, drenching the waistband of my linen skirt, and all I wanted to do was to get as far away from those fresh faces as I could.
The semester was spent imaging new ways of making a basic reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking curriculum appealing to the newest batch of UI first-year students. In our PDP meetings we shared and stole ideas.
It was that experience that shaped one of the first tenants of my teaching—to mix it up. Even when a class is successful, whether writing or yoga, I don’t teach it the same way again. That’s not to say I don’t recycle ideas or approaches—I most certainly do. But keeping it fresh means reimagining the wheel each time I start to teach.
As an English professor I had a lot of educational jargon for what I did. If I encountered the notion of energy centers, Chakras, or even yoga poses in my twenties, they didn’t stick. But in the last ten years, I’ve welcomed learning about the sacral creative center, Svadisthana, and the language to describe energy that permeates yoga. That Svadisthana translates “one’s own place” and resides in the hips, releasing in such poses as Kapotasana (pigeon) and Trikonasana (triangle). Lucky me—today when I teach Yoga As Muse™, I get to include both poses and prose in my teaching.
I was not without creative verve, though, teaching developmental English at Suffolk County Community College. In fact, one of the finest writing assignments I ever came up with, one I repurposed happily, successfully, again and again, was born out of needing to find a twist on the expected. Writing teachers are notorious for challenging students to write from their experience, to write about something they know. It helps the students ground their writing in details and story. But the prompts for these essays are as tiresome as the essays they often produce: What did you do on your summer vacation? What person, living or dead, would you like to have dinner with and why? Write the directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And wanting something different, looking for a way to ask my students to write an essay from their experience but nothing they’d ever mined for writing before, I came up with: Do something you’ve never done before and write about it.
In class we brainstormed ideas—they could go to a restaurant they’d not been to before or spend a day not talking. They could volunteer or give someone assistance or something simpler like make a new recipe or wear their hair in a new (temporary) style. The students rose to the assignment, coming up with creative challenges including wearing two different colored shoes, watching every daytime talk show then on TV (think 1990s: Phil Donohue, Sally Jesse Raphael, Geraldo), and—my all-time favorite—unrolling an entire roll of paper towels to count them and verify if the number on the package matched the number within. It was a nontraditional student who wrote this essay—she wrote about how her whole neighborhood got involved, some arguing over the correct count, while the children ran and played the length of the roll. For the record, there were nearly twenty more in the roll than the package reported.
When my students took on this challenge, they went out, did the thing, and then wrote a couple of pages describing the experience. Their writing was fresh and detailed. Their experiences were contained—enough to write five or six hundred words with ease. In most cases, this was the assignment that let them burst out of their patterns as writers and begin to see how their ideas might develop and blossom in their writing.
I am reminded of this every time I start something new. Once, it was my very first day of teaching ever. Another once, I went to my first yoga class. There are little firsts, too—teaching for the first time in a new venue, trying a pose for the first time, meeting a new friend for coffee. It’s the big firsts that most often remind me of the “Do Something You’ve Never Done Before” assignment and I’ve got a big one on my horizon. Tomorrow I open my very own yoga studio, for an open house, and hope that people come and hope they like the home—one’s own place—that is emerging there every bit as much as I do.
Fall has always been the start of the New Year for me—so this goes out to you in honor of the fall equinox. xoR