Ivan Jim Layugan
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, men are imprisoned in a cave, forced to watch shadows formed by a fire behind them. Since the shadows are all that they have perceived since birth, they believed that the shadows and echoes are the reality. They even assign names to these outlines. When a prisoner was freed, he realized that the shadows came from a greater reality: the forms that shaped these outlines.
Seeing the world outside for the first time, the sun burns his eyes, and he gets acquainted with nature. Excited to share this greater reality to the other prisoners still inside the cave to whom he pities, he goes back to enlighten them. Recognizing the shadows to be the only reality of life, the prisoners laughed at the free man and spurned him, dismissing the outside world as a waste of time.
Plato designates the free man to be our philosophers and the chained individuals as those who refuse to understand the greater realities. Yet in the time of Covid-19, this allegory speaks to us in volumes about the role and position of a teacher—much like a philosopher with his or her expertise and knowledge—in a historical moment where all dynamics are upended and “social distancing” sends us to our caves—our own homes.
Three interests help me in my approach to teaching: visual arts, the written word, and narration. I open my classes in this hard-muscled start, allowing each student to be a dot—liquid, no stroke, just a minute drop of ink waiting to assume shape.
Students today love to use their eyes. They are visual. They remember what they see and communicate much better in signs and symbols, codes, and ciphers. As dots, we open the semester with a sea of space around us like countries. Students today appreciate the taxonomy. Who am I? What am I doing here? What should I do? What else can I achieve? What might I become?
It is a slow and often painful process to gain a state of recognition. But this is essential, especially for students of the humanities, where context is the key that unlocks the room of understanding. Everything that must be written, done, accomplished are shaped by our contexts—where the student came from, the color of its skin, its vocabulary, the things it has been exposed to, its gender.
In a world where virtual noise shakes the physical ground underneath one’s feet, staying true to one’s context can be a huge challenge. As a teacher, I am a pirate. Every output of every student allows me a glimpse of their territory. Recitations and oral performances are like anthems, short and seedy. Artworks are their flags: the materials used evidence their resources, while their symbols mask their exposure to certain elements that shaped their individual lives.
These works are then indulged in class, for their classmates to witness. Poring over the creative process is a reflective effort that allows us to fully comprehend how one thing is achieved. This also allows an analysis on what can be strengthened and what can still be improved. Is a work defined by its output? Not solely. A work starts at conception and ends in the audience’s eyes. A rubric or tool helps define what needs or ought to be fulfilled and measured. Yet, more importantly, a student still finds a leeway to inculcate its personality, its individuality, its dot. These spaces are what surrounds the dot. What can it do alone, solely, as it is?
Giving a student enough space to fully grasp itself as a dot strengthens it as a core. This core is where bigger, more meaningful encounters stem from. When the dot is empowered, it chooses to grow. I observe how in class, these dots converge with one another when they find their footing. They latch themselves to other dots that share their own cores.
A teacher’s work is never done, especially today. When the community quarantine was announced, the teacher left the class, sat on a desk, but took the hearth online.
It is quite inaccurate to dismiss our educational situation as shifting to “online learning”. Online learning is specialized and requires time and preparation. This pandemic is an emergency, and our online programs and platforms are simply a mode of delivery. Something we have not prepared for, and honestly, not what we envisioned as the ideal response. For this situation, it seemed the most accessible.
This is not to say that teachers in universities where online and on-ground delivery were suspended are not contributing to this response. The teacher’s role knows no bounds as long as it centers on a student. It is not a relationship uprooted once they leave the class. It is something that grows beyond it.
This is not to romanticize or excuse online delivery. In fact, we come to realize that the students’ needs are not too far from teachers. There is a leveling and equity that perches on the learning process, and we can see this within their dialogues.
Today, the classroom dynamics are characterized by bonding (“You have not been online. I am messaging to ask if you are okay.”), connection (“If you ever need anything, please let me know.”), even disorientation (“Sorry, it’s my first time to use this app. Give me time to work out how this goes.”).
In Google Classroom, for example, it took me a week to find out that I can actually create one post and send it to all my six classes in Art Appreciation without opening and closing a tab to post for each section.
Another teacher also talked about the importance of simply keeping the communication open. “I used to joke with students in class, ‘If you need any—except monetary—help, let me know.’ Now, I am not sure if it’s okay to tease about that anymore. I just try to be as supportive as I can.” He sent out phone ‘load’ to a few students who could not afford mobile data.
We keep talking about how real education happens outside the four walls of a classroom, but this pandemic is bringing us to the core: what about within? I had a grad school professor who told us that the most significant job a teacher shoulders inside the classroom is to help students restore and regain their confidence.
That struck me as odd. That is something we do not prepare for in our syllabus and with our readings. Looking back though, I realized how we position our teachers on a pedestal. What they say goes. My aunt who heads the English program in their university, for instance, is not as credible as her daughter’s teacher. Her daughter would rather listen to and employ her own teacher’s technique in writing sentences.
The impulse to create art and tell a story is older than man himself.
In her groundbreaking work, The White Album, the essayist Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Very simply put but pulsating with deep wit, this statement has been widely quoted for its simple precept that readers and writers alike perceive—stories are an integral part of life, something that the arts and sciences both share.
Stories are an important facet of humanity. It is an element of communication—the message—that we, speakers, convey to our listeners. Storytelling is not only about the experience per se. it also involves reflection and processing of that experience, digesting such until it finally becomes logical.
Storytelling finds its disciplinary inheritance in the humanities and aesthetic ways of knowing. It does not only involve words, for its animated and entertaining quality allows for gestures, singing, bodily movements, and other physical and facial nonverbal expressions to enhance the storytelling. Storytellers then maintain a listener’s interest from content to form.
As old as mankind himself, storytelling predates any other form of oral history. Joseph Campbell posits that stories in the form of myths represent “a cacophonous chorus” that originated from our primal ancestors whose stories are about the animals they have slaughtered for food and the supernatural world to which these animals may have gone to upon meeting their demise. In an attempt to make sense of the world and harmonize their lives with reality, people tell stories. At a time of uncertainty like this, how important are these stories?
Stories then are representations of its storytellers. The important element in storytelling is not the peculiarities surrounding the stories alone—it’s how the same experience, environment, or entity is being rendered differently depending on who tells the story.
Storytelling is an essential part of the study of humanities. In the context of building relationships, children were said to have been the origin of “the story”. Small children learned how to verbalize their emotions, and by doing so, become the “narrated selves” of their own lives. Narratives are used to continue reshaping who and what we are as individuals, and children use it to build a stronger sense of identification (Stern 1985).
Scholars, philosophers, and researchers continue to pore over the importance of storytelling in oral cultures that have persisted over time. In various levels, stories help us as members of a community to make sense of our collective experience such as death and external conflicts. It also defines for us interrelationships, which includes our concepts of friendship, courtship, partnership and marriage, childbirth and rearing, and stewardship of nature. By developing an oral culture, tribe members are taught to preserve the wisdom of their heritage, immortalize practices and skills, understand authority and maintain respect for elders,
A teacher’s résumé may vouch for his content. His portfolio (or in some cases now, their learning management system) evidences his pedagogy. The fringes of both include what we sometimes call attitude. Or personality. The soft skills that emblazon our teachers in our experiences and memories, building or breaking us in our path to knowledge and wisdom.
This authority and view of teachers makes them all the more important outside the classroom. Confidence is not always about the firm trust in one’s self. In the time of Covid-19, it is also the reassurance that things will fall into order soon. Not back into order as I tell my students—but a new order that is worth considering and preparing for. The confidence teachers are encouraging now is more personal and direct: to be staunch and responsible for their own learnings.
Participating online, I realized just how much our students apply and assert themselves which for a teacher may be a source of pride or prejudice. Away from school and locked at home somehow posits our learners in Plato’s proverbial cave. I realized, using teachers’ classic Bloom’s taxonomy, that our students’ participation online seems to hover in the higher order thinking skills: armed by the concepts and methods they learned in class, they apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.
With my students in Semantics for example, I was surprised to read my students’ posts that analyze discourses on Covid-19 reports, the President’s speeches, and tweets. It is more than I would have culled from them if we were in the classroom, where we learn meaning-making. I concede of course that this is not an opportunity that is not available for all students across the country, but it is an element that is worth looking at.
Teachers have the crucial role of choosing, delimitating, and presenting lessons to students. Unpacking heavy materials to teach, espousing the proper method to deliver, and contextualizing the level or gravity of a topic for a class is a daily task which our teachers have grown accustomed to. In this community quarantine, each teacher’s creativity and innovation shine naturally. This is a leadership we need to repair in order to retain each student’s confidence.
But it is a project that takes a village to do.
“Flatten the curve” is a meaningful metaphor. As we stay indoors and impede contagion, teachers and students are put in an even-playing field. The situation, challenging and disorienting as it may be, provides us an opportunity to consider various modes of delivery, understanding of interaction, and teacher’s authority—a diminishing aspect in the classroom.
Last year, a graduating student left a book on my table as a present. On the flap, the student wrote, “Teachers are like candles. They burn themselves to give light to others.”
In online group forums, conferences, and discussions, teachers—not entirely policies nor paper works nor paper presentations—are credited with sharpening our students’ progress and confidence.
It is time to bring the classroom to teachers. We need to keep this fire burning.
Didion, J. The White Album. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Stern, D. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
About the Author
Ian Layugan teaches art appreciation, linguistics, and qualitative research at the University of Baguio. He is a graduate student research fellow this 2020 with the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore and is a graduate student at the Department of Language, Literature, and the Arts at the University of the Philippines, Baguio. Find him on Instagram @ijlayugan.