Saturday, July 12, 2008


“Have half a mind”

My mother often used to say she “had half a mind” to do something, and I occasionally think about her when I look out at my scholars, who seem to regularly be present in my class with only half their minds (at best). When Mom spoke about having half a mind, she meant she hadn’t given her complete attention to whatever she was considering, and that, I’m afraid, is the situation with many of my students during English class. They’re only partially present. While we ostensibly study the prose of Henry James or the inner mechanisms of paragraphs, perhaps ¾ of each of their minds are far, far away from Room 2. A big part of why my mother frequently had only half a mind to do something is because she was continuously busy, and the same is true for my young scholars. They have countless alluring subjects to think about, from dates to friends to french fries, and unfortunately, like Mom, they often try to think about many of them simultaneously. I guess it would be called multi-tasking, but to me it seems more like multi-stressing. Thinking seriously and wholeheartedly about more than one thing at a time is like juggling – and juggling, for amateurs, usually leads to failure and frustration. Surprisingly, though, it’s not too difficult to help my scholars have more of a whole mind during English class. The secret, I’ve found, lies in forcing them to slow down. They usually live their lives at breakneck speeds -- do this, rush here, get that done, think about these fifteen things – but that’s not allowed in my class. We always work very slowly, and we take periodic breaks (sometimes every 10 minutes), during which I insist that everyone remain silent and motionless. “Let’s slow down”, I might say. “Let’s remember that there’s no hurry. Let’s focus all of our attention on one thing at a time.” I guess I could also say, “Let’s use our whole mind, not just half.” These class breaks are just small steps, but I think they help the scholars move toward a less stressful and disjointed way of living, toward lives characterized more by wholeness and single-mindedness than by fragmentation and frenzy.

No comments: