About Brooke Hessler

Community-engaged educator, prairie yogi

The Heart of a Teacher


Yoga is the annihilation of the walls we build around our hearts.  –Baron Baptiste (in Cox, Warrior Self)

The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require. –Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach 

Much of what I am learning this year is about the discipline, the yoga, of teaching with an open heart. When I call it a yoga I mean that it is an intensely deliberate practice, one that involves paying attention to the ways resistance and receptivity arise in any learning environment and in ourselves. This approach to open-heartedness is different than simply being enthusiastic with students–which is how I would describe what I’ve always been before. I’ve always loved them, but it was automatic and easy for me, kind of the way it’s easy for a hyper-flexible person to do a split or a forward fold. My open-heartedness was just me being myself. Even those students who may not love me or my class I will pretty much love anyway because I remember what it’s like to feel disconnected from a teacher; I empathize. Love doesn’t have to be reciprocal. Likewise, I always love teaching, even on bad days, because it is such creative and compelling work. I will forever be learning how to teach. I love that, even when I don’t love how I’m teaching in a particular moment. But again, all of this is me defaulting to my habitual self as an open-hearted teacher teaching.

Many teachers are like this. Parker Palmer knows it. I think one of the things Palmer is challenging us to address is that open-heartedness brings with it a vulnerability and, I would add, a loss of mindfulness, that can be damaging to ourselves and others even if it sometimes enables us to do our best work.

Open-hearted teaching isn’t just about approaching our students with loving-kindness, nor about owning up to the fact that we care about whether they care about our teaching. To teach with an open heart you first must know where your heart is, and what it is. The walls Baron Baptiste inspires yogis to annihilate aren’t necessarily barriers we’ve erected to protect our hearts from others; they may also be barnacles–crusty creatures that have latched on to us over the years, giving our lives an interesting form but concealing who we are underneath. Palmer describes this truer heart as our identity and integrity, a melding of intellect and emotion and self-awareness and being.

Teaching yoga has been surprisingly difficult for me because my apprenticeship requires me to practice by leading a room full of students through a series of poses. This is what a yoga class looks like, after all. And yes when teaching  I am encouraged to walk around from person to person, not to stand and lecture, but the experience still feels profoundly artificial to me because what I want to do is work with just one person at a time–to look closely at her alignment and engage in a dialogue about how she got there before articulating a sequence of actions.

What I am describing is a tutorial–says my writing teacher self. So what I am learning, or remembering, about myself is that even though I have grown comfortable teaching groups of people about subjects I know better than yoga (such as writing) my teaching identity is really more of a tutor, someone whose heart opens most fully during one-to-one moments of teaching and learning. Those are the moments when I feel most effective. As a yoga teacher, part of my challenge is that I haven’t yet learned to scale-up my teaching, to quickly assess the needs of a dozen bodies aligned in rows, and until I can do that it’s tough to manage the choreography of deftly pausing to assist an individual.

Learning to teach something new has stripped away most of the scaffolding I’ve built over 20 years as a professor of writing and left me with just myself. In the studio, all I have is 200 hours of yoga-teacher training, a serious interest in therapeutics, and the heart of a tutor.

Recognizing that dimension of my teaching heart doesn’t excuse me from showing up and teaching a whole class, but it does give me a clue about what it looks like to ask my heart “to hold more than it is able.” To strengthen my heart’s capacity to be true to itself in the studio I must practice two things at once: holding fast to my integrity as someone who values personalized instruction, while releasing the expectation that I would, in a single transaction, make a bigger difference in each student’s life as a tutor than as a teacher. If the heart of my teaching is being present, in any context, I need to remember this is something that comes from within. The number of students in the room neither magnifies nor diminishes how much presence I can bring. Remembering that is yoga too.


The Courage to Teach . . . Yoga


Last week I had a horrible teaching experience, then a wonderful one. A colleague is making a documentary film about liberal arts professors, and the film crew came to record my brilliant transformative teaching–I dressed in blue, had a smart interactive class planned as a lively debriefing about the arts-integrated field excursion my students had just completed. And as the cameras rolled various factors conspired to make the whole class period an awkward mess–and not in a good way 😉  I felt awful and embarrassed, and beat myself up afterwards but still had to walk over to the library to meet the film crew again for some additional footage, doing yoga with a former student to re-enact a funny memory from a year ago when we did spontaneous headstands in the classroom, and she reminded me why this work makes my heart sing, and that made everything nearly OK.

When I got home I opened Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, and read this:

This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life. (1)

Here’s the thing: teaching is a humbling experience no matter how good you try to be, no matter how great your students may be, no matter what Period. And I tack on greater degrees of difficulty because I’m constantly integrating new community partnerships, new projects, new methods. When Palmer wrote that introduction he was entering his third decade of teaching. He’d been teaching 20 years. I began teaching college as a graduate student in 1996. I’m at the same moment in my career as Palmer was, seeking, as he did, to clarify my identity and integrity as a teacher, and to help my colleagues do the same.

About 2 years ago I began a process of attempting to start over, with beginner’s mind, the path of learning my teaching self. I enrolled in yoga teacher training. My purpose for doing so was in some ways straightforward, in others not. My practical motivation was that I was already informally teaching yoga in some of my writing workshops–we would do moving meditations and “yoga for writers” activities, but I wasn’t formally trained and knew I ought to be. Around this time a couple of friends were diagnosed with serious illnesses and I wanted to understand how therapeutic yoga could help them prepare for and recover from surgeries and after-effects. I was also still very much interested in how digital ways of knowing intersected with embodied ones and an immersion in asana and anatomy seemed like an interesting new way to get at that. Ultimately, though, my motivation was more selfish and less intellectual. Deep down, I just wanted to get out of my head.

During weekend intensives each month I spent 20 hours in a yoga studio learning to be a teacher. But I was really learning to be a student again.

Palmer says,

When you love your work that much–and many teachers do–the only way to get out of trouble is to go deeper in. We must enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but also to serve our students well. (2)

One of the tangles of teaching is that it even though our best practices remind us to focus on the learning, on the students, teaching is still largely about us. We enter the room hoping to share knowledge that we believe matters so much that we’ve invested most of our lives into learning and sharing it, and we have selected subjects and activities that we believe are most crucial for students to engage–quite possibly because they have sparked our our own hearts and minds so brightly. We want to give students the experience of our subject they can best or only get, uniquely, through us. (Otherwise, why not just log on to a MOOC?) If you think a lot about all this (and many of us do) you can find yourself trying so hard to be a great teacher that you lose your grip on the fundamentals of being a good one. Fortunately, there is almost always another chance to do better–another class period, another semester. But this means there is also always another chance, a likelihood even, that you will flop again. Palmer’s book became a classic, I think, because his awareness of the vulnerable, personally invested “self who is teaching” is so honest and true. He challenges us to be, as Florida Scott-Maxwell put it, “fierce with reality”–to own who we are and where we’ve been and why we are still here doing this work (29).

I sit on the mat, nearing the end of my formal training [for now], grateful for that chance to begin again, from scratch, learning to be a teacher. Being a novice is frustrating. I haven’t yet memorized all the Sanskrit terminology or anatomy lessons; I stumble over ways to tell people where to put their feet; I take too long observing the students’ physical alignments before transitioning them into the next pose. But here’s what I know: this is nothing compared to what all there is to know, and yet it is really important stuff. It is fundamental. And when I return to my academic classroom, the teaching of yoga is reminding me to notice again, as if for the first time, where my students “feet” need to be in order to feel grounded enough to move from one task to the next. It is reminding me to notice where mine are as well.



It’s Friday and I’m feeling wonderfully indulgent–I have a whole day to stay home and write. My dog is beneath the dining table where I sit facing the broad window with its view of my yard filled with 8-foot sunflowers bending in the Oklahoma wind as hundreds of finches cling to the stalks, pecking at seedheads. So determined. My friend Becky calls this backyard theatre. She writes to it too, from an upstairs corner window in a Victorian house in upstate New York, at a desk draped with cats, their tails curling around her stacks of books.

I look at my stack of books. After years of this work I’m still seeking the right sort of stack, one that isn’t too tall (tempting me to allow the reading to overtake the writing) but that can remind me, in a collegial way, about the people and ideas that I’ve been wanting to bring into focus during today’s writing.

Here is my stack:

Bookstack 091115

In so many ways it’s a gathering of old friends–a few are people I know and love–our work bought us together in the first place, now we share articles and stories and dog photos and rooftop toasts at conferences. Others are scholarly familiars, people whose ideas continue to inspire me. I grabbed these books to assemble my thoughts for a set of interlinking projects: a sample chapter on the assessment of community-engaged writing pedagogy (this for the assessment-focused companion volume to A Guide to Composition Pedagogies I’m developing with my old friend and writing partner, Amy Rupiper Taggart), also a syllabus proposal for a new service-learning course I hope to teach this spring, and a keynote address for a service-learning conference this fall. In all three projects I find myself stepping back to reflect on what I have learned so far about this work and how I have come to trust that knowledge. (Ha! I started to say “believe” but even after 20 years I’m still testing these methods, student by student, community-partner by community partner.)

The sample chapter is building on that basic idea: that long-term teachers of composition have pedagogical foundations that inform our work–theories, principles, practices–as well as heartfelt aims that keep us passionate and questing to get better. In our work on the second edition to GCP Amy, Kurt, and I found that it can be surprisingly challenging to connect the dots between those deep pedagogical aims and the assessments we use in our classes. We have learned a lot, as a field, about how to respond to and assess student texts. But how can you tell whether a student has learned about, say, the power relationships inherent in literacy practices? How can you tell whether a student has become more comfortable with ambiguity or more adept at problem-solving? And if your institution claims a culture of transformative learning, how do you know a student has done some of that in your composition course? We have a few answers to those questions, but even those of us who geek out on such things as integrative learning portfolios know how tricky it can be to consistently assign, evaluate, and communicate progress–especially regarding the hard-to-assess goals that, paradoxically enough, are often the things that make us so passionate about teaching writing in the first place.

So I sit at my desk, mapping out a new syllabus, reviewing the ever-growing list of institutional, departmental, and programmatical learning objectives I’m supposed to address in my 16-week intermediate composition course, deciding how many of my own learning objectives I should add to that list–the things I believe I can uniquely give my students and want to be sure they’ve gotten. Things like the use of digital storytelling for critically reflective learning throughout the course–a habit of mind and situated practice I’ve been developing for a decade or so as a way to help community-engaged students be more intentional and resourceful in the field. “Intentionality” or mindfulness is not, officially, an institutional, departmental, or programmatical learning objective. Nor does it appear on the end-of-semester IDEA course-evaluation form. But I teach it. Because it matters.

And I turn to my stack of sources–people like Stephen Brookfield, Dee Fink, Kristie Fleckenstein, and Peter Elbow–reflecting on what they’ve taught me about the praxis and poetics of teaching and learning, challenging me to surface those things in my students’ work and in the ways I respond to it and to them.

5 Albums For An Epic Night of Paper-Grading

Just in time for Fall: my response to Rhetsy editor Collin Gifford Brooke’s call for 5ives. Here are five albums to transform an evening of paper-grading into a meta journey:

Powaqqatsi Soundtrack

1. Phillip Glass: Powaqqatsi

Miles Davis Kind of Blue

2. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Shirim Klezmer Nutcracker

3. Shirim Klezmer Orchestra: Klezmer Nutcracker

Gotan Project

4. Gotan Project: La Revancha Del Tango

The Essential Ravi Shankar

5. Ravi Shankar: The Essential Ravi Shankar

Making Material Rhetoric Matter More

I’d been studying the material rhetoric of shadowboxes for nearly decade (mostly through my work at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Center Museum) when I encountered them in a new space: the corridors of a residence for people with Alzheimer’s. My stepfather was in the early stages of the disease and my mother and I had begun to look into options for senior daycare. Outside each resident’s door was a plexiglass box containing objects from their past, “to help them find their way home,” a nurse explained. The boxes so closely resembled the shadowboxes in the OKC Memorial’s Gallery of Honor that it took my breath away. “Material eulogies” I call them in that other context, suddenly being something very different (though in some ways not) in this place where memory was a living and dying thing every day.

I knew then that this was the connection I’d been praying for, between “memory work” and memory work. For many years I searched for ways to make the work I do–community-engaged rhetoric and writing–matter more. When I began graduate school in 1995 I knew that rhetoric was the field that best suited my abilities and questions and yet I couldn’t escape the fact that I wasn’t going to cure cancer with it. Despite all the ways I know that words matter, despite all the ways teaching deeply matters, I couldn’t live with myself if I felt my research was merely interesting or descriptive or even instructive. I was fascinated by rhetorical theory. I’d eat it for breakfast if I could. But it seemed to me that too many of our lauded public intellectuals were people talking about things (smugly, wistfully, often to one another), instead of doing much to help. I didn’t want to be another one of those. So I kept my head down, kept working in the community and teaching my classes and taking notes and looking for connections between what I was doing and how I might make a contribution beyond words.

I’m not kidding myself. I’m still not curing cancer. But I’m seriously engaged in this matter of what artifacts can do for us, how they preserve our stories, and what all this can teach us about the relationship between thought and expression, material and memory. This is what I’m thinking about when I stumble across postings like this one:


Peer Review: Practicing the Craft of Trust

2013-02-17 12.09.32 pm

A few moments ago I deleted a word my colleague had typed into a document we’re co-authoring–an introduction to our forthcoming book, A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. I always pause a breath before deleting or changing a co-author’s words. Sometimes I’ll insert a comment into the document, but I’ve been working with these colleagues long enough to know my change was okay. I took a second pause this time because it occurred to me that this is the kind of collaboration I’m asking my students to do right now in their wiki projects and Google Drive activities. Yet to do it really confidently requires a level of trust that builds over time.

ART and I, for example, have been co-authoring scholarship for well over a decade. We know each other deeply as writers and thinkers. Logging on to a shared Google doc is sometimes like entering a Borgian hive mind. Our co-author/co-editor is also someone with whom we’ve collaborated for many years–as researchers, as writing program administrators, as lifelong learners yearning to make our work as meaningful as possible for more than just ourselves.

What we’re doing right now is what we teach as “peer review” in our writing classrooms. Our book is really just an elaborate extension of that process, in multiple dimensions and directions: it’s a collection of 18 chapters by 29 scholars, with 3 editors and numerous external reviewers (who range from our own graduate students to distant scholars we may never meet or know).

We enter into this complex process of reading and responding because we value the breadth and depth of expertise each person will contribute. We trust one another to care deeply about our work and we believe our work will be better as a result of these interactions, even if we sometimes disagree. As an editor I share suggestions that my authors may or may not use. I trust their judgment. As a reader I delight in their insights and appreciate their skill. As a writer–particularly as a collaborating writer–I get energized knowing that savvy colleagues are connecting with my words and thoughts, moment by moment.

The longer I do this work, the better it gets. Even when it’s really tough, it’s fascinatingly so. It teaches me so much about my own mind and self and craft–in addition to teaching me so much about the project itself.

So how do I bring all this back into the classroom tomorrow morning? How do I distill this experience into something my students can get in a few weeks of digital collaboration? How do I teach the craft of trust?

If All You Have is a Hammer . . .

OCU Campus Legends


The first day of our Liberal Arts Seminar I said Cardinal Newman’s philosophy of liberal learning boiled down to one thing: his concern that if all we have is a hammer everything will look like a nail.

To make this lesson memorably multimodal I passed around one of my own hammers from home. OK, it wasn’t really a hammer; it was a heavy rubber mallet. (Seemed less freaky for a first day of class.)

As a hardcore do-it-myselfer I get a lot of use from that mallet so I confess I had mixed feelings presenting it as a symbol of limited imagination. In truth, I have done some fairly creative problem-solving with that mallet.

Here’s the thing: if all you have is a hammer, you can potentially become extremely skilled with the hammer. You might hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, building up your 10,000 hours with…

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