Monday, August 19, 2013

Slice of Life - August 20, 2013 - What the Mayan Calendar Taught me about Communication

The Tuesday Slice of Life is hosted by Stacy and Ruth
on their blog 
Two Writing Teachers.  Here's my weekly Slice.
He had a certain ageless quality that could have been a hard-lived forty-five or a relatively healthy eighty.  He was thin, almost gaunt, wore dirty jeans several inches too big for his waist, held up with a hemp rope.  His face was wrinkled, teeth long and yellowed, lively embers for eyes, and a long, white and wispy beard.  His hair was the biggest thing about him, coiled and matted into a tangled dreadlock, balanced above his head and contained in a homemade rasta hat made of old denim.  He was a character to say the least and he initially intimidated the students, but some braver ones finally started chatting him up.
I could write pages about Merril, the name he gave us; about his expert chess playing, seeming knowledge of everything, husking and tapping coconuts for our morning drink, or go on an on about his appearance.  But his gift to me was to further my understanding of my classes as a group of with different strengths and abilities to communicate. 

He asked all of our birth dates and then converted them into the Mayan Calendar.  He then created a grid of how we were interconnected, how we communicated with one another, what our jobs were within the group and how those would all be changing as we hit our next birthdays and the calendar year turned.  He gave us a ninety-minute presentation one evening, speaking with the power of a wizened one, whom everyone thinks might just be a little crazy; but you listen because he seems to know something.  The students were polite, asked great questions and were thankfully ready for it to be over when I said it was our bedtime.  It was too much to absorb on a subject they were not quite ready to focus on.  But what I found to be very intriguing was when he sat down with me and talked about how I should communicate with each student and why.  He was generally right, just from his chart, even when he did not know the student.
I don’t remember all of what he said, or the why and the how, but what I took from it was to consider body positioning when I talk to people.  Sometimes, I speak very directly with students, our bodies facing each other.  But I have noticed that I often have better exchanges when our bodies are at ninety-degree angles, facing different directions.  Or we may communicate best when we’re facing the same direction while walking down a hall or looking at an assignment from the same angle.  I likened it to being on a date and sometimes the conversation is better sitting in the car rather than across from each other at the dinner table, or vice versa, and he saw that I “got it.”
The courtyard of the hostel and some of my students.
Merril is likely somewhere, beating someone at chess.

Now I don’t have Merril to help me figure all this out every year.  But the tool he gave to me was to be very aware of body positioning when I talk with individuals, especially students.  If face-to-face, the standard “teaching/lecturing” position, does not feel or look comfortable, I find a new angle and try again.  It’s just one of the ways I try to teach to multiple intelligences, because I may be doing the right thing, with the right words, in a way that does not communicate it well to that student.

In some ways, this feels like pure hokum, but I consider it part of the art and feel of teaching.  There is so much I do without thinking while teaching after fifteen years of experience, I need to make sure I remember some of the reasons I do what I do, as I head into a new year.  My memories of Merril, the Mayan Calendar, and how he unexpectedly impacted my teaching are with me as I welcome students to my class.


  1. I loved your description of Merril. The vision of him rose from your words. Body positioning is something to remember as we are back to school and interacting with students and staff. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Beautiful description, Max. This advice reminds me of a recent post I read that spoke of running with a daughter & how the best conversations came from that. I think it's the 'no eye contact' & I found that I had good talks with my own kids in the car driving somewhere. It's almost like it frees them to "be". Great connection to the classroom here and a good memory of this man who added something good to your lives!

  3. Your description of Merril is worthy of a writing lesson....I hope you don't mind if I use it as a mentor text when I teach that. Beautiful writing and I love the focus on communication. Seems like that is sometimes a lost art.

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    2. Leigh Anne - I would be humbled if something I wrote was used as a mentor text for a lesson. Please feel free to use it if it works for your purposes. Communication is so much about what we say, but also how we say it, body language, situation, and how well we listen and observe. All good things for me to remember as I get ready for students.

  4. What a wonderful learning experience. It is amazing to me how sometimes people who we meet for a short time have such lasting impressions on us. Great reminder that often conversation flows better without eye contact, but within close proximity.

  5. Wow! Interesting insights from Merrill. I look forward to hearing if you begin noticing a difference. I'm going to try to pay closer attention to my body language, too. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Merrill sounds remarkable - but what he was able to awaken in you was even more so. How marvbelous to begin the year with a deeper focus on the things that will make it a meaningful year of learning for your kids...and for you!

  7. Works for me! Magic, that's what we need more of don't you think. More inspiration from Merrill and less of the big test!