A Brief Minute On Learning

D GROSE in Amsterdam

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There is a lot to cover in such a short amount of time. It’s not easy to cram everything into one minute, but that was the given task by the people at TedTalks. Many of these topics are mere snippets to be expanded upon in subsequent presentations. This is just a teaser.  The future of Education is such a wide open topic, but you have to start somewhere. Putting thoughts out there, getting feedback from others inside and outside the field, developing dialogues to hash out the existing problems, coming up with solutions. That’s what it’s all about.

 

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I AM NOT A PEDAGOGUE!

mean teacher

Pedagogue (n.): from Greek origin; referring to a slave chosen to walk the master’s child to school.

I am a teacher. I am not a pedagogue. I am not pedantic. I am no slave. I don’t walk children to school. I am the school. I am not standardized. I am extraordinary. I am not limited to the past nor the present. I shape the future, planting questions of hope and curiosity that grow and take root and begin to fill the vast horizon, to stand strong and flourish and not be broken by the winds that come and go.

I transcend color, but I am not colorblind. My palette is varietal and mixed and ready to be applied.

For me, standards are the pedestrian level of competence that equalize, minimize, measure the immeasurable worth of a human soul. Does anyone strive to be average? To be standard? Does a nine-year-old say, “I want to be normal, just like all the rest”? Does a twelve-year-old say, “That standardized test really changed my life”? Only when they’ve been lulled into submission or trained like fleas not to jump any higher. It might take years, but Education manages to anesthetize the best and the brightest. A transformation that typically alters the smiling faces of elementary schoolchildren to the bored, broken scowls of teens slumped over desks in high school. No more ears and eyes wide open to playful realities. No more songs and screams during recess. No more pure joy. Now hoodies cover heads of dead imagination and ears are plugged to drown out the boredom of days turned into years of compulsory Average Daily Attendance.

My standards rise above the norm and aim for the impossible because, according to Nelson Mandela, many things are impossible – until they are done.

I don’t train students to do what’s right. I challenge students to explore what’s universally true, what’s sublimely gorgeous, what’s utterly false. I invite them on a journey where the destination begins when you step off the path. We learn what’s human in an inhuman world, cultivating laughter and tears like the Greeks through catharsis and tales of bad decisions that lead to all kinds of painful growing: how not to be static in our presently evolving History, how to be amazed by Science and Athletics and Politics and Mathematics; how to listen to the voices of struggle that sometimes shout, oftentimes whisper through the scattered community of the dispossessed.

I come from the great tradition of all teachers come before me. This is my standard and my constant jab of shortcomings and flaws. I travel the path forged by Buddha and Jesus, Socrates and Mrs. Waddell – my kindergarten teacher who called me Donald and taught me how to square dance, finger paint, read Dr. Seuss, and learn what to do when others were mean. I am the combination of all of that and all these people, and all of the authors I’ve ever read, and all of the mistakes I’ve ever made, the embarrassments and the failures, the good days and gold stars, the bad haircut days, and the days when I crossed the stage and donned my tassel and cap. I am the blood of those who lived before me. I am the voice of those who are dead and silent and those who have been put away and silenced. May my voice someday inspire others to carry on the song, to rise above the common din in harmony and supreme self-confidence.

No, I am not a pedagogue. I don’t walk the master’s child to school. The master’s child can walk him or herself to me. My doors are wide open, as are my arms. But when you enter, please be ready. I raised my standards a long time ago and my expectations are clear: learning is all-consuming. It is forever. The entrance comes intuitively, the exit comes when the chrysalis releases you.

A Very Basic Question

Hey Kid, Why Do We Read and Write?

By Donald Grose

As an English teacher I’ve had to wrestle with this not-so-rhetorical question for years. I’ve tried my best to answer it directly and indirectly – many times stammering and searching for the right words and the right time to say them. So, for what it’s worth, I’ve boiled my various responses down to a couple of pages which, judging from the subject at hand, will go virtually unread except by those who agree with me and champion the cause. But on the very tenuous hope of possible conversion or curiosity by some accidental audience, here goes nothing.

kid thinking

Why do we read and write? The simple answer is because we can. By “we” I mean humans in general. It can be argued that some species of animals can read simple words or phrases; we can teach dogs and dolphins and monkeys to obey simple commands – but it’s a unique human quality, one that we have been developing for thousands of years, to be able to write down and communicate our deepest thoughts and ideas through reading and writing. Sometimes, when I’m at my most pessimistic nadir as a high school English teacher, I fear that if we lose our learned ability to read and write that we will lose an essential part of what it means to be truly human. I know that this may sound somewhat alarmist, and connects to other previous generations’ “Chicken Little” moments of sheer speculative panic, but I do think that if we downplay the trending crisis for too long, we will start to regress incrementally, maybe imperceptibly, but no doubt regress – like the sliding stones of Death Valley that no one sees moving until a definite trail has been formed. Is our distinct trail the one that moves from beings who once mused about the celestial heavens and our place in them, to a population of Kardashian-watching somnambulists locked into a separatist reality of electronic gadgetry? Are we already brain-dead but just don’t know it? Are we devolving our evolutionary progress as critical thinkers, compassionate beings, unique creatures that can communicate in deeply personal and long-lasting ways? Have we reduced our brain power and critical thinking skills into the size of a tweet?

Seriously. Every time I give my students something to think about that they can’t answer right away or with the assistance of Google, most of them give up without a fight. Thinking, it seems, especially thinking that requires problem solving, looks painfully awkward on a teenager’s face. It starts with a slight distortion of the facial features, then it turns into a twisted, pained expression that – just before it gets grotesquely Jim Carrey-ish – it relaxes into the phrase “I don’t know.” That’s when all the prospects of critical thinking, thankfully for them, ceases. They just want the answer, and if you refuse to give it to them, then the hell with you – they’ve got better things to do. The earbuds go in, and the brain can once again return to its normal state of relaxed confusion in a world of distracting noise and multitasking vapidness.

Asking a kid to read and write – let alone just to take those ridiculous things out of his ears and turn off the ipod – is akin to asking him to step into a foreign world of irrelevant, archaic boredom. What, no pop-up ads? What’s up with that? Why no streaming data? You’re not real if you don’t have a logo somewhere emblazoned on your body. Talking to a teenage human head nowadays means trying to keep pace with  music, ringtones, updates, and all kinds of other electronic detritus going on all at once. It’s completely bizarre to me, but completely normal to this generation.

“I’m listening to you,” he says, as he’s following the words coming out of my mouth as just another steady stream of electronic flow – hearing, but not thinking about nor digesting any of it. I’m now talking to a cyborg. I’m witnessing the slow transformation each year of humans becoming more electronic, less sentient.

This is the generation, with a collective identity yet to be coined, that knows everything (a la Google) but understands very little. More than understanding the devices they’re attached to, they seem born into them, hardwired to their idiosyncrasies. It’s the same as hearing but not really listening, the same as saying it but not really knowing it. It’s “parrot speak” with everyone claiming individuality in a synchronized chorus line.  Yes, there’s always that rare bird that flies into the classroom whose parents banned tv at his or her birth and raised the child to hold court with adults in political conversations from a very young age. But they’re ostracized now more than ever. You don’t need geeks any more to explain it all away – just hit enough buttons or touch screens and you’ll find what you’re after.

Reading and writing? What’s that? Who’s got time to actually sit down and read a book? With pages? Really? Who has those anymore? Aren’t there apps for that shit?…

Reduced once again. To archaic irrelevance. Mere triviality. Or worse, nowadays kids acknowledge that they should read, but sadly – and for a myriad of reasons – they just can’t.

Okay, but enough generation bashing. We’ve had our fun – we, the elders. But seriously, reading and writing are not just fundamental subjects that we have to learn in school, they are the basis of all subjects, and of our ability to think and organize our thoughts clearly. We can’t develop an understanding of Science without reading or writing, for example, nor History, nor any other subject. Math and logic courses may seem separate from reading and writing, but even Einstein wrote and read Poetry and kept meticulous journals of his thoughts. In fact, Einstein’s words seem more universally widespread than even his mathematical theories (at least for poster makers and designers). His quotes on peace, creativity, and the human imagination and spirit seem to be everywhere.

Perhaps the greatest quality inherent in the ability to read and write is to hone our capacity to critically think about our world, and our place in it. In an age of increasing distractions, reading helps us focus our attention on a single stream of organized ideas – whether they come from a novel or from informational text, it’s important to “go deep” towards understanding an author’s viewpoint. By doing that, we further enhance our own ability to think deeply and critically, and to focus our own thoughts, our own innate ability to process and digest information and symbolic logic. Every good reader knows that when we connect with an author, it’s like connecting with ourselves. We find overlapping thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. We find connections on multiple levels. And communicating that way is very different from communicating through informal, conversational, everyday language. And it is very different from a “tweet” or some abbreviated text message.

When someone takes the time to think about, organize, and write down his or her thoughts and ideas, and someone else takes the time to read them, there is a special bond that is made. Usually there is also an exchange made, one of gratitude. I know that every time I read a great book, I am thankful that the author took the time, had the skill, and took advantage of the opportunity to write that book so that I could read it and discover it for myself. Whether it was written this year or a thousand years ago, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Human beings haven’t changed all that much – unless and until we fail to recognize how much we have in common with our ancestors. That failure will ultimately come when people stop reading all historical and contemporary texts and forging the connections between them. Reading is the only thing that will keep it alive, the only thing that will promote critical thinking and guarantee its survival, as Ray Bradbury suggests in Fahrenheit 451. His prophetic vision of establishing a secret society to ensure the survival of books has been a cautionary tale since its publication. But we seem a whole lot closer to the edge than we were in 1953. Bradbury’s career and popularity spanned a time when the world read his books, and didn’t just wait for the film adaptation to be released. Now, even though more books are published than ever before, we do not have the same kind of literary culture that we used to. I know this firsthand from being an English Teacher for the past quarter century. The books I once assigned when I began teaching are hardly read any more, and when they are they’re less understood, regarded as less relevant (simply because of the format), lessons have to be dumbed down, and the depth of conversation about them in the classroom is less robust and critical. Without the additional app or bigger connection to electronic media, a great book from a previous generation looks anemic and detached from a newer, sexier storytelling format. What’s really at stake, of course, is an individual’s ability to take reading at face value and see it for what it really is – an opportunity to think, relate, and connect with the words themselves – words so powerful that they’ve managed to stand the test of time. But for how long? Words, in and of themselves, don’t need all of this dressing up and glitz. But that kind of barebones appreciation only comes from reading, and of incorporating time in one’s life to master this dying art form.

The Possible Solution: Walking Through the Gateway

Even though I’m an English teacher, many of the things I see every day in the classroom still amaze me. Even the seemingly mundane and fundamental exercises issue an undying fascination. I’m quite serious. I have no idea what really goes on in the human brain that enables someone to read, or to spell, or to compose lengthy compositions, or beautiful poems. Likewise, I have no definite answers why some can and some can’t. To me it’s nothing short of a miracle when a person begins to unlock the door and starts transferring symbols from the page into language, starts forming the various words, and ultimately enters into a story or any other kind of text. No matter if they’re five years old or an adult, it’s a mysterious process. Watching my ELL students (English Language Learners), who come from other parts of the world, trying to learn English is always extraordinary. Yes, they can now use Google Translate, Rosetta Stone, and all kinds of apps to aid them, but the process still has a threshold of understanding to cross over and it takes the same kind of processing skills that it always has. It also takes time, practice, and plenty of mistakes. It requires tapping into some part of the brain that is still unknown and often defies logic. For instance, I’ve met brilliant people who are extraordinarily well-read and conversant on all kinds of esoteric subjects who will misspell the even the simplest words. I’ve seen children, including one of my own daughters, become readers virtually overnight. And I’ve had students whom I’ve accused of plagiarizing because their dormant proclivities would all of sudden come to life in an essay so profound that you’d swear it had to have been written by a professional. And there are countless other examples of how language acquisition remains mysterious and miraculous.

In the earlier part of this essay I was extremely critical of how the current generation has multi-tasked themselves into ignorance – or at least dumbed themselves down – through the overuse of electronic media, and how they’ve become non-readers in the process. If I were to compare my essay with others written in various other time periods I’m sure I’d find little difference in attitude. The older curmudgeons (the grizzled vets of the English Dept. like myself) would be taking pot shots at their students in much the same way, bemoaning the fact that they’re getting lazier and more jaded with the advent of the latest technology, whether it’s ipods or television and radio.

If that’s so – if the problem has been around for countless generations – then it stands to reason that the solution is equally prevalent. And that is also what I believe. During my lifetime, which now spans half a century, and my teaching career, which is more than a quarter century, I have yet to see a person absolutely refuse to learn. I’ve certainly heard the accusations made, but I haven’t seen it proven true. No human being that I know has ever denied themselves of wanting to learn something – even when they’ve “failed” all classes, dropped out of school, and been deemed illiterate and incorrigible. At some level, at some time, given the right circumstances and tools, that person will want to learn. Again, I’ve never seen it otherwise. I’ve personally dealt with hundreds of this type of student over the years – in fact, I’ve made it my career choice many times over to seek them out. The most challenging aspect of teaching, to me, is to teach the heretofore unteachable. I don’t exactly call myself an expert, nor do I have some magical secret up my sleeve. I just enjoy working with this population. I enjoy the challenge, and as I said before, I feel that I’m bearing witness to a miraculous process, and if I can step in in cases where others have given up and I’m able to “crack the code” or at least give an individual one more chance at learning – then I’ll do it.

So on some levels, the solution is easy: you’ve got to put in the time. I believe that you can only be as good as you practice – no matter what the task is. On other levels, it requires entering into that murky, mysterious gray zone where no easy answers exist. This applies to both student and teacher alike. A good teacher can’t be all that good until he or she has made mistakes and is still willing to keep going. And a student that gives up will progress no further. There has to be a relationship that’s forged in the understanding that what’s trying to be taught is worthwhile and relevant. If it’s based on that age-old premise that learning is “good for you” (like eating your vegetables), it’ll never work with reluctant students.

This does not mean that a teacher has to make lessons “exciting!” or “sexy” or “user-friendly”. When teachers come into a classroom loaded with all the bells and whistles or unbounded enthusiasm, students are most often leery of what lies ahead. They usually see a teacher who is into it themselves, but that enthusiasm rarely carries over to their students. It rings false or self-absorbed. The more respected approach is by teachers who know their subject and are willing to work just as hard with allowing their students to know it, too. They got to their mastery through hard work and persistence, and they are now foot guides to walking their students through the process. We all know that our best teachers are of this ilk. They might not possess the most genteel or accessible personality, but they sure know what they’re talking about, and if you pay attention, you’ll get some of it.

But the biggest aspect of learning is still curiosity. If a person isn’t curious, he or she simply won’t learn. That might not necessarily be a big part of their inherent personality, but it has to be there to some degree. It might come early or it might come late. It might come completely unexpectedly. I still remember reading and singing to my daughters at night when they were little, and they both did the same thing: when I mouthed the words, they would touch my lips and try to figure out the connection between the book and the words coming out of my mouth. I also remember so many other connective moments where my daughters’ curiosity made little yet profound breakthroughs. One such moment was when we made a garden in the backyard and when the first strawberry came to fruition, my youngest daughter ran back inside the house and retrieved a book with a strawberry in it. She opened the book and put the picture of the strawberry beside the real strawberry and giggled. And when we picked it and ate it, the moment became indelible. Talk about a text-to-world connection! She did that. She made that extraordinary connection between the words on the page, the sound of those words, to the actuality of them in the real world. That realization came from a number of things, all inherent to true learning: curiosity, pleasure, time, practice, care, and a moment of realization when all of them come together. It’s a beautiful thing.

Similar moments can happen in the classroom – regardless of where that classroom is, or whether it’s in an actual classroom or not (I harken back to the concept of a classroom without walls, that a classroom is anywhere where learning is taking place). Field trips are essential. Getting outside the mundane routine environment and mixing it up in other locations is as necessary as it gets. It’s the strawberry-and-book analogy all over again. It’s the text-to-world connection that pulls learning off the page and into the everyday world. It’s experiencing the wonder of the world with how humans process and learn from it. Without experiencing the natural connection between learning and the world around us, learning becomes trapped and boring. It becomes a prisoner to those four walls and everyone who enters into them becomes confined by their limiting parameters.

On the other hand, even a physical prison cell can become boundless, if one’s curiosity is piqued and learning is still alive. There are thousands of examples where prisoners encounter a transformation and their learning is deep and continuous. The essential element is one’s curiosity, the desire to know something and to practice it until you get it.

Getting back to the original premise of this essay, the door or the “gateway” that a person has to travel through to gain knowledge doesn’t change much from one generation to another. There might be new technology and it can either hinder or help the process, but the process itself is pretty much intact, and the way to access it is, too. I was reminded of this just yesterday. A young man came to me – and he had come to me several weeks ago, too – asking if he could bring his guitar to school. When he finally brought the guitar I didn’t expect much. When students find out that I’m a musician, they like to bring their instruments and I usually end up suffering through their rudimentary attempts to make chords or even a complete song. It might be somewhat painful, but I always encourage them to keep going and keep their interest alive. Some students are even quite good for their age. But this young man yesterday was an exception. He brought in a fairly cheap guitar that pretty beat up. It even had a hole on the side that was about three inches square. I was ready to endure a few minutes of amateur playing. The student was also painfully shy and kept asking for permission to play. It was right at the beginning of class, right after lunch, so the other students were being their loud and rowdy selves. I did my best to quiet them down, but it was also a Friday, so they were especially wired and ready for the weekend. In the midst of all this, the student sat down next to me at my desk and began to play. He was a kid from South Central Los Angeles, born and raised in the hood. But what came out of that guitar stunned me. He played – with incredible virtuosity – a Bach piece written originally for violin. He was a master musician, at least compared to me. And in his very quiet way he captured the other students’ attention. Halfway into the piece, they quieted down and focused their complete attention on this extraordinary moment. The girls – all of them who had ignored this shy kid previously – swooned at his playing. One girl even did my what my daughters had done when they were little: she touched the guitar and was transfixed by his fingers, trying to figure out how such beautiful sounds could be coming out of that beat up old instrument.

Afterwards, we talked. He wasn’t even my student. He had come from other classes when he’d heard about me and he wanted to share a love of music. It turns out that he’s never even had a formal lesson. He’s learned everything from online sources: tabs, youtube videos, etc. He’s completely self-taught, but he’s done it with the latest technology. And this answers those who believe that all computers, all new media is inherently a waste of time. It counters the argument that nothing good can come from this generation’s obsession with electronic media. It also sends a message to those who simply use this media for entertainment only. If you are merely a consumer and not a creator, you will limit the value of what’s available. Again, it goes back to the core of what learning is and how one taps the source. The example of this young man accessing and teaching himself a kind of music that would otherwise be inaccessible, is a beautiful example of the boundless possibilities that we have at our fingertips. It is our new library. The metaphor of the old (Bach) being accessed by the new and being brought back to life is magical. It should give hope to anyone who says it can’t be done. It can and it will. It’s the human spirit that simply will not allow it to die.

Trying to Get My Alien Head Around This Thing

The Collapse of Kobe Bryant

by Don Grosekobe falling

 

After the Lakers won the game and the dust started settling on sports fans’ oh-so-predictable opinions, after all the repeatable soundbites from players, coaches, and sports analysts on Sports Center, and after spending at least four hours of my life watching all of this, the questions kept coming to me: Is Kobe Bryant going to be this generation’s Lou Gehrig? Muhammad Ali? Jake LaMotta? Is he instantaneously becoming the next punch drunk hero to be wheeled out and deified, memorialized, and argued over for going one too many rounds at his own expense?

 

As they continued showing Kobe Bryant falling to his knees over and over like his injury was comparable to the Twin Towers (all they needed to do was Photoshop this moment with dust and smoke all around him and have miniaturized people scurrying from beneath his girth), our cultural weirdnesses began to play themselves out. Yes, I study this stuff from both a sports fan’s POV and from the vantage point of the alien descending here scratching his big green head wondering, “Who ARE these strange people?”

Sports Center was particularly interesting in that it split the night’s focus on Kobe Bryant’s injury and Tiger Wood’s “epic” day at Augusta – drawing together two of the most revered and jeered athletes of our time, the egomaniac overachievers who made their rise as precocious wunderkind, both having their sexual misadventures exposed, their lives dissected, and to nevertheless keep on going – although Tiger seemed to fall off the planet for a while though Kobe never did. On this night it seemed like Sport Center’s mission was to show the human side of both men through sympathetic viewpoints of others. Cut to Pau Gasol tearing up about how much he loved and admired Bryant, Dwight Howard – a seven foot “superman” who looked more like a vulnerable little boy who couldn’t look into the camera as he mouthed the words, “It sucks…just when one player gets healthy, another one goes down.” And all the players, coaches, and fans tweeting in saying ad nauseum, “We pray for Bryant” as if he were suddenly put on life support instead of having sustained an ankle injury.

As I continued scratching my large, superior brain and looking around with my unblinking black eyes, I had to harken back to what Gabor Mate, the Canadian physician and addiction specialist, said about Lou Gehrig and others who have contracted ALS. He noted that it’s exactly that kind of personality that contracts the disease most often. Lou Gehrig’s unflinching dedication to the game kept him playing even when his hands could barely hold the bat. Apparently teammates themselves grimaced as they watched Gehrig play through the pain day after day, ultimately setting the record that stood for decades for consecutive games played and earning his moniker as “The Iron Horse.” His departure from the game was of course memorialized by his famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, and dramatized by Gary Cooper in “The Pride of the Yankees.”

Please don’t get me wrong, I love sports, I marvel at these athletes, I watch with childlike enthusiasm as the games come down to their nail-biting conclusions. I am and have always been a sports fanatic. I am in no way trying to belittle these men nor their superhuman feats. However, let’s be real, our gushing coverage of celebrities is bizarre and disconcerting. So even though I watched last night’s events with my typical sports fan’s eyes, I also had to take it all in with my typical WTF criticism. I also knew that this game and this image of Kobe Bryant barely able to walk off court was an historical moment. No doubt about it. The fact that my brother-in-law was at the game means that we will talk about this moment for many Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners to come. It reminded me – as I’m sure it did for others my age – of Willis Reed limping onto the court and miraculously playing through injury, of Michael Jordan willing himself through high fevers to astounding heights, but also of Muhammad Ali in the twilight of his career getting pounded by lesser opponents, and of many other athletes who continued to compete long after they should have retired.

My argument is not whether Kobe Bryant should retire, although the speculation on that subject last night was rampant. My contention was shared by others who put the blame on Mike D’Antoni – the Lakers’ coach – for allowing Bryant, at age 34, to play every single minute of every single game and watching his body get run into the ground. Anyone watching last night’s game could witness the collapse long before the final collapse. Bryant’s body started to give way throughout the game. He would come up lame, walk it off, get hit again, walk it off, fall down, and walk it off – until the last last image of him falling and then walking away as if truly crippled. A fan rightly, in my opinion, tweeted “Isn’t it the coach’s job to sometimes save the athlete from himself?” Amen, brother. A coach is supposed to have that kind of wisdom and insight and, quite frankly, the compassion to be more forward thinking than his younger athletes who are caught up in the game emotionally and willing to “leave it all on the court” if not advised not to do so. I don’t think that John Wooden, Phil Jackson, or any other great coach would have allowed what happened last night to happen. Mike D’Antoni is nowhere near that category of being a wise coach, and he’s proven that repeatedly throughout this year. Sadly, his misjudgments and shortsightedness helped produce this moment. But let’s keep this in perspective – Kobe Bryant is not on life support, and his iron horse pride may or may not lead to a tragedy in the way it did for Lou Gehrig or Muhammad Ali. I sure hope not. I’m an avid fan of Bryant’s and have loved watching him throughout the years, and I wouldn’t wish that kind of tragedy on anyone. I hope he does return to the game, play it out, and end his career in a way that befits his unquestionable prowess. I also hope the Lakers fire D’Antoni at the end of the season and send a clear message to all other coaches not to push or allow their players to grind themselves into the ground. That goes for professional and amateur sports alike. The days of Little League coaches and high school football coaches play-acting the part of Vince Lombardi should be long over. These are competitive games, not life or death situations. Sports to me and to so many others are metaphorical challenges to the human spirit, and can curiously draw us into a world of amazement when they exemplify what seems to go beyond physical possibilities. But they are not life and life itself, only a part of it. Kobe Bryant is not dead, ladies and gentlemen, so dry your tears. He will live to play again, I have no doubts, but I emphasize the word “play” in all its serious and childlike connotations. And we are but mere players, and spectators, on a much bigger stage.

 

 

What Exactly Is Just Blowing in the Wind?

The Macro-Cosmic Trickle Down in Education

 pissing-in-the-wind-975x1024“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Gabor Mate, the Canadian physician and best-selling author, describes his own Holocaust survival as a Jewish baby in Eastern Europe by recounting a story that he repeats often in his talks around the world. He says that his mother went to a doctor and asked why her baby would not stop crying. The doctor said that all Jewish babies were crying. Dr. Mate now theorizes that this was due to their mother’s stress and with the pervasive stress within the entire Jewish community at that time. Newborn babies obviously didn’t know who Hitler was or that the war was taking aim at them and all around them, but they did feel the extreme stress. This was causing deep emotional trauma and distress that would impact the rest of their lives.

There are interesting cases being made all the time that says stress, violence, and emotional disturbances are being caused by what’s around us, that neurologically we’re deeply affected by violent thoughts, violent behaviors, and violent intentions – even when we’re not directly involved.

I’m neither a doctor, a neurologist, nor do I myself know any of this as verifiable truth, but on some level it seems contrary to common sense to dismiss the things around us as having no emotional impact on us. If gunshots and bombs are raining down upon your community and people are dying and screaming in terror – how can that NOT affect you? I don’t think anybody can question that kind of impact. The subtler examples are, to me, the most interesting. Can a weapons manufacturer in your general vicinity really have an impact on that community’s gun violence just by being there? Can a baby feel its mother’s stress in the womb? Can children growing up during the Cold War be guided by dreams of nuclear annihilation? Are children born to incarcerated parents more likely to be incarcerated themselves?

If any of these examples have an inkling of possibility attached to them, they would then point to a bigger question of whether pervasive violence – both physical and institutional – are molding who we are as a people and leading to entrenched behaviors and lasting imprinting. I think we have to put the question into historical context and ask ourselves how history serves as our current paradigm, and as our entrenched way of thinking and behaving.

What’s this got to do with education?

When I talk to most high school students, they overwhelmingly believe that human beings are predisposed to violence, that it’s a given. They regard war as inevitable. They casually dismiss homicide as a “natural” way of life, that it’s just something we have to live with. I believe their thinking is not so different from their parents. And I don’t know how many generations we would have to go back to find a different way of thinking. But is it? Is violence just a given? Are human beings naturally prone to violence? Are some people, some races, some geographical locations more violent than others? Or are these myths that we’ve grown to accept, circular debates without conclusions?

Every new school shooting seems to raise the same questions about gun control, media influence, antidepressants, etc. But it seems that the original context has been lost altogether and the issue has been entirely re-framed. I’m old enough to remember what I recall to be the first school yard shooting of its kind in San Diego in 1979 when a 16-year-old girl shot up a school playground and when asked why she did it she stated that she didn’t like Mondays. That was shocking, of course, but it’s led to a generation that expects to hear about such incidents in the news every few months. The sheer predictability of it speaks volumes. We don’t even have to speculate on why they happen; they’ve become a given in our culture. What other things affect us in this way? How is our culture being shaped by shocking events becoming blasé news stories, inevitable indicators of our “true nature” as humans?

Is where we are born just another “given” to how we will inevitably grow up? Is acceptance of electronic gadgetry a dull act of submission to how the world is nowadays? Are these just things that we have deal with, just because?

The pattern that we know occurs is that we are given bits of information in repeatable soundbites that become memes. This superficial information is then, for the most part, unquestioned and taken as fact, repeated for a while through social media, discussed in various settings and on yet more media outlets, then largely forgotten. Then it’s on to the next similar story which follows the same pattern ad infinitum. That, of course, is the all-too-familiar way of how news is currently disseminated. This is one example of how entrenched behaviors may be formed, but it still doesn’t look at the more pervasive problem, the one that affects us most deeply: the fact that critical thinking is by and large taken out of the equation. If we we were truly able to think critically and discuss things critically, we would have the ability to see beyond the lies, the inconsistencies, and we could conclude for ourselves what is really worthy to pay attention to. But that’s not happening. Facebook is full of one-line soundbites, shared little snippets of news between individuals all commenting on them with more one-line replies. And all of this being watched over by a huge monolithic corporation that in turn watches over our interactions with it. How bizarre. How chilling.

And then we get into the classroom. The move toward “Standardized Education” – that nifty term that is supposed to make us uniformly better educated people by raising the standards on everyone – has nullified the need for critical thinking to be taught and practiced. Questioning established norms does not show up on the tests, it won’t get you a job, and it is not appreciated by the current system of education. Therefore, it is removed from the curriculum and left unaccounted for. Because critical thinking shows up in “messy” ways like protests and challenges to authority, it is easily dismissed as unacceptable anti-social behavior.

More than simply not being accepted, however, it is now being severely punished. Last year I wrote an article on how schools resemble prisons, and how the behaviors of both mirror each other (not that prisons are becoming institutions for learning, but rather how schools are becoming more like prisons. I even gave the example of Monroe, Washington, a small town in Eastern Washington that has a maximum security prison sharing the same hillside as the the local high school, and how local residents joke about it, but don’t seem to give it much further thought). This is nothing new, but there have been increasingly drastic moves in that direction since last year’s article, and every year the examples continue to grow. The more recent school shootings – whether real or manufactured (taken into account the many false flag accusations that proliferate after each new example) – successively up the ante on furthering police presence on campuses, even calls for militarization such as the National Guard to become a common fixture on them. There is a also a drastic rise in criminal prosecutions of minors who would have otherwise, in previous years, been given detention or a warning for doing the things that would nowadays earn them jail time and a criminal record. This trend is becoming more established and has given rise to the phrase, “the school-to-prison pipeline.” It is a fear-based reaction (extreme overreaction in my opinion) to the perception that schools are now dangerous places and children are a serious threat to peace. But is this real or perceived? Is it self-fulfilling? Is it justified?

The reason I used the very famous quote from The Little Prince to begin this article is to challenge us to communicate from the heart on such matters. To militarize schools and treat them as war zones would horrify and shock our culture 100 years ago. The concept would seem bizarre. We can rationalize about how much things have changed in the last century, but if we do that we’re only confirming our own bizarre behaviors in how we are reacting to a bizarre world that is by and large of our own creation. If we have come so far as to tackle every problem as a “war” ( a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on terror, and now a war on education), we are admitting not just to the perception that violent tendencies are a given, but we are admitting to our own limitations for coming up with humane solutions. We are not speaking or acting from the heart because the heart does not permit – nor does the law – a war on children. We can say that we are protecting them, but that’s the excuse for every society that conducts war. It is always justified as a defensive act. But rarely is that ever the case. War is extreme violence and both sides want to win, with the overwhelming deaths belonging to innocent people who wanted nothing to do with it in the first place.

I don’t go along with the notion that minors are any more violent now than they were 100 years ago. I remember Luc Sante’s book, Low Life, dispelled similar myths about New York becoming an increasingly violent place. His book was based on the idea that if you think New York is violent now, you should’ve seen it 100 years ago. The old examples of violence were far more extreme. I would wager that if we did the same thing with regular school behaviors and compared them historically we would arrive at the same conclusion. Human behavior doesn’t change all that much, but human perception and the way that we frame it does.

I would also wager to guess that any changes in human behaviors are connected with those changes in perception. The more fearful we are, the more extreme we react to those fears. It’s not even a matter of how big the guns are or how many rounds they can shoot as much as it’s tied with the perceived threat. My Chihuahua doesn’t care how big the dog is, when he’s scared he charges it. It’s instinctual unless I find a way to quell his fears and lower his reaction. Humans do the same thing. We are far more apt to attack out of fear than when we feel strong.

To conclude, I never want to leave a subject on a note of hopelessness. Just because trends are moving in one direction doesn’t mean that they will continue that way forever. I really do feel an overwhelming sense of hope because of the powerful possibilities at hand. Working with teenagers always gives me hope. I don’t sense that there is any let up in their overall ability to adapt and to be reinvigorated by an idea. When I usually ask my students what they want to do, their typical answer is to have a discussion. They want to talk about things, things that really matter. At that point, the earbuds come out, the body language shifts, and they become engaged. I don’t blame them for their boredom in most classroom settings. Most classes are boring. Most teachers are boring. Let’s face it, that’s they way it’s been for a very long time. This repeatable pattern becomes entrenched and the perceptions follow. But that doesn’t negate the possibility for change.

The one element that absolutely needs to come to the forefront is real critical thinking – not just saying that it’s there, but seeing truthful evidence that it exists. And this is where most educators get a little uncomfortable, because most truthful evidence that I’ve seen comes in the form of students rising up and taking back the power in their classes and at their schools. They challenge irrational and traditional norms that show a lack of relevancy and fairness, they ask for and sometimes demand changes to be made, and they are notoriously at the helm of radical social upheavals. It’s not just up to the students, but to the truly progressive educators and parents who have given them power to think for themselves in the first place. And there are definitely situations happening in certain quarters of our country that point to people waking up and getting active. I’m speaking most directly about the teachers in Seattle who have rejected standardized testing and about the teachers, students, and parents who are protesting school closures in Chicago. There seems to be a reawakening afoot, but how far it goes and to what end, will of course need to be seen.

What we don’t need, as far as I’m concerned, is any more trickle down of anything. Whenever I hear that phrase I just feel like I’m being pissed on, and it’s coming slow and tortuously.

So Simple It Might Just Work

The Magic Bullet?

 by Don Grose

meditating-cow1

 I had a phone interview last week where I was asked the question, “If you could have three things to make a class run perfectly, what would they be?” And I answered that question competently enough to feel that the person who asked it felt satisfied and I felt confident that I knew what I was talking about. But I didn’t. And it really bothered me. I answered in “teacher-speak” what I thought the interviewer wanted to hear and what the interviewer would probably agree with.

Every day after that interview I thought about that question. What three things would I choose, given more time to think about it? After a few days I finally concluded that I just needed one thing, not three. The funny thing is that after giving it much thought and feeling very confident in my answer – this time the confidence came from a more genuine source – I still feel somewhat reticent to give my answer. It’s not that I don’t believe in it. I do. It’s just that it sounds ridiculously simple, new age, and eye-rollingly hippie-ish. That’s why I’m taking the time to write it out. I feel embarrassed to mouth the words aloud without qualifying the reasons behind the answer. I’m actually quite thankful that I didn’t say this over the phone because my answer would have been much too long and drawn out.

So here’s the answer, and then comes the qualification. The answer…drumroll, please…is meditation. Yes, meditation is the one thing that I would want in the classroom to make it run smoothly.

Immediately I’m sure everyone reading or listening to this answer would imagine lots of little white-bred hippy kids from Marin sitting around in designer tie-dye wardrobes cross-legged on the floor of a classroom chanting “om” with their their hippy teacher. But that is exactly the opposite of what I’m envisioning. I see a bunch of Latino and black kids from the hood with their bald heads and baggy pants sitting on that floor. I see cholas with tear drop tattoos on their face sitting cross-legged. I see little snot-nosed kindergartners sitting on that floor, and bad-ass fifth graders on meditation pillows. I see all the kids who probably thought meditation meant jacking off or something, and had no idea what it was or where it came from.

And now for the qualification. First of all, I’m not a hippy – but I’m old enough to have lived during that era. I do remember being a little kid seeing, hearing, and hearing all about what the hippies were doing during the late sixties and early seventies. I was too young to fully grasp it, but it permeated the atmosphere and the airways, so I’m sure I was influenced by it much more than I care to admit. My initiation to meditation and all things Eastern was not this sweeping counter culture, however, it was “Kung Fu.” Not the martial arts practice – the TV show. I never missed it. If David Carradine’s character could meditate quietly, speak softly and gently, and still kick everyone’s ass, then that’s exactly how I wanted to be. And for good reason. If I were to show that TV show today, I’m sure the kids in the hood would immediately get it. They would understand that it’s okay to think deeply, be calm, if and only if you could back it up with a good ass whipping when it was time to do so. They would probably tolerate the peaceful moments of the show or skip ahead to see the fight scenes, but you can’t do that. You can’t have one without the other.

This is the point of what I’m trying to convey: there is good reason that Kwai Chang Caine could deliver an ass-whipping when it came time to do so. It was never by choice, by the way, he was always backed into a corner, pushed to the limits to where he had to fight his way out. But he was always calm. He was like Cesar Millan (the Dog Whisperer) around pitbulls. He was never fearful, never stressed, always in control.

So when my interviewer asked how I would make the class run smoothly, that’s how I would want it. I would want a class that’s full of calm, confident, ass-kickers who never lose their cool even when faced with danger or under duress. I want them to be little (or big) Kwai Chang Caines. But in order to get them there you would have to train them the way that he was trained. You can’t skip the flashback scenes of when he was the little grasshopper and his blind master was teaching him to be a learned monk, a mystic practitioner. He had to go through all of those lessons. But most of all he had to learn to do them with a quiet mind. Proper breathing and meditation came first.

I don’t mean to compare children and dogs, but having raised kids, and having been a teacher, and also having been a dog owner all my life, it’s hard not to correlate the connection. Sorry. But I like Cesar Millan’s teaching methods, and I can see some of them working beautifully in the classroom. The biggest psychological training factor he uses with dogs is that when you try to teach them something when they’re agitated or angry – it won’t work. They simply won’t learn it. A dog has to be in a quiet, submissive frame of mind to grasp the lesson. Now I’m sure it sounds condescending to ask for kids to be “submissive,” but in a way it’s the same as asking them to respect the authority of the teacher and to be okay with it before they can be open to learning anything. The way that a teacher asks for respect is not by asking for it at all. It’s all a matter of confidence. It’s how he or she walks into a classroom, speaks, and gestures. It’s eye contact, mannerisms, and tone. It’s having an authoritative presence without being authoritarian. Without being in control, no teacher stands a chance of conducting a valuable lesson. And to make matters worse, if kids are picking up on the insecure behaviors of a teacher, they’re going to get agitated. They’re going to be the ones in charge – and when that happens the basic learning environment is flip-flopped. Unfortunately, this is rather common. It’s quite normal nowadays to walk into a classroom where kids are texting on their phones, watching videos on their ipads, playing games, or just messing around. The teacher who is supposed to be in charge has given up, blames it on the kids, blames it on technology, blames it on the school. Whoever and whatever they choose to blame it on, the problem remains – the kids are in charge. And this is actually a scary environment to put kids into – just like it is with dogs. Dogs, being pack animals, NEED a leader. Without a dominant leader they’re instinctually lost, unbalanced, and anxious. Kids and teenagers need adults to be in charge. They won’t admit it, but it’s just so. It’s how the world is meant to function. We learn from those in charge. We naturally respect confident people, and we learn from them. We don’t learn from shy, submissive people. And shy, submissive people should not become teachers unless and until they get over their shyness and submissiveness.

All that being said, the best learning environment is created when things are in order and calmness pervades, when a confident, masterful teacher is in charge. This doesn’t look the way it sounds. An experienced, masterful teacher is not the one yelling or threatening his or her students. In fact, they are the ones who rarely, if ever, yell or lose their cool. They are simply speaking – or better yet – guiding their students through lessons, showing them the efficient ways of doing things, and explaining the wisdom and techniques behind it all. They don’t have to yell to get the students’ attention. They simply walk into the room or do some slight gestures to get the attention of others. Whenever you’re in the presence of a teacher like this, you know immediately. You feel it.

The trick to doing this is no trick at all. It’s learned. It’s mastered. It’s practiced. However, to anyone who might witness it for the first time it might look like a trick, like the teacher has sprinkled some secret fairy dust on the students to get them to behave this way. What they don’t see is that it comes from years of practice, the same as it does for a top athlete who makes incredibly difficult physical tasks look effortless. And both include breathing and visualization. Athletes might not call it that, but every great athlete has had moments when they were young seeing themselves win the big game, hit the big shot, cross the finish line first. They imagined it and saw it long before it happened. They worked towards that moment as it it was inevitable. They manifested it. When it happened, sometimes over and over, it was just like they had imagined years ago. The work it took to get there didn’t really seem like work because it was still just part of the game. It required sweat and long hours, but it was leading to the dream. It was required because it was believed in. And because it was believed in, it was done.

If learning and schools were like this, you would have a charged atmosphere full of eagerness and disciplined desire. Some schools are like this, and the environment seems electrically charged. Yet calm. And under control. It has confidence like an individual possesses confidence, that knowing look of “I got this” when others in the same place would be freaking out. Confidence doesn’t squeal with excitement, it calmly saunters up to the free throw line and knocks it down. Just like it happened thousands of times in the gym when you were the only one there and nobody else was keeping score.

The key to all of this is getting to that place of calm confidence. It comes by breathing, visualizing, attaining a calm, focused mind. It comes through meditation. It’s not any kind of “hippy shit” or weird new age thinking. It’s what confident people do. It’s what successful people do. It’s what wise people have done for thousands of years. It’s nothing new. It’s what kids in school should be doing.

The sad thing, of course, is that meditation is probably the last thing that would be included in any school’s normal curriculum. It might be offered as an elective or taught in tandem with yoga in a progressive school, but not by itself and not to every kid. And what I’m envisioning is where it should be taught at every school and to every student, no matter what age. I think six year olds should be taught to meditate. I know that to most people it sounds silly or unrealistic to say that, but I mean it. We simply don’t give young kids the respect to think that they can not only grasp the benefits of doing meditation, but that they can practice it amazingly well. Kids not only have the capacity to meditate, but they have the intuition for it. Once we understand the four realms of consciousness we can understand how this is so.

To my knowledge, the idea of a fourth realm of consciousness goes back to the 1960s, maybe even further, when we as a culture were just starting to explore such ideas and put them into practice. Many of the proponents were initially skeptics who needed “proof” to validate their beliefs. A lot of them were scientists, psychologists, linear thinkers who conducted experiments and tried to measure whatever Easterners were doing (for thousands of years) with results and statistical findings. Whatever. The important thing was that they were curious. In opening up themselves to such possibilities, they were also changing culture. It was not the counter culture per se, although that had an enormous impact as well, it was the conservative scientists who gave an air of legitimacy to the rest of the public who were opposed to hippies and resistant to grasp whatever they were up to.

George Quant apparently started investigating Transcendental Meditation back then and has subsequently dubbed it Quantum Meditation. It’s hard to take him too seriously, however. I can’t tell if Quant is his real name; it’s a little to close to Quantum. And he seems to be making lots of money from his endeavor thus toeing the line between the benevolent practitioner and the charlatan. Whatever the case, he and others have tried to transcend meditational practice with Quantum Physics and give it scientific validity and measurable results. He has also done work with school children and measured before and after successes with standardized tests based on the implementation of meditation. The point here is that it’s being tried. It may be on a small scale now, but that’s not to say that it can’t be done on a larger scale if the movement towards its acceptance can get rolling. I believe it can.

There are parallel projects that have tried to implement meditation in unlikely places. The film “The Dhamma Brothers” documents a rigorous meditational practice inside of a maximum security prison in the United States. For those inmates who were successful at mastering the practice it had enormous, life-changing benefits.

I am not advocating this practice or that practice. I am not aiming for a particular method. In fact, I’m naturally cautious when it comes to choosing one kind of mediation over another, and I’m extremely sensitive about how I’m coming across when I even broach the subject. We’ve been a culture that has slowly been integrating Eastern practices into our own culture for quite a while, but the integration has been slow and mixed. Some embrace it way too much and much too fast and their zealousness becomes suspect. Others dismiss it altogether. As an educator I want to try whatever works, but do it in a way that my students – at whatever age they may be – can grasp it without feeling imposed upon. If there is a way to naturally impart meditation, relaxation practices, and breathing techniques that even the most street-hardened kids can take to heart, then I can see it working. Until that happens, I think meditation will forever stay marginalized and stereotyped.

Martha the Mute and Barry the Masturbator

How Misfits and Miscreants Can Benefit From All that Hippie Crap

 r crumb third eyeI tell a lot of stories. I mean A LOT. I used to tell my students to throw things at me if I became long-winded or began repeating things like I was in the beginning stages of Alzheimers. Of course they never would because my telling long stories meant for them that they wouldn’t have to do any work – just listen. The worst they would do was fall asleep. That to me just indicated that I should delete that one from the repetoire. But over the years, whenever I have the chance to talk to former students, they usually tell me they enjoyed my stories and remembered them more than anything else I taught. I think that’s a good thing. They’re either being kind or I was more like their drunk uncle than a teacher, always spinning yarns when we should’ve been ass-deep in textbooks. Regardless, I have accumulated a lot of stories over the years on just about every subject, but classroom anecdotes dominate.

One of my favorites is this one, and you will no doubt recognize a line that runs through many of my stories: I love to teach the “bad” kids, the incorrigibles that most others have given up on. To me they are the most interesting, the most challenging, and they make you become a better teacher.

So years ago I took a position that only lasted one year and was completely experimental. To many it was a failed experiment, but to me it was the best year of teaching that I’ve ever had. It was at a school that was designed to give failing students one more chance. Normally in this school district, and throughout most districts in California, there is an unwritten mandate that you keep passing kids on, no matter what. Kindergarten through eighth grade is designed to more or less herd kids through the educational system and get them into high school. From high school, it’s a matter of a kid to accumulating credits or not, passing the exit exam or not, and that’s that. In high school, it’s up to the kid to make it through. Prior to that, it’s up to the state.

The position I took was at a school where all of the kids had failed miserably throughout middle school (grades 6-8) and were assembled in this one location and given one last shot at getting into high school. In other words, these kids were the worst of the worst. The principal who hired me had basically pleaded with me to come there and work some kind of voodoo magic, or any other kind of trick that would make this experimental project work out. I asked a lot of questions about what was possible, and she would just nod and say, “try it.”

So I did.

This was my year at the Long Beach Prep Academy, a school that sounded like anything but what it actually was. When I told people where I worked they would invariably ask, “Is that a school for smart kids?” Oh yes, it is, I would say, and leave it at that. I would not tell them that I had kids like Barry the Masturbator in my class, a Cambodian kid who had such an utter fascination with masturbating that he had to tell the world about it. Every day.

Upon entering the classroom he would often proclaim to the world how wonderful a masturbation session he had the night before, or even that morning. If I hadn’t have stopped him – or at least pleaded with him to stop – he would’ve told the whole class everything in detail.

“Barry, that’s enough. Please stop.”

“But I LOVE it. It feels soooo good.”

Years later, I would encounter Barry working as a cashier at Old Navy and he just stared at me.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” He asked.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“I’m Barry.” Pause. “From the Prep Academy.”

It all came flooding back to me. Barry the masturbator. All of the drawings, stories, graffiti, and incessant comments made about masturbation that year.

“Oh yes, I do remember you. Hi Barry, how are you?”

He just smiled a Cheshire grin and continued scanning my purchase. He might’ve been somewhat embarrassed, but I somehow doubt it. He never was then, and I don’t think his character would’ve changed much. Barry, and most of the other kids I taught that year, were true characters. They had lived hard lives and their experiences had forged them in ways contrary to how a normal, pampered life leaves a kid soft, frail, unsure.

I had one student, Martha, who had not spoken to anyone in years. She was mute. She showed up every day to class, sat there, listened, but would not speak. It became my personal mission that year to get her to utter a single sentence. It never happened.

Edgar was the bane and love of my teaching experience that year. He epitomized the Prep Academy. A cop once walked onto the campus – which was an everyday occurrence – and asked about Edgar. It was the first kid he spotted.

“What’s that kid’s story?”

“Edgar? Well…”

“Nevermind,” the cop said. “I’ll tell you what I already know, just by looking at him. He’s about 13, already in a gang, lives on the west side, spends most of his time on the streets, and if I went up to him right now and searched him I’d find enough contraband on him to put him in jail.”

Hell, if that cop would’ve continued, he probably could’ve told me Edgar’s address, social security number, and entire rap sheet.

“Uh, yeah, that’s pretty much Edgar.”

So there were many, many other similar students with similar, troubled profiles. To omany to mention, but these are the kids and this was the school that provided years of storytelling opportunities – not because I ever wanted to parody, mock, or degrade any of these kids, in fact, just the opposite: I loved telling their stories because of the remarkable turnarounds that these kids made that year. For example, even though Martha never spoke, she did write. She allowed me into her world through journaling. She confided in me things that I never passed along to anyone else that enabled her to finally trust an adult. She had had a traumatic childhood, to say the least.

And Edgar, even though he threatened my life on one occasion, would always seek me out later and apologize for being so angry, and for taking it out on me. In the end, he turned out to be a very sweet kid, with a heart of gold.

 

Anyway, I had all of these kids assembled in my class that year and we were given a district mandate to have them read for at least twenty minutes a day. This is not at all uncommon, and not a bad idea by any means. I love to read and I want nothing more for kids to do than to be able to read and to love reading. But the task of getting these particular kids to read seemed insurmountable.

I tried everything, and nothing worked. During these twenty minute Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) sessions, my classroom was like Bedlam. It might start out small, like a pencil being thrown, then someone would do a fake cough, then someone else would fart, then everything would just go to hell. Daily.

So one night I got an idea. Since nothing else had worked I wasn’t afraid to try anything. I was sitting at home thinking about a plan. It was late at night and I had a candle burning. I looked at the candle and had one of those Newtonian epiphanies. So the next morning, I gave it a try.

I stood in front of my beautiful miscreants and placed the candle in the center of the class. Then I took a disposable lighter out of my pocket. When I did that of course the comments began.

“Are we gonna get high?”

“Do you smoke?”

“Want some weed? My shit’s really good.”

I’m sure it is. “Just watch,” I said. “I’m going to light this candle, and I want to know before I do that, how long do you think you can stare at it?”

“I don’t want to stare at no damn candle.”

“But if you did, how long?”

“Forever.”

“Forever? Really? Wanna try? The only this is this: you can’t look away, and you can’t make any sounds. I’m going to time you, and as soon you do either of those two things I’m going to stop the clock.”

The first attempt lasted about two seconds before someone did a fake fart. It was probably Barry, but I’m not sure. I know it wasn’t Martha.

I asked if that was the best they could do, and they said no. And at that point some of the kids that wanted to play the game told others to shut up. So I tried again. It lasted about ten seconds before someone laughed. I kept repeating the exercise because each time someone did something stupid I watched and listened to the others scold them and try to get them to focus and concentrate – and stop blowing it for the rest of the class. Some of these kids were getting into this and keeping the others in check. So I proceeded.

They finally focused so long on the candle that I couldn’t stop them. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. The next day they wanted to do it again. A couple of days later they were going on thirty minutes or so when the principal walked in. She was expecting to see and hear what she normally witnessed in these classes: a bunch of kids bouncing off the walls, acting completely insane. Instead, she walked into a class that was sitting silently staring at a candle. I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted to know just what the hell was going on. I walked over and whispered that I’d explain later. The class knew that they were being observed and purposely went on this way for 45 minutes before I stopped them.

It was then that I debriefed them on what this was all about, that it wasn’t about staring at a candle at all. It was about concentration and focus. Prior to this little experiment, they were convinced that none of them in that class could sit with a book and focus on it for twenty minutes. But yet, they just focused on a candle for 45 minutes. I reasoned with them that if they focus on something as boring as a candle for that long, they could certainly focus on something like a book – which is much more interesting – for at least that long.

They soon gave it a try. Of course they quickly forgot my debriefing talk and wanted to keep playing “the candle game,” but I kept steering them in the direction of applying it to books. Some of them got it, and they were the same ones who got them on track with the candle game in the first place. Soon, instead of fake farts and pencil throwing, I heard kids whispering, “Shhh, I’m trying to read” and “Be quiet, stop talking to me, and read your own book!” And when new kids were added to the class, I would overheard students explaining SSR and the candle game and focus and concentration, and why it was important to read. It was absolutely incredible.

Later on, I did finally talk with the principal about the whole lesson. The first thing she said to me when I entered her office was “What did you do, give them Valium?” After I explained what happened, she asked me to tell the rest of the staff. So I did. The funny thing was, nobody else had any success with it whatsoever. And this gets back to the most important thing in teaching: relationships. If you don’t have the kind of relationship with your students to try this kind of offbeat experiment, it will most likely fail. My students knew that I was prone to try these kinds of things with them and they trusted me enough to let them know that I was doing them for one reason: to help them. Without that trust, they would never have allowed it to happen. And a teacher needs the students’ trust as much as the students need the teacher’s. It has to work both ways.

 

This “staring at a candle” exercise also reminds me of a book length essay on reading by Sven Birkerts called The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. In short, it details how reading a book requires “vertical” concentration rather than “horizontal”. The difference being the depth one goes to glean understanding. It’s commensurate to the time that’s afforded it, as well as other factors such as level of vocabulary and thought-provoking ideas. Gutenberg also goes into the comparison of reading books with that of meditation, how the heart rate slows, the body relaxes, and the mind loses track of conscious time. Also, as people develop the love and practice of reading, as with meditation, they develop stamina and are able to practice longer and longer sessions.

I noticed with this particular group of students that ten minutes easily turned into twenty, then thirty, and so on. I had only allotted 20-30 minutes a day to this kind of reading, but these students were begging me to let them keep reading 45 minutes to an hour. How could I refuse? I also noticed that it was self-governing. This was a population that came and went with such irregularity that it made taking attendance the hardest task of all. Kids were running away, going to jail, being shuffled in and out of foster homes, getting pregnant, you name it. But I noticed that amidst this revolving door population, there would always be a core group of students who had gotten hooked on reading, and they would invariably govern the newcomers or recent returnees. On many occasions I’d hear them elicit reasons for why they should read, citing the discussions we’d had, even the Gutenberg examples and Nancy Allen pages that I had shared with them.

And these were my so-called incorrigibles? This activity of staring at the candle proved to be a pivotal moment, an unforeseen turning point in my teaching career and in the lives of these students. As much as I try not to dote on these kinds of incidents as being “huge” I know how rare they are, and they are the kind of moments that can take the arduous task of teaching to heightened levels exhilaration. Rarely have I ever felt better and more satisfied than when I’ve had a class join with me on my quest to becoming a teacher in every sense of the word. When it clicks, it truly is an unbelievable feeling of joy. I’m not a fisherman, but I imagine it’s like waiting all day for a fish to bite, never intending to catch the biggest fish of your life – but then it happens. You wait for it and wait for it, and then out of nowhere it appears and takes your line. Yet another reminder of Chopra’s definition of success“…the ability to fulfill your desires with effortless ease.” Think about it.

If you were to use Deepok Chopra’s definition of success and apply it to traditional education, the impasse becomes altogether clear. It won’t work in that environment. If you read his book, The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success, and were to apply that to the typical classroom, you might be accused of daydreaming, wasting time, or – the comment most often given to me when I was young – not using time wisely. Worse, you’d probably be reprimanded, humiliated, and punished. “Desire?” as part of the curriculum? I don’t think so. “Effortless ease”? Get back to work, work harder, stop goofing off! One chapter of his book, and a good portion of nearly all of his writings, is dedicated to meditation as a way to achieve peaceful inner visions that guide us to deep insights into who we are and want we need to do in our lives. His book certainly isn’t the only book in the world that points to this, almost all books about meditation point in this direction, only with different paths for how to get there. And he would be the first to concede, I’m sure, that his writings come from ancient texts, ancient wisdom. But even though we’re supposed to be teaching ancient wisdom in the form of classic literature in schools, to actually practice what the texts say in the classroom…well, that’s another thing altogether, akin to blasphemy or occult indoctrination. Can you imagine walking into a classroom of students all cross-legged on the carpet, relaxing in a deep, silent meditation? Even though I would love to see it, any parent, principal, or casual passer-by would no doubt wonder what the hell was going on, that I was probably leading students into some cultish activity and trying to brainwash them.

But this practice has achieved commonality amongst the majority of successful people who have turned to the practice of meditation to bring them peace, affluence, and balance in their lives. For many of them it is essential daily practice. My favorite film director (and I’m a huge movie buff) is David Lynch. Going to watch “Eraserhead” at midnight every Friday night at the Nuart Theatre in Santa Monica was a personal pilgrimage of mine. I loved it and I would drag my friends to see it with me. They all hated it. As a first date it was disastrous. But I couldn’t get enough of it. That was his first film, and when I saw it I was hooked. Since then I’ve seen everything he’s ever made, and I re-watch them all with awe. In any case, if you’re not familiar with his work, it will either frighten you or invite you into a strange dream-like realm in which you’ll feel comforted – if you embrace strange dreams like I do. Until I read his book, Catching the Big Fish, I never knew where Mr. Lynch got his ideas. Now I know. He meditates, and has for years. The way he describes his practice is like fishing. It is straightforward and simple: If you want to catch the little fish (the little ideas), you can skim the the surface. But if you want to catch the big fish (the big ideas), you have to go much deeper, you have to allow your mind the quietude – also like fishing – of being silent and waiting for the fish to come to you. I love the simplicity of David Lynch’s approach. He still speaks and writes like that weird kid from Montana that I’m sure most townspeople were afraid of. But to me he’s just another successful American who has arrived at meditation in his own way, at his own time.

I’m wondering if and when the practice will ultimately spread to all Americans. Hmmm…I look at that sentence and just smile. It sounds impossible. But if you don’t call it meditation, then it might have a chance.

 

 

A New Book in the Works

After MANY months of writing, scrapping, re-starting, and revising, it’s starting to come together and resemble a book. There are still many more stories to finish and no doubt another couple of drafts to polish and finalize – but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

I plan on adding a few chapters to this blog, so stayed tuned. Thanks for reading, commenting, and giving criticisms. Thank goodness for the readers of the world!

Stuff About Everything book cover

Introduction to “Stuff About Everything”

 

The Intro, Yet Again.groundhog day

 

I worked with a school director who had made a very keen observation. As he periodically moved from classroom to classroom to check in on classes, he noticed that the most dynamic lessons where kids were happy, excited, engaged, and enthusiastic were taking place in situations where the teachers were doing less “teaching” in the traditional sense, and having more “natural” interactions with students. None of these teachers were standing at the front of the class lecturing, yelling, or pleading for quiet. They were talking in normal tones and engaging students in conversations that were interesting and respectful. There seemed to be no hierarchy of “I’m the teacher and I’m in charge.” It was more of a shared experience, it was hands on, and joyful. The “vibe” in these classrooms, if you will, was comfortable and comforting, whereas the other classrooms were disquieting, even disturbing to be in. For my director this was always problematic in running the school and one of the major hurdles to get over: how do you get more teachers to “stop teaching” and just become more present. Of course, in these classes where the teacher was more integral and less obtrusive, there was a lot of teaching going on. It just wasn’t being forced upon their students.

Having these candid conversations with this particular director taught me a lot. First, I was able to see it from his perspective. When you’re a teacher you don’t usually have the opportunity to do what he was able to do – walk around to all the classrooms and just observe. Second, it made me look at my own teaching style and reflect. Which kind of teacher was I? His observation held me in check. If he were to walk into my classroom at any given moment – which he often did – what would he see, feel, hear, and come away with? As I became more sensitive and aware of this observation I extended it to include everyone who walked through my door, not just the director. What would any student see, feel, hear, and come away with on any given day, at any given moment? What would a casual observer or parent observe? I moved toward a more “open door” policy of absolute openness and transparency. I welcomed visitors and encouraged them to come in. I extended this openness to my colleagues and many of them took me up on it. We would then share thoughts and reflections and it would invariably help us become better teachers.

This book, then, is perhaps just an extension of that openness. I am by no means claiming to have all the answers in Education. I am just a teacher who has been at it for most of his adult life. I started reluctantly at this profession, then moved to love it. My progress has been met with the same daunting challenges that most teachers face: low pay, long hours, sometimes less than supportive administrators, a mountain of bureaucracy to climb, and the everyday struggles with less than cooperative students, to put it nicely. But the rewards far outnumber and exceed those challenges and detractors, and after learning how to survive the initial years (like most career teachers) I have established a pattern for how to do it, love it, and get better at it over time.

As the years have passed I have made the same kind of obvious yet profound observations that my director had made about teaching by not being so obviously a teacher. Every day that I’ve been in a classroom – which now exceeds twenty years – I’ve learned something new that has informed the art and craft of my profession. I am now much more myself and much less the archetypal teacher. My students call me by my first name, but I am not their “buddy” whose role can be taken lightly or for granted. I am still and always will be their teacher. We are separated by that distinction and it is clear in the way that I will always be my daughters’ father and don’t have to remind them of that fact. For me the classroom is still a hallowed place that should feel more like a sanctuary than a prison, more like a workshop than a waiting room. Everyone who comes through its doors should look forward to being there, and once they are there they should be able to look back at their experience as good, beneficial, fun, and yes, even exciting. I wouldn’t want anyone to look back at their experience as time wasted or, even worse, detrimental to their growth as a human being.

This being said, I have tried to write a book on my experiences as a teacher for years, and I haven’t been able to put it all together. There are many reasons for this. My most notable excuse or rationalization has been the issue of time, that we teachers just don’t have the extra time to put into writing. We’re so focused on trying to stay caught up with the demands of teaching that we can’t do anything as demanding as writing a book. But that’s rubbish. It can be done. Others have proven this to be true. In fact, I find the most interesting writers tend to be those who somehow manage to juggle an extraordinary amount of work and outside projects and still compose writing that is absolutely relevant and captivating. How do they do it? I’ve been trying to find an answer to that question over the course of writing this book myself. It has come in fits and spurts, I have trashed one draft only to start again from an entirely different perspective, I have deleted some portions only to have them come back in another form, and just when I thought that it would never get done I have found myself back at it with renewed enthusiasm. It has now taken me almost a year and half since I first told myself that it was time to start the task of writing this book in earnest. Before then I had started with a similar determination, had written several chapters (about ten years ago I had gotten up to thirteen chapters before shelving it). I have found this process to be immensely humbling and have increased respect for “real” writers who have gone through it not once but many times. Perhaps, like anything else, it gets easier the more times you go through it, but I can’t believe that writing a book is ever entirely easy. Writing is not easy, and most writers will be the first to admit that. Writing, because it’s a way of organizing your thoughts into coherent communication, is only as easy or difficult as your thinking process. Once you begin thinking clearly about what it is that you want to write, then of course it becomes easier. But getting to that stage of clarity has been anything but simple. And now I understand what people mean when they say that simplicity is one of the most complicated things to achieve.

 

I will briefly describe the progress of this book, describe what it’s about, and talk about how it might keep changing, but I have to mention that I’ve written a new introduction for it countless times. I have a whole series of introductions, so many in fact that at one point I toyed with the idea of making an entire book out of the introductions. It would be like Groundhog Day for the reader, just a repetition of starts that never seem to go anywhere.

When I first started this book it was going to be comprised of rigorous essays about Education. I had the intention of doing solid research into each topic and really nailing down some of the issues that have fascinated and frustrated me over the years. The problem with that – once I got about 200 pages into it – was that I was completely bored by my own essays. I never wanted to go back and re-read them, and when I described them to others or forwarded drafts of them to colleagues and friends, I would get no feedback. It was clear that nobody else wanted to read them either. This was a problem. I was writing a book that nobody, including myself, wanted to read. I was doing it masochistically the way one serves penance. When I realized what I was doing I stopped. I almost felt like ceremoniously burning that first draft and thus purging myself of it forever. But I didn’t.

I moved.

I uprooted my entire existence and went to Holland for nine months. I got a fresh start and continued to move forward with the book. I didn’t move there just to work on the book, but it was certainly one of the reasons for it. When I got to Holland I had a series of strange dreams brought about at first by jet lag and then became recurring as time passed. I had started calling the book “The Utopian Cow” and kept waking up and drawing images of cows in the middle of the night. I did a series of woodcuts where I morphed celebrities into cows: Johnny Cash Cow, Charles BuCOWski, Amy Winecow, and Justin Beefer, to name a few. After many drawings, dreams, and jokes about cows, I awoke one morning and furiously began rewriting the entire book from the POV of a cow, just like Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis. I thought that I had nailed it. My book was going to be a classic in the vein of symbolic children’s literature like Louis Carroll and Frank L. Baum. It was going to still be about teaching, but layered into a surrealistic journey as told by a cow. I even started illustrating this version and have several woodcuts and drawings of me as the narrator/protagonist. I enthusiastically shared these chapters and drawings with my daughters, but I think they just thought that their father had lost his mind. After several weeks I went from feeling that I had finally found it to realizing that this wasn’t going to cut it. I was getting lost in so many of the mad ramblings, and there was no way to describe to others just what this book was about. A book about Education written by a cow? No, I’m the writer, the cow is the narrator. Really? Why? Well, I don’t know. Exactly who was going to be my target audience? Barnyard animals, educators, or literary marginalists who would read just about anything – some of whom may champion such a book – but who would largely just dismiss it as being too weird and incongruent. I knew that for the most part it was going to be a losing battle, and one that I was growing less determined to fight.

So I quit writing from the cow’s POV and just started writing. I wrote essays, stories, anecdotes and had no idea where these would lead. The funny thing was that I loved writing them. And I loved sharing them. And I found that others were enjoying reading them. After years of trying to write something, of telling myself that I was working on a book on Education, of masochistically going about it more like a soldier than a writer, I had finally gotten to the point where writing was a pleasure rather than a chore and I could write with greater freedom and precision. The problem now was something entirely new: I had no idea how these writings were going to come together as a book, and I started to doubt that I would achieve what I had set out to do. So I eased off for a bit, continued writing, and turned this exercise into a blog. I lowered my expectations of having a book come from this, but raised my expectations in that each new story and essay was better than the previous one. In other words, I was going somewhere, but I had no idea where I was going. I was traveling without a road map, going city to city without a true destination in mind.

For a while this didn’t bother me in the least. I continued writing and blogging and enjoying the experience, but the nagging expectation of having a completed book in hand began to gnaw at me again. I felt that I needed to keep trying.

It was at this point that I decided to return to the United States. The resettling process meant that the writing process would have to take yet another backseat. I stopped writing almost entirely. No more blogging, no more stories except for the ones that I felt compelled to write. These stories were few and far between, but at least they served to make me feel that I was still in game, that I could pick up and do it when I was moved to do it. There was still a concept and a desire to see it through, no matter how long it took. And that is pretty much where I am now. I am at the point where I am exceedingly thankful that nobody ever read that first draft, that no one had to suffer through that false flag of academic rigor and that I didn’t have to suffer through those awkward sessions between friends and colleagues who danced around the issue of “hey, your book sucks (but I just don’t know how to tell you that to your face.)”

I am also thankful that no one read my cow memoir and had to struggle to make sense of it. The pictures are cute and funny, and some day I might have to put this out as a real children’s book, but it was not the kind of book that I would ever feel proud of, especially one meant to be more a tome on Education than a journey down a rabbit’s hole.

 

So just what is this book intended to be (now that you know what it is never was)? I believe now that it’s more of what it started out to be, but much less “teacherly.” It’s exactly like the observation that my director made, but only outside the realm of the classroom. I am less concerned with sounding like a teacher than of being one. And just like those students in the classes with a teacher who is calm and engaged, I hope that my readers move through these pages comfortably and are comforted by what they read. These are a collection of stories and essays that reveal lessons that happen for both the student and the teacher when the teaching is not entirely being demonstrated. Things are being learned, but they are more of the anecdotal life lessons that happen in between the lesson plans, outside of the planned outcomes. They are more in tune with John Lennon’s famous line that “life happens when you’re busy making other plans.” They happen over time. They happen when least expected. They happen because we’re human and we’re interacting within the charged atmosphere of human expectations. They’re happening because as Even Ensler said about raising teenage girls, “it is a pathway to your own liberation.” And because I’ve worked mainly as a high school teacher, and because I’m a single father who is now raising two teenage girls, I’ve come to appreciate what she means by that. Teenagers are special for many reasons. They are at a crossroads in life between childhood and adulthood, they are forming their true personalities, they are grappling with the big issues of family and relationships, and they are truly a breed unto themselves. And after so many years of working with them I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. They are wonderful, open, and funny. They are the population I seem to identify with the most, even though I’m long past my own teenage years. There are some psychologists who believe that we find a comfortable niche in our own development and we stay there, some more than others. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re a fifty year old adolescent who’s trying to still look and act the part. I find that teenagers keep me young in other ways. They are forever hungry to learn and grow and they are always tapping into what’s really cool, what’s really false, and they for the most part are extremely intuitive about people who are “real” with them. If you pass muster with this you will have devoted trust and unfathomable possibilities as a teacher. You will come to work full of wonder for what the day may bring, and for what lies ahead. You will be forever astonished.

And that is exactly what this book is about. It’s about being astonished, surprised, touched, challenged, and trying to always do better. It’s about being true to who you are as a teacher and as a human being. It’s about doing your job and making it look easy, the way a seasoned, well-trained athlete can make the most impossible tasks look effortless. Of course it takes years of training and lots of sweat and tears, but that’s not what observers are supposed to see. They’re supposed to see only the joy and ease at which you perform your role, and not the years of arduous missteps that you took along the way. But that’s not all. I’m including all of those inglorious moments when you fall flat on your face and learn from being an absolute idiot, making the kind of mistakes that you either learn from or quit.

In the end I hope that reading this book is as enjoyable as walking into a classroom where everyone is smiling and happy, or when you walk into a classroom where something extraordinary is happening, something that may be poignant or difficult but is obviously teaching a profound lesson that will stay with everyone for a lifetime. Or not. It might’ve just been a lucky shot. You might’ve aimed for something lofty but fell way short of the mark. This is the real beauty of teaching and the real core of what it means to have the incredible opportunity to do this for years and be forever grateful for having stuck it out for that long. Just like writing a book that never seems to become what it was intended to become, I have become a teacher although I never intended for that to happen. I guess I just got a little lucky along the way.