Function of Education

For the last several years I have thought about this quote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is fitting for two reasons: 1) most would profess this to be education’s chief aim; 2) a free, high quality public education seems to be the civil rights issue of our day and age. Rather than offer a solution on either of these two challenges–and make no mistake, solutions are desperately needed for both issues–this brief entry is more of a meditation on the first reason and the vexing problems presented by the Florida Education Model.

Much of what Florida education–and this is perhaps true in most states across the U.S.–focuses on is “teaching to the test” in the sense that almost everything revolves around some standardized test outcome, whether for the individuals involved (student or classroom teacher) or the institutions themselves (schools and districts). Though not explicitly taught to do so, by the time students are in middle school they realize the skills they are receiving, perhaps even implicitly, are that of “memorization and regurgitation.” They cram their heads full of facts that they often have no connection to or context for, dump out the ones they remember on the all-too-important state assessment, only to move on to a new subject the following semester or year having learned little to nothing of value.

Many high school students themselves find this incredibly frustrating and want something better, something more.

Imagine if our education system really were about teaching “one to think intensively and to think critically.” What would that look like? While some traffic in conspiratorial plans about reformers intentionally dumbing down our children, the current model is simply the cheapest to implement for the state while simultaneously padding the profits of the Education Industrial Complex, most especially the standardized testing giants. None of this benefits our students, especially as we get further into the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to radically reconfigure our education system so that the outcomes are focused on students who can think intensively and critically.

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, much of the class is oriented toward producing these skills, albeit they are focused on knowledge itself. But learning how to think intensively and critically needs to be modeled aloud, discovered through dialogue, and practiced often by oneself and among peers–something we have little time for in most traditional classrooms. Moreover, we often get into discussions about the value in knowing random facts about the world if they will have little use or relation to one’s future professional path, regardless of what path that may be. Whether a student becomes a plumber, a pilot, or a plastic surgeon, any adult person living on the planet will need good thinking.

But even beyond the college and career readiness aspects of focusing on teaching students how to think intensively and critically, the second part of the MLK quote is equally essential: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Obviously thinking hones intelligence, regardless of the type, but character is an interesting word choice. The root is the ancient Greek word for sharpening, as if our character is something to be worked upon, whittling away that which does not benefit our personal moral code and leaving behind what is most essential. Does our education system explicitly promote that? How might our students benefit from this type of education? Would it not truly leave them better prepared to face any challenge life might throw their way in the future? All of us face a future full of uncertainty due to technological innovation and disruption, and being able to think clearly and lucidly about events as they arise, in conjunction with the strength of character, would be the best skills and traits we could impart to our students.

We need to make this seismic shift in our educational approach much sooner than most think. The regressive model of education we currently use is antiquated and built upon ideas that were important 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more irrelevant today. The future of education must be more human and more humane. We must focus on what makes us unique as a species (art, play, creativity, communication, etc) and leverage those skills over and above those tasks that can be done by machines. Education must become focused on thinking for its own sake and to instill a love of learning that is lifelong and directs each student to further investigate his or her passions, none of which can be found by filling in letter B on the bubble sheet.

 

Seneca
Seneca, pondering Stoic ideals

For roughly two weeks I have taken a social media sabbatical. The swirling madness that is constant (and quite often, negative) interactions via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc can be so toxic and draining, and I needed to just shut it all down and retreat into reading and reflection.

In the first nine days, I managed to: 1) read 3 complete books (Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson are both excellent and highly recommended) and start on a current fourth; 2) journal nearly every day; 3) sit still–in addition to my daily meditation practice–to really reflect on what was accomplished during 2019; 4) and, most importantly, gave my undivided attention and wholehearted presence to those with whom I interacted during those days, especially my beautiful best friend and wife, Erin.

What I really pondered the most is how much effort I expended during 2019, with the latter half of the year feeling like a whirlwind that brought few moments of peace. Only when I truly slowed down and took the time to review my advocacy efforts did it really hit me that I am not my best when I stray too far from center. I was constantly overextending myself. The closing months of 2019 saw me sleeping little, people constantly asking me “Are you okay?”, and generally feeling like I was behind in all that I was trying to accomplish with each day. I did my best, but by the time the winter break arrived I was ready to just pull the plug on my public education advocacy altogether.

Everything in life has a cost, and I now realize that I must take a significant step back in my advocacy efforts moving forward. I need to do this to better balance my time among my students in the classroom, my own learning, and my home life, all of which were diminished in some sense by my seemingly overzealous defense of our students and profession.

The focus in 2020 will be “The Year of the Advocate.” In an effort to lighten my load, I am hoping that this is the year that Teacher Voice, as originally envisioned, will become a platform for other voices and not simply my own. There were some wonderful guest contributions in 2019, and I hope to get those more regularly moving forward. Although I may write posts occasionally, I will probably save what little I will have to say in 2020 for the Florida newspapers that are willing to publish my pieces as op-eds. When it comes to podcasts, however, they will resume monthly in a couple of weeks, and they will alternate between public education advocates who already hold and/or are seeking elected office, whether at the local or statewide level, and parent advocates in the broader community who represent groups or issues involving public education here in the Sunshine State.

Thank you to all who have supported me since I started this project two and half years ago. Although this is not the end of Teacher Voice, the prolific posting on the blog will no longer be the norm unless many guest posts start rolling in (ideally, I would like to publish pieces bi-weekly–any takers?). Podcasts will be published roughly in the middle of each month, and I can be contacted through this website or directly at 1teachervoice@gmail.com if you’d like to submit an article. Hopefully, the better balance between my personal and professional lives and activities will allow me to be the best advocate possible for all of Florida’s children and my fellow educators.

P.S. – FLFIRE will continue in 2020. Although it never took off the way I had envisioned it would (failing = learning), we are hoping to re-launch officially on 1/14/20 and use the momentum of the new legislative session to continue to build our grassroots network for future actions.

Testing Anxiety
An all-too-common sight for teachers looking out at students taking high stakes tests/exams.

Friend and fellow educator Michelle Hamlyn returns with another timely guest post about what it is like to silently sit in a room with over-tested teens who are anxious and stressed about earning a certain number / grade on their semester exams. If you didn’t catch any of Michelle’s previous guest pieces, Why We’re Here and I’m Angry are highly suggested. For now, please read and share her latest reflection on what education has become…

As I sit here for the third day in a row, watching my twelve- and thirteen-year olds take their sixth semester exam, I am once again reminded how far public education has gone off course. Some of them sit and stare like zombies. Some of them have at least one body part perpetually in motion – a foot tapping, fingers drumming, a leg bouncing up and down. Some of them just sit with the most resigned, discouraged looks on their faces. And we expect them to be able to sit and be quiet for almost two solid hours. I know successful adults who can’t manage that.

It didn’t used to be like this. Learning used to be enjoyable and interesting. Students used to be able to feel wonder and curiosity and success. But now, it’s just about finding the “best right answer.” Although I’d like to claim that phrase, I can’t. It’s been used in more than one professional development course I’ve taken.

How exactly is a twelve-year old, who can’t remember to bring their PE uniform home to be washed and back again, supposed to pick the “best right answer?” These are the people whose interests change more often than the latest technology. The people who today are “going out with” Bubba, but tomorrow find Earl more attractive. The people who think armpit “fart” noises are hysterical. (All of which is developmentally appropriate for this age group, unlike a two-hour semester exam in seven subjects over three and a half days.)

What does it do to your spirit when over the course of four days, you take seven nearly two-hour exams in which you have to find the “best right answer?” How does any of that feel rewarding? How does it show your intelligence?

More importantly, what has happened to teaching children to think for themselves? To know that there is more than one way to do things and that sometimes there is more than one answer?

With all the posturing over test scores and a push for creativity, you’d think that someone in charge would understand that the more rigid the answers become, the less children ask questions. The less they enjoy learning. The less they are, in fact, learning.

I hear all the reformers and legislators talking about kids being college and career ready. Those terms didn’t even exist back when they were children. And they shouldn’t exist now. That’s a fine goal for high school students. But it has no place in our dialogue about kindergarten through eighth grade.

I wonder how many of the reformers and legislators were college and career ready in elementary school or middle school. Those are places where you are supposed to learn, not just your numbers and letters, but also who you are and how to manage learning. They are not places where you only learn one thing or the “best right answer.” They are places where you explore, you make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.

But today’s students don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t afford to. Because their scores depend on it. Sadly, they’ve been taught to believe these scores actually define them.

And parents have bought into this narrative. Your child MUST take this standardized test to prove they’ve learned. To prove their value. To show that they can handle the next level. That they are college and career ready.

Even if they are just twelve- and thirteen-year olds. Taking seven two-hour exams where they have to find the “best right answer.”

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FLFIRE – Florida’s Fully Inclusive Rebellion for Education

Education should not be political. But for the last two decades in Florida, it has been.

As a democratic society and the collective stewards of the generations that follow in our wake, we realize that a balanced, high quality education that prepares a student for life is what we all desire. Tallahassee, however, has made this next to impossible for a variety of reasons, from the chronic underfunding of the last decade to the overtesting of our children. Parents and educators alike feel helpless in the face of a constant legislative onslaught that breeds bad ideas, foists unfunded mandates upon local districts, and routinely ignores the concerns or expertise of either group that works with our students each and every day.

Even worse, our students are suffering. Whether the chronic stress of being constantly assessed or the demeaning way in which they are reduced to a single metric, our children are being dehumanized for the purpose of data collection. Furthermore, they are terrorized by all-too-frequent shooter drills that keep them anxious and on high alert, even when not crouching in the complete dark trying to remain motionless and breathe silently. Most students openly share these frustrations with caring adults in schools who also feel powerless. Ultimately, we are trapped in a system that has become inhumane. Is this what education has become in the 21st century?

Our children deserve much better than this. Now is the time to take a stand.

You are receiving this letter today because we are asking all of you to make a basic choice: Will you stand with teachers or Tallahassee? Will you side with parents or privatizers? Will you choose students or suffering?

To have a $1 trillion dollar economy yet rank 45th in public education spending is deeply shameful. The destabilization these draconian budgets have brought must be decried by us all. The lack of resources is felt at every turn, from providing wraparound services to our most vulnerable children and their communities, to paying all educators a wage that allows them to fully support their families without additional stress or jobs. But how do we accomplish this?

FLFIRE is a grassroots coalition comprised of concerned stakeholders seeking to send a message to the Florida Legislature that puts people over politics, educators over entrenchment. We need to radically reshape our education system to make it more inclusive and humane for every person involved, beginning with the student and buttressed by every caring adult who works alongside the child. By issuing this resolution your school district can demonstrate solidarity with citizens all across the Sunshine State who currently support this growing movement. Our students and their future require a robust and on-going investment to provide the necessary resources for an education that truly befits the whole child and allows her or him to flourish as a lifelong learner.

Read the resolution here: FLFIRE School Board Resolution

Many thanks in advance for your time and consideration in issuing this important decree.

Sincerely,

Ryan Haczynski and the members of FLFIRE

FLFIRE-STAR

 

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Kam Rigney

Kam Rigney is a middle school Special Education teacher who works with students with profound cognitive disabilities.  She teaches six different subject areas, across three grade levels, in a self-contained classroom.  Kam believes that all voices matter, and all students deserve the opportunity to show how amazing they are, on their own individual level.  Kam facilitates District Wide Trainings for her peers within Pinellas county and has been acknowledged as a teacher expert.  Kam is the Vice President for the PTSA, the Secretary for SAC, and she is certified as a Best Practice For Inclusion facilitator.  She is also a new teacher mentor and a Lead Union Representative at her school.  She received her B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies PreK-8, a M.S. in Special Education K-12, and a M.A. in English Language Learners K-12 from Western Governors University. 

We are experts in our field…

Anyone else feel like a team of supervisors that supervise another set of supervisors are diminishing our expertise?

I became a teacher for the purest reasons. I wanted to impact students the way I was by some awesome teachers /coaches…

I am definitely working in a population that I was never a part of growing up, let alone even saw when I went to school…

Oh how times have changed.

I am really good at what I do, many of us are!

It shouldn’t be this hard.

I shouldn’t hear so many teachers are ready to leave this profession.

I shouldn’t have to question my ability to do what I do by someone who has never done my job or has openly said “I don’t want to do your job”.

Don’t give me test scores.

Don’t shove down my throat what gains are needed to improve a school score.

Walk in my room and see what they can do!

Ask me, let me show you the data, I’ll show you how far they’ve come.

See the social skills they’ve gained.

See the amazing ways they’ve progressed.

Ask their parents to sit down and tell you the difference a year, or two, or three in my classroom has made.

Don’t give me a number, because I teach incredible humans, not a statistic!

Just a thought from a tired teacher.

#seetheperson #seetheirgrowth

This lament by Kam caught my eye the other day in Florida Teachers Unite! on Facebook. Always on the lookout for guest posts, so if you believe you’d make a good contributor or know someone else who may want to write a guest post, please send an email to 1teachervoice@gmail.com. Thanks!

P.S. – Still haven’t signed/shared the petition? https://Change.org/SupportFloridaEducators

Marcus Coin
One of the Stoic coins I often keep in my pocket to remind me of my purpose in this life.

This post originally appeared on my personal Facebook feed a couple nights ago and, based on the reaction and how much it has been shared, I thought it simply best to publish it here.

Some people have questioned my motivations since I began the Teacher Voice project. All that I can say is I went to the University of South Florida intending to double-major in Philosophy and Mathematics and graduated with a Religious Studies and Classics degree instead. Everything in life shapes us somehow, and my reading and reflection has a great deal to do with who I am now as well as who I aspire to be in the future.

Thank you so much for reading and please continue to sign and share the petition, which now has its own special link at https://Change.org/SupportFloridaEducators

Dear Fam:

I love teaching. Can’t imagine doing anything else during my working years, but everyone keeps telling me to run for office. Don’t think I’m there yet, mainly because I cannot imagine a workday without kids in my life. It wasn’t in the cards for Erin and me, which is why I think we love our students as if they were our own children. Plus, as a lifelong learner and restless nerd, I don’t think I would survive being around more adults when I learn more and stay relevant by being around amazing students each and every day.

BUT…

I have a massive favor to ask of all of you. As an NPA who tries hard to be centrist on every issue, I am sick and tired of living in a state (and country, at this point) that consistently puts politics over people. We all suffer for it, and we all deserve so much more from our elected officials, most especially our children.

As some of you know, I have become increasingly outspoken about the state of education here in Florida through my project Teacher Voice. I really can’t explain my advocacy beyond a heartfelt feeling for kids and how we, as the “adults,” should be leaving a legacy that provides them with the brightest future possible.

Make no mistake—we are NOT doing this here in the Sunshine State.

When I moved here in 1998, Florida was 27th in public education funding and 29th in average teacher pay. Still below the national average, but not terrible.

Now? Florida has a $1 TRILLION economy that ranks 4th in the U.S. and 17th on the globe—how on earth could we have fallen all the way to 45th and 48th for these same stats respectively?

Politics over people, that’s how…

Having spent the last 25 years of my life with my face in philosophy books and sacred texts from around the world, I cannot help but speak out on behalf of my students and profession. I am compelled on principle to speak truth to power regardless of personal risk. I do not care. This cause is far bigger than me or any single person.

This is about kids. This about their future.

For too long, intelligent, passionate, dedicated educators have been sidelined, ignored, and marginalized. For too long we’ve had politicians who micromanage our daily existence despite knowing ZERO about what we do or how we care about our students in SO many ways that go well beyond “instruction”.

It is time for this to end. It is time for our “leaders” to talk to teachers.

I know this is long and a risk in an age of TL; DR (too long; didn’t read), but if you are a former student, a friend new or old, a family member—or some random stranger who happened to run across this post because I made it public, I hope that you will please help me—help every educator in the Sunshine State—to have a seat at the table. Our voices are crucial for helping fix this completely broken, inhumane, data-driven, test-stressed BS that now passes for education. But I—we—need your help to get us to the table.

I started this petition yesterday morning and it has almost 2500 signatures already (now nearly 5K!). But we need to make this go viral. I’d love to put 10K+ on this thing within a week before sending it to Governor Ron DeSantis. Can you help by reading, signing and sharing this petition?

Thank you in advance for helping all teachers across Florida!

And far more importantly, thank you for being a part of my journey. It is difficult to put into words how grateful I am for each and every day I get in this amazing life, mainly because of the relationships I have with all of you.

Much love,

– Ryan

Sympatheia
This has been the coin I’ve carried since the beginning of the school year.

P.S. – For the last 5-6 years or so, I’ve really taken a deep dive into Stoicism. I’m not one for labels in general, but if anything has helped me survive the vicissitudes of the legislative nightmare of Tallahassee the last several years, it has been a constant reminder that what they or anyone else does is beyond my control. What is in my control is my response, my attitude, my perspective. If you don’t know much about Stoicism (it often gets mischaracterized because of how the word is employed culturally now), check out this short TED Ed Talk on YouTube.

RELATED: Lessons on Leadership from Marcus: An Open Letter to the HCPS School Board

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Executive Chef Paul Bonanno and several culinary students serving at this year’s Excellence in Education award ceremony for Hillsborough County Public Schools

“I tell them food is the thing that connects us all. It’s a universal language. It is what cultures are centered upon…and I make that point the first day with the kids. This is something we all share.” – Chef Paul (more pics can be found below)

When I started the Teacher Voice project over two years ago, Paul Bonanno was the first coworker at Strawberry Crest High School that I asked to be on the podcast. At the time it was difficult for him to commit for numerous reasons, chief of which we never even discussed during the episode–he was the boys’ head coach of our state championship winning swim team. Eventually the moment arrived, though, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did. From our mutual love of cooking to how Paul truly “prepares students for life” by focusing on the effort and work-related skills they will need for the future, this podcast was truly worth the wait.

Please listen and share with others. With the focus finally shifting back to balance out career prep pathways with those seeking college prep programs, this conversation highlights how much value these kinds of kids and programs bring to our communities upon graduation. For instance, one of my former freshman Geometry students, Chase, who is referenced during our conversation, went on to become one of Chef Paul’s right hand students as a senior; now he is working as a pastry chef at Wright’s Gourmet, one of the most famous establishments in Tampa.

Thanks for listening, everyone!

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Behind the scenes in the commercial kitchen of The Upper Crest Cafe

SpongeBob Split Pants

9 year classroom veteran, doctoral candidate, previous poster and past podcast guest, Seth Federman returns with a brief reflection on how teachers must be masters of the moment, often making the best of sometimes bad situations. But for Seth, this underscores the need for our own self-care in light of the negative health outcomes often associated with our profession.

The first day of school is riddled with nerves and anticipatory woes with how the students will react, how the first day jitters will transfer, etc.

Well I’m here to tell you: if you split your pants on the inseam, had technology stop working, and a semblance of control over what others could perceive as organizational chaos…I think we did OK.

Throughout the summer we have been addressing PTSD concerns, how stress is becoming the real reason our profession is dwindling, and other very important health matters. But the first day of school taught me this: the whole plan could come crashing down, but it’s always all about the students at the end of the day.

My horror at 6:30am realizing that the rip was bad (I mean really bad) was only topped by the laptop not working. If it were my fourth or fifth year, it would have been a circus act of crazy. But being in my ninth year now (which is weird to say), I had to approach it differently. As educators, we are uniquely conditioned to be empathetic. We take the emotional transference of others because that’s how we build relationships with all involved. However, what they don’t do in educator programs or professional development sessions is teach us how to deal with all of the extras.

In doing my research, primary and secondary infections and diseases are becoming prominent within educators aged 25-45. Ailments such as shingles, heart conditions, kidney disease are all things this bracket is currently dealing with. So what do we do? As a profession and working with (not against) others, we need to rethink professional development and support services for educators. Individuals working with highly emotional situations need assistance in processing and dealing with these events. Just like with students, we can’t expect that every teacher just knows how to deal with it, nor is it a question of character and/or stamina if they don’t.

Mindfulness, emotional management, and self awareness are things we agree students need to learn. But these three concepts are needed for teachers as well. Not every teacher can split his or her pants, deal with first day confusion, and no technology. Furthermore, the expectation that all teachers will just learn how to deal with these challenges is no longer acceptable. If we want to keep our profession healthy, then we need to make sure its educators are healthy.

Even though my pants did split and technology was having a tantrum, I still achieved my primary objective: build relationships.

Like what you read? Check out Seth’s earlier posts below!

Band-Aids for Broken Bones

PTSD and Teachers

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Derek Thomas, English Teacher, Plant High School

From the moment I began the Teacher Voice project just over two years ago, one of the first people who immediately came to mind as a guest was Derek Thomas, a local English teacher whom I never met yet felt a connection to because of his positive tweets. Much like myself, Derek struck me as a person and teacher who values relationships with his students over virtually every other aspect of being in the classroom with kids.

But he’s also one heck of a writing teacher, and as someone who also reads a great deal of student writing in my role with the IB program, I wanted to discuss how he gets kids to grow as writers and, ultimately, communicators. This conversation, then, largely revolves around those two ideas and I savored every moment of this talk, both in the moment and while listening to it again before publication. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.

Thanks for listening, everyone! Enjoy the first back week with your students!

P.S. – Although this is not one of the tweets I read at the end, I intentionally skipped this one in the feed because I thought it would be a great post script/first day message from Derek. If you are on Twitter and need a burst of positivity relating to the kids or classroom, you can follow him @derekjathomas

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This has been an interesting summer full of reading and reflection. A few weeks ago at a recent HCPS board meeting, I spoke about all that I believe is wrong with public education in its current manifestation (watch here). Whether it’s getting kids to pound obsolete facts into their heads to be regurgitated on a meaningless state assessment or any number of other pointless activities we put students through so that they can receive a so-called “education”, none of what public education here in Florida (or the United States, for that matter) will truly help students thrive in life. Instead, as noted previously, our students succeed despite the system, not because of it.

But where do we go from here? What should the future of education look like? Well, I start to speak about it here, and I hope to convince you, dear reader, as to why mind training through meditation should be the foundation to not only a more holistic, human-centered public education policy, but something that you should begin in your personal life today.

As a lifelong lover of wisdom, most of my favorite philosophers hail from the Axial Age, a period from roughly 800 BCE through 200 CE when the world produced some of the most influential thinkers whose thoughts and ideas have stood the test of time. For me, the top five who have influenced my thinking and humanity the most are (chronologically): Siddhartha Gautama (the historical “Buddha“); Socrates; Aristotle; Jesus; and Aurelius. All of them in their own ways deeply inform who I am trying to become and, more importantly in this context, who I am as a teacher and exemplar in the classroom.

Beyond these sages from antiquity, very few other philosophers loom so large in my mind and worldview than my two 19th century favorites: Friedrich Nietzsche and William James, the latter of whom I hope to introduce you to and have you think about, especially if you are a classroom teacher.

William James is an intellectual giant for numerous reasons, chief among them being widely recognized as the “Father of American Psychology” after publishing his seminal work, The Principles of Psychology. Within this work, two chapters should be of particular interest to all educators, as they would be the ideal bedrock upon which to erect the edifice of an education: attention and habit. Both chapters are hyperlinked and are worth reading for a deeper understanding of James’ ideas, but I hope to demonstrate why these two critical facets would / could / should be the basis for any public education system as they are both foundational to a life well lived.

As mentioned in the second set of comments, most people do not fully appreciate the amount of cultural disruption that will stem from technological innovation, radically changing how we interact with our environments and, far more critically, with each other. Take a moment to think about this fact: the iPhone, which I believe is widely acknowledged to be the first true “smartphone” debuted in 2007. That was only twelve years ago; what will the next ten, twenty, or thirty bring?

Now think about how much our attention has been fractured during that same twelve year period. How much our devices beckon us. How much the siren song takes attention away very often from those who matter most–the closest people in our lives. Even now I have to admit the ironic use of this particular medium that is, statistically speaking, being read on said device or some similar type screen. Perhaps there is a reason we have witnessed the rise in diagnoses of ADD and ADHD in the last 30 years. Perhaps there is a reason we are all so constantly stressed by the demands that compete for our attention, which, in reality, is the currency of our personal time, life’s most precious resource…

And yet, without the proper habits, without the proper mental training to consciously develop the good habits of mind we want in all people, the brain has a tendency to hardwire much of what our environment and lack of self-reflection and self-awareness ingrain into us. William James, as a medical doctor at Harvard, became deeply interested in the human brain, and he was the first (that I am certainly aware of) in the West to diagnose the problems caused by bad habits and a lack of attention.

Among many other famous aspects of his great psychological work, James coined what is now an everyday phrase: stream of consciousness. He was deeply curious about how our waking experience could be used to shape our daily realities. As a philosopher, James is known as a Pragmatist (the chief reason he is one of my favorites), which focuses more on practical experience rather than theoretical or abstract ideas. So when he realized that our stream of consciousness could be nudged to develop better and better habits, he began to develop a philosophy around that idea.

And what better way to achieve this than by the willful use of attention. If we know how to rein it in and use it proactively, the  attention can be used to direct the stream of consciousness to what is most important in any given moment. Moreover, the long term effect of this mind training–something that has conclusively been demonstrated by neuroscience in the last twenty years–is an increased ability to focus as well as greater attentional stamina.

Why is this not something that is slowly taught to every single student starting Day One?

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So how can we can train students to maximize this ability? I believe the entry point into this mind-training is through meditation. The word meditation itself admittedly has baggage, because people hear the word and Buddhism automatically comes to mind (interestingly enough, Christianity had a very long and storied contemplative tradition that was de-emphasized during the Reformation and Enlightenment); my entry point to meditation ten years ago, however, was through the lens of the emerging neuroscience, yet tempered by my general skepticism with which I tend to approach most weighty claims. Like James, I realized that I had to become my own experiment. I had to live out the experience in order to see first hand if this could be beneficial.

As a Type A personality who always feels compelled to be moving, active, engaged, etc, asking me to sit down, close my eyes, and focus on my breath was an absolute insane idea. I distinctly recall trying to make it through one cycle of deep breathing and by the second inhalation my mind exploded with thoughts: I can’t do this! I’m wasting time! I have to send that email! What’s for lunch? How much longer?, and on and on. If you’ve ever tried meditation, I’m confident you had a similar experience. But that first step has taken me on journey I never would have expected or believed had you told me I would be this person a decade later.

The inward focus that meditation requires effectively asks us to step into that stream of consciousness, and one of the most interesting things I have learned and would be so beneficial to every child in the world is that you are not your thoughts. Here’s how I pitch it to students:

We all have a voice in our heads, right?

But sometimes it can be more than one voice, right?

And when there’s more than one voice, it’s usually a debate of some kind, so which voice is the real you?

*Most students are smiling, laughing, or deep in thought by this point, as most human beings have never had their attention consciously directed to the interior experience of their minds*

FINAL QUESTION: WHO OR WHAT IS WATCHING THESE VOICES ARGUE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

One of the most important discoveries that William James intuited through his own experience is that the thoughts are not consciousness itself. Setting aside the more metaphysical dimensions of what the consciousness may or may not be (we still cannot pin down physical correlates to consciousness with brain function at this point, but it would seem to be an emergent property of the entire neural network), we can at least use this simple set of questions to pierce the illusion of thoughts-as-consciousness and understand the metaphor of the stream that James was using in his psychological framework. Consciousness is always there, flowing like a stream; some times it is calm, some times it is raging torrent that is overflowing with a powerful emotion such as anger. Thoughts and emotional states are like rocks being thrown into the river, some of which are large enough to divert its flow and carry us off in a new direction*. The trick is to realize that, through mind training, we can better control the stream, so to speak, because the more meditation wears down the identification of consciousness with the thoughts themselves, the more we realize we have the power to choose and cultivate the thoughts that will benefit ourselves and each other.

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The ultimate goal of any education should be to produce lucid yet malleable minds that are able to keep pace with the coming cultural and technological change. Education should focus on the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. We should be teaching our students first and foremost how to navigate their daily experiences by providing the mental tools that have been scientifically proven to: 1) decrease stress and anxiety; 2) increase mental acuity, focus, and attentional stamina; 3) enhanced executive functioning, with great access to fluid intelligence/working memory; 4) improved well-being in the form of a strengthened immune system, better emotional regulation/impulse control, and an increase in pro-social behaviors.

Who would not want this to be part and parcel of every child’s education in preparation for life? Is the goal not to produce human beings who have the capacity and freedom of thought that results in lateral, critical and creative thinking that will produce innovative solutions to our most vexing problems? Because I guarantee training children to fill in bubble sheets all the time will not get us there. While meditation should be the foundation, ideally each level would focus on different aspects of education:

Elementary: constructive play for the earliest ages with a focus on communication and collaboration. This seems to be the critical ages at which the innate curiosity and creativity are ground out of children in the name of the factory model. Scrap standards based learning and go back to holistic, content-rich thematic units that provide the basic building blocks of our world, with a focus on literacy across all curricula.

Middle: continued emphasis on relationship building and empathy, while allow students to explore ideas within generalized domains that they may find personally interesting. Provide more robust project-based learning that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge of the world in various ways, especially through demonstrations to further enhance communication abilities.

High: beginning of specialization for those who demonstrate the aptitude and desire to focus on a particular path in life. For those who are still unsure, a continued open exploration of topics of any choice with continued emphasis on producing evidence of learning and problem solving in novel ways.

These are only some ideas about how our education system could be radically altered for the better if there were the political and cultural will to do so. As it is now, our system fails a great many students. If you have read this longer piece to the end, thank you for taking the time and interest in thinking about these things. I honestly believe, as nearly all teachers do, that being successful at this craft is really all about our relationships with the students. My meditation practice has helped me bring a palpable presence into my room each and every day, and I do my best to infuse that space with love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience, five of the key values that motivate my life and with which I feed my mind thoughts on these subjects every day.

May you have a wonderful year with your students!

P.S. – I realize this piece is a little light on sources/links, but it’s only because in the ten years I have been meditating I have had a love affair with neuroscience. On the low end, I would venture to guess that in that same decade I have read at least 50 books on either the brain, meditation, or how the latter impacts the former. And I still continue to read at least 3-5 books on these topics every year.

So have a piqued your curiosity about possibly beginning your own meditation practice? I hope so. If you are interested, here are some essential resources that I recommend to others with some frequency.

Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World – written by Oxford professor Mark Williams and award winning journalist Danny Penman, the book is written as an 8-week course of MBCT, or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. They provide all the rudiments of basic mindfulness meditation while reviewing much of the basic neuroscience that speaks to the efficacy of these mind training practices. Even 10 minutes per day in as little as 8 weeks will create both functional and structural changes in the brain. The associated website with a few guided meditations can be found at franticworld.com.

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn was a practicing Zen Buddhist in the 1970s who understood the power of meditation; he was also a physician working with terminally ill cancer patients at UMass General, so he developed what is now commonly referred to as MBSR, or “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” to help his dying patients make the best of their end of life experiences. This book is best listened to rather than read, as the audio version contains several guided meditations.

Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity – For those of you who may be interested in the more traditional, spiritual dimensions of meditation, B. Alan Wallace’s text is a wonderful blend of the science behind the brain, various meditative practices, as well as a history of how meditation developed within two different spiritual contexts of the East and West.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion – This is an excellent read for those who are agnostic or atheist. Regardless of how much I try to share the power of meditation through neuroscience, a few friends still write it off as religious mumbo-jumbo no matter how many fMRI scans I show them or information I quote from the many books I’ve read. Sam Harris, though, is both a neuroscientist and an atheist, so his book, which is both a personal exploration of how his own meditation practice developed as well as the neuroscience explaining the changes to the brain, has won over a few of my irreligious friends.

And if you’re feeling really nerdy, you can watch my “Neuroscience of Mindfulness” presentation that I delivered at USF Health five years ago. Word had gotten around that I start my classes with a “Mindful Minute”, and I was invited to be a panelist discussing the use of mindfulness in education settings. Between professors, principals, psychologists, counselors, and social workers on the panel, I felt a bit out of my element, but it made for an engaging discussion after the presenters had delivered their respective sections. The PowerPoint is below the video as well.

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness v2 (PowerPoint I’m using in the video)

Basic-Mindfulness-Practices – Basic instructions for breath focused meditation either seated or lying down.