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Pretty much that simple.

Hey, everyone.

I hope that all of you had a wonderful extended Spring Break, cultivated your curiosity, and took some time to get adjusted to the “new normal” that will be our lives for the immediate future. Now that “eLearning” is officially here and everyone is returning to “school”–albeit in a very different sense–I wanted to share a bit of advice about your academics.

Don’t worry about them too much.

I know that may sound strange coming from a teacher, but juxtapose the following two facts for a moment: 1) as a species, the current anatomic form of humanity has been around for approximately 200,000 years; 2) by comparison, compulsory education here in the United States has existed for roughly 170 years.

Clearly, human beings have made a great deal of progress without the aid of formal education.

But that’s not to say you can or should blow off what you need to get done for the International Baccalaureate diploma. Instead, it is simply to suggest you focus on your humanity first during this challenging time. As I mentioned before we left for Spring Break, one of the best things any teenager can do during this time is try to get as much sleep as possible. This is a critical window of time for brain development, and experts recommend between 9 to 9.5 hours per evening. Getting lots of sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to perform your best during the day.

Beyond sleep, the best thing you can do is organize your day by chunking out time for certain activities. Human beings are creatures of habit who thrive on routine, and establishing a schedule will help you stay positive and productive. On average, home school students spend 2-3 hours per day on “school work”; while you may need more time to accomplish what needs to be done for school, don’t spend your entire day focused on that alone.

Instead, take time for the more important matters. At the top of your list should be your family. During this trying time, do whatever you can first and foremost to help your parents/guardians in any way possible. If they need you to watch your siblings, do it; if they need you to clean up, cook dinner, do laundry or anything else to help around the house, do it. Don’t quibble about when or why, just be of service to others.

But even with these requests you will still probably have time on your hands, and this is where the real learning begins. Did you know, for instance, that much of the time Cambridge was closed due to the plague Isaac Newton developed Calculus? Or that Shakespeare composed King Lear? My point is that now is the perfect time to tackle those passion projects you didn’t feel you had time for due to the hectic IB schedule and all of its extracurricular demands. Why not use the coming days to earmark time for something you genuinely love or are curious about? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand at something new or develop another skill?

This is the perfect time.

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Florida’s Education Commissioner, but as Richard Corcoran recently said in the Tampa Bay Times, “They’ll be learning every day. That’s a great thing.”

The truth is we should all be learning lessons every. single. day. Life is one giant lesson if we are lifelong students who are always willing to learn. But now the time is calling us to be human. I’m not one for labels or being reductionist, but if there is common ground we can all agree to in this moment, it is our shared humanity. When we strip away the political identities, the religious affiliations, the claims to certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we are 99.9% genetically the same. We’ve all been given this gift of life. We’ve all been blessed in ways we often do not recognize on a daily basis.

And perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.

In closing, I hope that you use this time to learn as much as you possibly can, especially about what it means to be human in trying times. Lean on one another. And never forget my favorite quote from Gandhi that you looked at every day when we met in room 824.

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Best. Quote. Ever.

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Another excellent guest post from friend, fellow teacher, and contributor, Michelle Hamlyn.

For the entire fifteen years I’ve lived and taught in Florida, it seems the Florida Legislature has had it in for teachers. Teachers have dealt with tenure disappearing, increased standardized testing, and new evaluation systems. We’ve lived through multiple performance pay shenanigans, including the asinine Best & Bogus, arbitrary and continually moving cut scores, and constant disrespect. We’ve watched as shady charters use funding traditional public schools desperately need, only to close amid scandal after scandal. We’ve seen voucher misuse and abuse, to the detriment of some of our neediest kids.

And we’re still here.

Because we’re actually pretty good at waiting. (After all, we’re the people who sometimes have to wait all day to use the bathroom.) We wait for our students to think before they raise their hand to answer a question. We wait for the “light bulb” moments. We wait for the college acceptance letters with our high school students. We know human growth takes time.

Those of us veteran teachers who have been around for a while also know that in education, there are cycles and arcs. We know the pendulum eventually swings back in the opposite direction. So we’ve become pretty good at waiting.

All of this is lost on the Florida Legislature. They believed that if they could just prove the narrative that public education is failing, it would be quick and easy to privatize education. And then the money would roll in for them and their cronies. Unfortunately for them, they underestimated teachers’ “wait time” abilities. Grossly underestimated them.

Because no matter how many times they’ve changed the cut scores or the iteration of the standards or the version of the test, most of us have stayed. And taught our students how to play the game. Yes, you were taught to start your essay with a question, but this year you can’t start with a question. Absolutely, you’ll get a reference sheet with formulae on it. Sorry, you’re going to have to memorize the formulae this year. It’s enough to make a person’s head spin, but we’ve persevered.

As have our students.

So now they’ve come out with what is truly ridiculous. The new standardized test administration rules. These rules should have every public school parent in the state calling or emailing their legislators . Because the rules are even more asinine than a bonus based on a test the teacher took when they were seventeen. Make no mistake, the legislature will tell you it’s in the interest of fairness and a level playing field. As if they know what one looks like.

The new test administration rules forbid the following:

  • Waking a sleeping child.
  • Verbally encouraging a student.
  • Telling a student to go back and check their answers.
  • Asking the students if they’re sure they’re done or if they’ve answered every question before submitting the test.
  • Reminding students to write down (before the test begins) a formula or mnemonic device that will help them remember something.
  • Giving out mints or water.

There is absolutely nothing about any of these things that is truly in the interest of fairness. Seriously, telling a student, “It’s okay, you got this” is unfair? Letting them get a drink of water during a two-hour window of sitting in front of a computer makes a student infinitely smarter than “little Jimmy?” What’s next? Telling them they can’t use the bathroom during that two-hour window?

Most of the teachers I’ve communicated with that know of these new rules are beyond flabbergasted. Some are disheartened; some are rebellious. But all are shaking their heads in complete and total disgust. Because we know that this is just one more ploy in a long-standing ruse that just isn’t ever going to be true.

And in the meantime, our kids are paying the price.

Want to help? This petition recently started circulating online, demanding that the FLDOE reconsider these new “rules” that have been issued to educators who will work as testing proctors this spring. Please CLICK HERE to sign and share with others today!

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Ever the consummate gentleman, Wali Shabazz showed up with this rose on my doorstep

“[He’s] a saint, even though you can’t see his halo.” – Marina Pilcher, former chief of Hillsborough’s juvenile probation program.

My next door neighbor and friend, Wali Shabazz, has been advocating on behalf of the African American community–and young males in particular–here in Tampa for over 30 years. Though he readily admits that he has no control over the color of his own skin, he has “all the control over my excellence as a human being, and that needs to be more of our focus in the 21st century.” During this wide-ranging conversation about his advocacy work, we discuss the cultural changes that have shaped the African-American community since the 1960’s; how his program scaled up with a $1.2 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation; as well as the work he has done here in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

If you’d like to learn more about Wali and his work, below is list of articles that have profiled him and his work over the years. Wali specializes in Cultural Integrity Training for teens and adults, Group Sensitivity Training for educators, as well as individual coaching. He can be reached directly by email at wsshabazz1@aol.com or calling him on his cell phone (he also provides this in the podcast) at 813-363-6385.

Thanks for listening, everyone. Please be sure to share with others who may be interested!

Los Angeles Times: “Tampa Experiment: Black Crime: Taking a Look Inward”

Tampa Bay Times: “Program Tries to Give Black Male Students a Foundation”

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Dr. Kim Moore (L), Charity Franks (C), and Wali Shabazz (R)

 

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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

 

Take a moment and close your eyes. Can you visualize it? This is what Tallahassee–or any place in Florida–could look like with a massive grassroots uprising. The pictures above are of Phoenix when the Arizona Educators United #RedForEd movement stormed the capital, and this could be what Tallahassee looks like on the first day of the legislative session.

But how did we get here? And why the heck has it taken so long? Here’s a brief timeline:

Spring of 2018, numerous states begin to rebel against the status quo: ridiculously paltry funding, especially in southern states, has negatively impacted everything in education, from the resources available to provide supports and services to students, to the decline in meaningful raises due to little flexible funding being eaten up by rising costs for healthcare or categoricals.

During the midst of this uprising (and many, many times before), I started to publicly question why yet again the FEA was content to sit back and do nothing in the wake of unprecedented activism exploding all over the country: West Virginia began in late February and ran through March, and Arizona started organizing around that time and erupted in late April / early May. Although controversial when written, there were numerous comments by non-union members and frustrated rank and file members who believed back then that the time was upon Florida.

4/8/18 – A Question for Florida’s Teachers Unions: Why Can’t We Do More?

Seeing how effective these movements were (others happened in numerous other states, often popping up one after the other in OK, KY, CO, etc), the next post about the topic came about a month later. It outlined two possibilities for huge days of action that could be coordinated by FEA: 9/17/18, U.S. Constitution Day, which was proposed by retired teacher advocate extraordinaire, Donna Yates Mace, and 1/21/19, which was MLK Day this year and would have made for a powerful statement bringing everyone together to benefit all students and educators.

5/12/18 – Next Steps: Rally in Tally

After these two posts, I finally had the opportunity to ask the former president of the FEA, Joanne McCall, about the organization’s strategy to organize all educators across the state during her first podcast appearance. Was a rally in Tally in order? Nope. Just more hashtags and a “Me Plus Three” campaign to bring family and friends to the polls. Listen here if so inclined:

5/19/18 – Teacher Voice – Episode 21 (Joanne McCall)

Considering nothing ever came of these posts or discussions, I was encouraged by the fact that it was an election year for the FEA as well. Fed, Andrew, and Carole won convincingly, and I was hopeful that the FEA would take a new direction. Shortly after their win, I approached Fed and Andrew on the final morning of the Delegate Assembly and shared the idea of a massive rally in Tally, expressing my dismay that nothing had happened under the previous leadership team. I sent them my post via a group text and assumed this was something that could easily be accomplished in 3 months; after all, the students of the MSD/Parkland tragedy organized a massive movement in about 6 weeks.

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Screenshot of the text/link I sent to Fed, Andrew and Carole

Obviously, nothing happened…

2/4/19 – Reconstruct-ED: A Message to Governor DeSantis, a wildly successful non-partisan, parent-led Facebook group quickly gathers thousands of members and solicits input from said members. Five key demands are agreed upon by an incredibly diverse group including educators, parents, former students, and retirees, demonstrating the need for a massive overhaul to public education. These five points are ones no one would disagree with: 1) better funding/educator pay; 2) less testing for our students; 3) a return to true local control so school boards can do what is best for their constituents; 4) legislators who actually listen to constituent concerns; 5) no more train bills.

Part of this grassroots push was to also have a coordinated day of action on 1/14/20, the first day of the new legislative session. Marches were being set up in some counties, and in May of 2019 the Reconstruct-ED leadership even staged a small march with several hundred people in Martin County.

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Martin County March led by Reconstruct-ED

As momentum started to build within this network (now 9100+ strong), more and more people began talking about 1/14/20 as the day of action, including FEA leadership. Clearly a grassroots movement that included all stakeholders regardless of political leanings was just what the Sunshine State needed to raise the awareness of the issues we still face, but until we dominated the media and rose from the bottom of the polls we would get no real traction.

July 2019 – After attending the FLBOE meeting with a few education advocates at Polk State (7/17), I was upset by the fact that the FEA continued to do nothing to mobilize or organize its members. Stephanie Yocum, a brand new president of her local in Polk, was there in addition to a few more members, but it seemed as if a huge opportunity had been squandered, which then prompted this email to FEA leadership (7/25).

FEA Open Letter 1

August 2019 – At my penultimate executive board meeting for HCTA, our president informs us that the FEA day of action has been planned for 1/13/20, which prompted me to whip my head to the left and blurt out “WHAT?!”, to which he replied with, “yeah, they said you might not be too happy about it.” I was floored. Not only had I personally been told 1/14/20, it had been the original grassroots date for many months and it seemed as if they were trying to usurp the burgeoning movement.

I also continued to post things like this on Facebook (8/3/19):

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10/15/19 – The week of the FEA DA I decided to write this open letter to FEA leadership as well as the presidents of all locals across the state. Some presidents from small or medium locals wrote back to me, also dismayed by the change in the date. All I asked is that the process be democratic and to let the gathered body actually vote on the day, but my letter may have precluded them doing just that, as a new business item was quickly introduced and its sole purpose was to confirm the date of 1/13/20.

FEA Open Letter 2

And here we are! In the midst of the confusion surrounding two dates, people keep asking which date. My answer? Why not both? Plans have already been laid for my wife and I to be in Tallahassee both days along with some friends, but I will still continue to advocate for 1/14/20 because there is so much more symbolism surrounding that day. The ceremony and pageantry of the State of the State and everything else that goes along with it is exactly needs to be disrupted, but that only happens on 1/14/20. Hopefully the FEA-led event on 1/13/20 will be a smashing success that helps build momentum, but considering how it will be seen as partisan (just ask Governor DeSantis who already made now infamous remarks) my fears from the second open letter are already starting to be realized…

Now the choice is yours. Even if you cannot make it to Tallahassee or other demonstrations that will hopefully be organized for 1/14/20, if enough of us take a personal day on 1/14/20 districts may have no other choice than to shut down due to a lack of subs or personnel needed to run the schools for the day. Now THAT would be a powerful message sent to Governor DeSantis, Commissioner Corcoran, and the Florida Legislature.

But make no mistake…it will take nearly “everyone” for this to work.

For the last week and a half or so, Governor Ron DeSantis, Commissioner Richard Corcoran, and the entire FLDOE have been crowing about cherry-picked stats. This brief post is meant to disabuse you of these half-truths and peel back the onion layers a bit more in the report that these people are touting.

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FLDOE sure does love a good old fashioned half-truth…

Does Florida rank 4th in K-12 achievement according to Education Week‘s “Quality Counts 2019: Grading the States” report? Absolutely.

But everyone should know that ranking is largely based on a single snapshot of 4th grade NAEP test-takers, many of whom have had the additional year to prepare thanks to Florida’s terrible third-grade retention policies and practices. Polk School Board member Billy Townsend wrote about how fraudulent all of this gaming of statistics has truly become; it is obviously a ploy to dupe voters and would-be future Floridians to move here thinking the education system is putting out a quality “product” (so many people in power like to speak about our youngest human beings as if they are widgets on an assembly line).

The reality of Florida’s public education ratings and rankings, however, is much more complex. All told, when we factor in the other metrics that no one–whether the FLDOE, the FLBOE, or prominent Ed Reformers in the Florida Legislature such as Senator Manny Diaz–will acknowledge or is talking about, Florida still ranks in the bottom half of America.

The Whole Story

Again, how exactly do we reconcile these facts with those that clearly demonstrate we have a $1 TRILLION economy that is ranked 17th in the world, yet somehow manage to invest so little in our children and their future?

Even this recent report that was updated about two weeks ago has us ranked 45th in public education spending. How could the Florida Legislature have let this happen? Are its members so completely blinded by an overzealous ideological need to continually reduce taxes and restrict revenue generation to the point that we are now ranked dead last for inflation adjusted spending since the Great Recession?

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And don’t forget! We’re ranked 48th in teacher pay too!

Not only does this lack of funding directly, negatively impact every single school choice for parents and their children, it also creates ripple effects on local economies because educators–typically the largest workforce in any given Florida county–have not had meaningful raises in years, to the point where our paltry pay is being decimated by inflation.

How can any legislator be okay with what has happened? How can any elected official scoff at the cries of the very people who serve the next generation of Florida’s citizens by actively choosing to work with children despite the terrible working conditions and pay?

Say it with me again: Abject. Moral. Failure.

Educators all over the Sunshine State deserve better than this in myriad ways. We deserve the respect of our communities and so-called leaders. We are the very people who perhaps play the second most important, nurturing role with a child beyond the parent, if simply by virtue of how much time they are in our care. Most of all, we need more than this kind of empty bluster from our state-level elected and appointed officials. We don’t need you preening like peacocks over meaningless data that you are not even honest enough to completely share. We need you to stop and realize that you need to talk to the experts who are in the classrooms with kids every day.

As of this moment, I am drawing a line in the metaphorical sand. I’d like every parent, student, educator, school board member, superintendent or anyone else who cares about kids and the legacy we will leave behind for future generations to RISE UP. I am personally compelled on principle to push back, but after re-reading this…

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Now I feel doubly compelled due to the oath I have taken on behalf of being a teacher, especially the above section in addition to Section 2(a)1., which is about our obligation to students. It states (the individual/teacher): “Shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning and/or to the student’s mental and/or physical health and/or safety.”

It would seem that the entire Florida Education Model would qualify as “harmful conditions” at this point. So where will you stand? With the go-along-to-get-along gang? Those who are only clearly interested in power for its own sake rather than genuinely serving the interests and needs of children? The choice is yours. But whatever you do, when it comes to reading any of these FLDOE pronouncements, as my man Chuck D from Public Enemy would say:

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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

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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.