Facing It: Why the struggle of writing is so important

Now I know how you feel. The bright screen staring back at you, the whiteness and emptiness of the blank page reflecting the lack that your brain is filled with. The blinking cursor daring you to put down the next sentence. The one you will hate. The one you will quickly delete as you return back to an empty screen. A screen that again only reflects the time, which is now 10 minutes past when you started. As Sunday fades into the darkness you frantically search for the idea to save you. The anecdote on which to anchor your reflection. The problem is, the harder you think the less emerges. Suddenly you begin to wonder who you are writing for, why you are writing and how something you once enjoyed could now be causing you so much pain. The thing is I get it. I feel your pain right now.


I wrote the above last night as I thought of my students hunched over their computers trying to reflect on the week as I did the same. Sitting and struggling to think of something to write about, I was reminded of their pleas this week to make it stop. As we reflected on our work in the Innovation Academy mid-semester, some students expressed that they felt that they were struggling to write something worth reading each week and the process was making them question their love of writing.

This made me reflect. I asked myself both why I was having students write and why they found it so hard. As I struggled with my own writing, I was left with two important reasons that I believe in writing.

First, as Anne Lamott so beautifully says, “writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.” What I think is so important about writing is that it encourages you to look for the details in the every day. When you know you have to write you begin to look for those moments which say something. In doing so, you begin to see that every moment has the potential to say something and it is that realization which I think is so important. In this way writing opens up our eyes, it forces us to stop, reflect and take in our experiences for use at a later time. Writing makes the mundane come alive and it forces the everyday details to become extraordinary. It forces us to be, as Henry James once said, someone on “on whom nothing is lost.” To me, this is the most important aspect of writing. While it is often a struggle, it is that struggle which forces us to be active participants that think about our days, rather than passive recipients on whom moment after moment is lost.

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Second, writing forces us to realize that “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people, which will keep us “cramped and insane” our “whole life.” Writing is powerful because every word, every draft and every imperfect thing that we write stares in the face of perfectionism and says, “you will not stop me.” Most of the time the hardest part of writing is wanting it to be perfect. In writing, especially in public blogs, we need to show our innermost thoughts, our imperfections, and our deepest feelings. In short, we need to display our imperfections to the world. But in displaying our imperfections we are also refusing to be kept in by the fear of being perfect. Once we realize that our writing will never be perfect, it gives us the freedom to explore in all areas of our life. In writing, just like in life, if you simply wait for the perfect anything you will be forever paralyzed. Similarly, just as you can’t hope you are going to be a success, you can’t hope that ideas will just emerge or that your writing will get better. The power lies in facing it. Word by word, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.

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To conclude I want to leave you with two pieces of advice from a documentary short I recently watched called The Bull Rider:

“No matter what your problems are its just like going out and facing that bull. Look at what you’re up against and then figure a way to make it work.”

“If you go out there and just hope it’s going to happen, then its probably not going to happen. If you just hope you are going to be a success then good luck.”

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Where Should We Be Putting Our Armor?

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 12.52.32 PMI was recently reading a piece from Fast Company about the mathematician Abraham Wald.  In the article, it explains how Wald was hired by the Navy during WWII to help them figure out where planes needed more armor to avoid being shot down. Prior to Wald, many people thought that it was the wings, nose and tail which needed the extra armor since that is where the planes showed damage. Wald instead turned this logic around and said that it was precisely the spots where there was no damage that needed to be reinforced. By Wald’s logic, you could not figure out where planes needed armor by looking at the ones that made it back, you needed to account for the ones that didn’t return. In other words, if a plane made it back to be analyzed, those bullet holes only told you the plane could survive being shot there.  The important point here is that Wald showed “the results revealed the opposite of the obvious conclusion.”

This got me thinking about education. Much like the fighter planes of WWII many would argue that modern day education is flawed.  Along these lines, there are no shortage of solutions to fix this problem. But are we jumping to the obvious conclusion? If we think of student achievement as our plane what are we trying to protect it against?

Now you might ask, what do WWII fighter planes have to do with education? Well, if you think about it, WWII fighter planes were a design problem much the same way education is. If you are trying to armor a plane, the simple solution would be to add armor everywhere. The problem with that is that armor is heavy and the plane won’t fly. You need to be selective about where the armor is added so as to create a plane that can both fly and have armor in all of the right places. Much like education, Wald was looking for the weak spots. In education, we ask about the standards, the content, the teaching method and all sorts of other variables that we think will help students succeed. But are we looking in the wrong place? Just as those before Wald were jumping to the obvious conclusion, are we simply looking for a solution based on the ones who have “survived?”

 

On Writing and the Elephant in the Room

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 8.46.40 PMDuring class this week one of my students voiced a problem that nearly everyone in the class agreed with.

“Blogging is hard and it seems to get harder every week.”

As more voices chimed in and heads began to nod in agreement, it became clear that we needed to have a conversation about writing. In all honesty, I had to agree with the statement even though it is me who gives the assignment. Writing every week is hard and with each successful (or unsuccessful) blog post the pressure begins to mount. Wrote a post you loved last week? Good luck trying to replicate that flow. Hated what you wrote last week? Best of luck trying to shake that feeling that every word you type seems to make less and less sense.

The whole thing with writing and school is that school makes writing seem so easy, so mechanical and so formulaic that when we start to struggle with it, we get worried. What we need to do instead is acknowledge the elephant in the room. Creating writing, good writing, writing that makes you feel and writing which other people want to read is hard. Along with that, there is no easy formula to teach writing. Sure, there are many methods we use to make students fear writing less, be it the 6 traits of writing or the “sandwich method of paragraph writing.” While these methods provide structure they fail to acknowledge that writing is hard, real hard. In fact, the one thing we never talk about in school is the struggle of writing. We read and re-read the classics while analyzing them to death, but never do we stop and ask, “what was the struggle behind this piece.”

Sometimes we get so lost in what we think writing is that we strip it of what it really should be. Peer revision after peer revision often turns what should be an enjoyable process into the duty of crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Writing though, much like life, does not happen like this. I was reminded of this over the past week as I read an interview with Jack Kerouac in the Paris Review where he says:

” By not revising what you’ve already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way … Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact. …”

As I thought about the comments my students made on Monday and read over this quote it all started to come together. Writing is hard, really hard, and part of that struggle comes from the way schools teach writing. When we try to take an experience and mash it into 5 neat paragraphs, or we crush the original intent of our thoughts with endless revision, the act of writing becomes a chore. As well, when we fail to acknowledge the anxiety and struggle that often precedes good writing we do students a disservice.

So what’s the solution? I wish I had the answer, but after thinking it over here is what I am going to try. I am going to do my best to honor the struggle, talk about it and give it a place in the classroom. While we will still read great writing, we are also going to read writers who talk about their writing (the interviews on the Paris Review are a great place to start) and others who think about writing in different ways. Also, while we still take time to revise and go over writing, I want to encourage my students to get their writing out there and heed the advice of Kerouac when he says, “confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way.” My hope is that by acknowledging the elephant in the room we can also start to tame it. This may not make writing easy, but it may just make it more fun.

On Being Lost: What a cafe in Brazil taught me about learning

“…the little insight at the end might have had something to do with letting go and with opening oneself up to new possibilities, of seeing the world not as one thing, or one place, that has primary value, but as something of many possibilities, many places, all potentially as illuminating as the next, so that there is in going out into the world not a loss…but a creative transformation of one’s relationship with it.” –From Excursions by Dr. Michael D. Jackson

 

As I approached the counter to order breakfast I was at a loss for words. I knew exactly what I wanted, but I could not express it. The problem was not some mysterious condition, it was merely that I had just landed in Sao Paulo and I had forgotten the few basic phrases of Portuguese I had tried to learn on the plane. As I resorted to pointing, smiling and attempting to turn my Spanish miraculously into Portuguese I had one of those “aha” moments. I was suddenly lost, very lost, and it felt uncomfortable. Without a working cell phone to pull up Google Translate I felt like a child must feel as it first begins to communicate. It was that feeling of knowing what you want, but having no way of expressing it through language. This “lostness” hit me hard and made me reflect on what it means to be a “learner.”

The reason that this feeling hit me so hard was that travel had become comfortable to me after learning a fair amount of Spanish and traveling mostly in Spanish speaking countries.This ease of communication and understanding became my default and it was difficult for me to understand what it was like to feel lost in a foreign country. This was highlighted to me just a few weeks ago when my parents were visiting me in Peru. As I helped them translate menus, communicate with cab drivers, or respond to questions I thought it all seemed so easy.  That was until I was the one standing at the coffee shop in Brazil wondering what in the world I should say. Suddenly, I had a full understanding of what my parents had felt just a short time ago. The point being that when something becomes so second nature to us, we forget that others may struggle with what we consider to be easy. I guess you could call it a lack of empathy for feeling lost.

Feeling lost is not something that we as teachers are supposed to feel (or at least admit to feeling) very often.  Teachers are looked upon as experts, and they should be, but how can being lost help us understand learning from a student perspective? For me, it made me realize how helpless you are when you feel like you do not understand anything. Often times the lessons we lead as teachers are things that we have taught and modified through the years. In our minds, the message is so clear that we fail to see how a student might feel totally confused by a lesson which to us seems second nature. By getting lost in our comfort zone of understanding, we lose both the ability to empathize and deconstruct the ways in which a learner new to the subject might struggle.

So what is the solution? To me, there are two lessons to be had from this. First, get lost. We as teachers need to get lost more often. Whether this means traveling to a new place and having to learn a language or simply reading an article or study that is outside our normal area of expertise. We need to be confused and puzzled more often. Getting lost in new material provides the metacognitive framework to understand how knowledge is constructed and what it feels like to struggle with new information. By watching and observing how we learn, we can then apply this to how we help students learn. Also, when we are forced to struggle, it humbles us and revives the empathy that we should all have towards students. If we could share with our students all of the times we have struggled in a new situation or didn’t know something, it would take us down from the pedestal where students often hold their teachers.  Then we could all relish, rather than avoid, the feeling of being lost.

Second, we need to remember that “lostness” (I just learned that this is, in fact, a word) is just temporary. Just as soon as we think that there is no way we will “get it,” something happens where it all clicks. And sometimes it doesn’t click, but this is alright too. As we explore our way around to “find” ourselves again, we see things in a whole new light. Although I may not be able to have a full on conversation in Portuguese by the end of this week, I am also no longer afraid of what will happen if I don’t know how to say something. This morning, as the cashier and I both smiled at the humor in our exchange, I realized it’s alright to not know. No one is going to judge you because we have all been there. Whether it is taking a plane to a whole new place or studying a new idea for the first time, knowing that you will come out “alive” is a great feeling. When we are comfortable with feeling lost, we are finally free to explore, and that’s when we begin to live.

 

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Thinking about Autonomy

Lately a lot of my reading about education has been focused on the idea of autonomy and how traditional school often removes student autonomy and creates “subjects” (people to be dealt with in a certain way).  All of these readings have really made me think about what we are doing to students by subjugating them to the traditional idea of schooling. Subjugation and subject here might be strong terms, but I think they fit when we begin to think about school. My understanding of what it means to be a “subject” is drawn from Helen Horowitz where she describes students as  “a subject people” because they have “entered a society in which they did not make or enforce the rules—at least not the important ones.” To me, this so perfectly describes the school environment. The result of this subjugation, or creating of “subject people,” is exactly what three pieces I recently read discuss. For this reason, I would like to do my thinking through the lens of these articles and books.

In “Making the Grade Revisited,” Howard Becker reflects on his book “Making the Grade.” In this article, Becker spends a lot of time discussing what it means for students to be subjected to school. In Becker’s case, he argues that school creates subjects out of students because school has already “decided what courses would be taught, what courses students had to take and what work they had to do in them, how their work in those courses would be assessed, and what the consequences of those assessments would be.” All of these decisions are made by schools without any student voice.  While he does not go into depth on the point, Becker does mention how the subjection to these rules leads to the “development of a culture.” If you read into this point, it is clear that the culture that is developed is one in which students become accustomed to completing the tests, papers, and assignments that have been created for them while following the rules which have also been put into place without their input. At the same time, even though schools seek to create critical and responsible citizens that are  independent minded and display initiative, schools “typically punish students who pursue their own lines of interest” and do not do the work that is imposed on them.

It is this very “subjection” that Ivan Illich writes about in his book “Deschooling Society.”  Whereas Becker discusses more about how the student as subject is created, Illich talks about the ramifications of this subjection on society as a whole.  Illich though has a similar view to Becker as is clear in his view that school makes men/women “abdicate the responsibility for their own growth.”  He goes on further to say that “The creature whom schools need as a client has neither the autonomy nor the motivation to grow on his own.” The key for Illich, is type of person that schools are creating by removing this autonomy and personal responsibility. Illich argues that due to their structure, schools produce people who believe that “there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets.” By doing so, schools create students that rely on others for their knowledge, rather than trusting in their own creativity and curiosity.

By its very nature, school is place where you are constantly ranked and sorted in relation to your peers based on the constant judgement (through rubrics, tests, quizzes and assignments which are most often designed by the teacher) of an authority (the teacher). It is in this way that Illich argues students are   “schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” Essentially what Illich is arguing is that by removing the autonomy of the student, school create “subjects” that view education as a passive activity in which they have no say. By removing autonomy from the student they no longer feel responsible for their own learning.  In this way, a culture is created in which both student and teacher accept their roles as subject and authority respectively.  Whereas Becker uses the word “culture” and Illich uses the word “society,” both speak similarly about the results that come from creating subjects out of students.

These same themes  run through the book Free to Learn, where Peter Gray also discusses what happens when we “imprison”(ie. make a subject out of) students by forcing them to sit still and passively receive the information that someone else has prepared and deemed relevant. Gray argues that the “belief that young people are incapable of making reasonable decisions is a cornerstone of our system of compulsory, closely monitored education.” This idea echoes that of both Becker and Illich in how it describes the way in which the student is turned into a subject that is monitored and removed of personal responsibility. Similar to how Illich says that schools for students to “abdicate the responsibility for their own growth,” Gray mentions how the implicit message of school is that “if you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work out well for you.” The result of this is that “children who buy into the message stop taking responsibility for their own education,” and “assume, falsely, that someone else has figured out what they need to do and know to become successful adults.” For Gray, as well as Becker and Illich, it is the removal of autonomy that creates the student as subject (and not participant). The problem Gray has with the structure of school is that it turns “good people” (teachers) into the ones who are “complicit in a system of imprisoning” students. These are strong words, but show how strongly Gray feels about empowering students with the freedom and personal responsibility for their own learning.

Although the language used by Becker, Illich and Gray may at times be strong, all three authors point to a huge problem within the paradigm of mass education. This problem is how the structure of schools creates a system that is antithetical to “freedom, personal responsibility, self initiative, honesty, integrity and concern for others.” While this point may not be new, the different ways in which these three authors present this issue really forced me to think about how the culture of school is created and what can be done differently. It could be argued that these ideas are idealistic and simply do not mesh with the constraints of mass education. I would argue though that the principles and arguments provide a starting point for beginning to question the structure of school, how it got that way, and what changes could be made to improve on that structure. In the end wrestling with these ideas will only enable us to better build a culture where students are free to be curious, feel personally responsible for their learning and become participants (rather than subjects) in their own learning.

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My Thoughts on “Talks Between Teachers”

The other day I stumbled on a great piece in the New Yorker about the sociologist Howard Becker. What intrigued me about the piece was Becker’s view on how “worlds”are created. Worlds in this sense is really how people come to understand who they are and the roles that they create around that collective understanding. Becker has studied many different “worlds”and his work is fascinating, but what really captured me was how the “Beckerian world” could be applied to thinking about school.  Oddly enough, as I researched a bit more about Becker I found a piece of his titled “Talks Between Teachers.”

This article stood out to me because it laid bare the anxieties many of us face as teachers, but never really talk about. Also, I was struck by the simplicity of Becker’s advice and how pertinent it is to creating the classroom “world.”

Some key points that I took away from this piece were:

  1. Develop a spirit in the class that creates an environment where students want to help each other and do not expect the teacher to do all of the work. In other words, support students in being self sufficient. I think the key here is the idea of supporting a classroom rather than taking complete control. By letting the students have autonomy and responsibility, the classroom becomes a place of shared learning, rather than a passive environment of information absorption. As Becker says, “The thing to work for is developing a kind of group spirit in the class, so that they help each other and teach each other. You mainly do that just by expecting them to and by not doing too much of the work yourself.”
  2. If we want to develop students that are confident, independent critical thinkers then we need to create a classroom environment that fosters that. We can not expect students to take charge of their learning, if school simply trains them to sit back and passively take in information.  As Becker says, “The thing to remember is that whatever you do in class is a form of training the students in what you want them to do in class, so be sure you teach them to do the right things.”
  3. Related to points one and two, as teachers we need to give up control. In the article Hecht makes the point that we need to (but struggle to), “give up all those things we are trained to think we should do in front of people: control them and express ourselves in the usual ways.” If we think of school as a “world” that is created by the actors in it, we quickly see that our view of school is very much based on the way we were schooled. As well, students view school the way they do (ie. sit back, take notes, pass test, move on) because that is what they have been trained to think that school is. In this case, while difficult, a new “world”needs to be created in which both students and teachers rethink (or recreate) their roles. By letting go of the idea that a teacher is a person who stands in front of a crowd, controls them and delivers information to them the whole “world”of school can be changed. To me, it seems the difficulty in doing this is both in the letting go of control (never easy) and also in the creating of something new, of which we don’t necessarily have a model to base our conduct off of.
  4. Related to point three, by giving up control we also remove a lot of the discipline that generally runs the classroom environment. In taking on a new role as guide/supporter we no longer have to “bend”students to our will, because the class is collectively pursuing learning with autonomy. Along those lines, the worry of “whether you were satisfying all the students or teaching them all something useful or doing a good job for all of them” can be dropped because this simply “puts all the responsibility on your shoulders.” I really liked Becker’s point that the responsibility does not solely lie there because we need to expect each student to be responsible for their learning. While assignments, tests and homeworks may make students jump through the appropriate hoops, it does not make students learn. I found Becker’s approach very Zen when he said,”I always figure that I’ll do my best, not try to persuade people who don’t want to learn, for whatever reason, what I could possibly teach them, help the ones who want to learn something in whatever way I can, and be glad if anything comes of it at all.”

The full “article” (which is really an email exchange between Becker and Hecht) is definitely worth a read. In short, the main take away for me was the idea that the classroom is a world that we create with our expectations and that overall we are often far too controlling as teachers. This dynamic could be changed by getting students “out and doing stuff,” while also making them partners (rather than subjects) in their education.

Distraction, stillness and the lost art of doing nothing

“So, in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. And in an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still. “-Pico Iyer
” I’d like you just to take a moment to think, when did you last take any time to do nothing? Just 10 minutes, undisturbed? And when I say nothing, I do mean nothing. So that’s no emailing, texting, no Internet, no TV, no chatting, no eating, no reading, not even sitting there reminiscing about the past or planning for the future. Simply doing nothing.” -Andy Puddicombe

As week two of summer vacation begins I have been reflecting a lot on movement.   On one hand I have been using the time to slow down, to allow my mind to stop racing and to stop worrying about the next lesson or the next project. On the other hand, I have also been trying to slow down the pace of my movement. Normally, summer vacation for me has always been a time to race off to new places and fill my time with constant movement. As I look back, my frantic movement was in a way just a replacement for the endless running of my mind during the school year. This year has been different. With Peruvian immigration laws keeping me in Peru until January 1, I have been forced to slow down and I love it. Rather than rushing off to a new country or racing around Peru, I have been remarkably still. My days have consisted of surfing, reading, running and spending time with friends. I have purposefully tried to limit my screen time, and by not constantly checking social media and email, I have felt my mind relax.

 During this time I had the chance to watch two great TED talks. The first by Pico Iyer stresses the importance of stillness and reflection in our daily lives. As a travel writer, Iyer is constantly on the move, but in this talk he discusses how creating stillness in his life has really shaped who he is as a person. Using the movement travel to think about daily life, Iyer points out how life has become increasingly fast paced. We rush from place to place and fill the in between moments with our cell phones and other devices. What we are left with is a constant stream of motion, both mental and physical, which leaves us feeling exhausted and frayed.

 Similarly, in his talk on mindfulness, Andy Puddicombe reflects on how little of our time is actually spent doing “nothing.” Starting with the question, “when did you last take any time to do nothing,” Puddicombe made me realize how much of my time is spent either doing or thinking. For me, even when I am surfing, my mind is often racing about some idea, some thought or some anxiety. It is as if I am never truly “do nothing.” I enjoyed Puddicombe’s talk as it was honest, to the point and made the simple suggestion of taking 10 minutes to simply do nothing, worry about nothing and just relax into the present moment.

 Both talks made me think about the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” In the book, the narrator at one point says:

 “We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”

 It is that “day-to-day” shallowness which I think has become ever more present in our daily lives. Hurrying from place to place, rushing from message to message, furiously scrolling through the never ending deluge known as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Call me delusional, but it seems that we have entered a time of anti-stillness. It is almost as if we are all deathly afraid of what might happen if we just stopped, even for just a few minutes. I think it is this pause that we (I especially) need to build into both daily life and school.

 Now I am not saying that we need to give it all up, become monks and never travel anywhere again. What I am saying is that we need to discus stillness more, both in our daily lives and especially within the field of education. I feel that in our rush to solve the “crisis in education” with technology, we have left out one very important component, which is a discussion about the demands of technology. Instead, I almost feel that we as educators have become the preachers of technology.

 We ask our students to constantly check their progress via Powerschool, ManageBac or whatever reporting system we may be using. In our quest to keep students “connected” and “engaged”, we share endless Google Docs with them in addition to asking them to stay constantly connected via Twitter and Facebook. On top of that, building student “autonomy” in the classroom often ends up trading lecture for endless internet research. This research often ends in more production in the form of iMovies, Keynotes, Glogsters, or the never ending assortment of ways to creatively regurgitate information. Through technology and the “demands” of everyday life, school has become synonymous with busyness  and production. We hesitate giving students any time that may be considered free, for fear they might “waste” it.

 All of this leaves me wondering. When was the last time we simply asked students to be still, to just quietly “sit”with an idea and not write about it, talk about it, or make a presentation on it? When was the last time we had an open discussion with students about the impact of technology on their daily lives. When was the last time we questioned the assumptions built into the phrase “digital natives?” When was the last time we had an honest conversation about the “day-to-day shallowness” that has resulted from all of this busyness?

 This post is not an answer to these questions. This post is not proposing an end to technology. This post is not a criticism of all things educational technology.

This post is the start of a conversation on distraction, stillness and the lost art of “doing nothing.”

References:

1. Pico Iyer: The Art of Stillness

2. Andy Puddicombe: All it Takes is 10 Mindful Minutes