This afternoon, the world learned the news of the death of Steve Jobs. While reading various tributes to him, I came across a YouTube video of the commencement address he gave to the Stanford graduating class of 2005. In a bubble, the speech is excellent and thought-provoking. However, in the context of two topics that have been on my mind so much this past year (education revolution and the choice to take the risk of being a divergent thinker/doer), it was especially poignant. So as my smallest tribute, I want to share these special thoughts from a special man, who as far as I can tell, lived a life worth living.
I plan to begin my next classes with the following quote from Abraham Lincoln, in his 1862 annual message to Congress. “It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” I first heard part of this quote in a speech delivered by Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talks (two of the best ones viewed below) have been viewed millions of times and have served as a major source of inspiration for others and myself in the pursuit of an Education Revolution. Lincoln’s words have taken on great significance for me in recent days as our class is taking on the task of designing our course for the year.
As much as my students are excited at the possibilities of our class environment can create, I continue to find it challenging to set their minds free as it pertains to their ‘learning’ this year. Our most recent class discussion centered on how we want to learn and use the course curriculum throughout the year. So many of them wanted to revert to traditional ways of learning, assessing, and running a classroom, mainly because it allowed them to stay in their comfort zones. Over the course of 10 years or so, they have become accustomed to a particular way that school information should be learned, grades established, and content knowledge assessed, and while it that way has limited their potential as learners, they have come to accept it as the norm.
It is moments such as this that our class statements of purpose should come in so handy. Reminded that our goals dismiss conventional approaches and seek opportunities to challenge ourselves in new and creative ways, we can only choose a path that dares to be different. Lincoln’s challenge means that we must both think and act anew. To think anew means to see new purpose in education, set new goals, change what we wish to achieve, and reevaluate what we value in our educational experience. To act anew means to have the courage and determination to stand up to outdated ways of thinking and make sure that we carry out that which we are capable of.
One of the major concerns I have heard from people regarding democratic education goes something like, “What if the students decide to do nothing or vote for chaos or something that is contrary to learning?” My explanation has been that a class founded upon values and dedicated to those values could never vote in such a way. With this in mind, we set out last class to create a statement of purpose to state our intention as a learning community.
We began the process by identifying the values we wanted to emulate. I prompted the class with a few thoughts before we began. I spoke of the word ‘potential’ and what it meant to the class. I reminded them that we have a unique opportunity to make this class more amazing in every way than any class we have ever experienced, but it could only happen if we set that as a goal for ourselves. I wanted them to know that the goal wasn’t to be good or successful, but rather to be as close to our fullest potential as a class community as possible. I then asked them to write words on the chalkboard that finished the following sentence: The best class ever would be (blank). One student stood at the board writing down every word suggested by the class until we had a list of 30 or so values.
After this, I recited the Preamble to the Constitution to the class, and we discussed how it, as a statement of purpose, set the table for the founding of the nation. Similarly, I wanted us to create a statement of purpose with strong, clear intentions. We worked in small groups to create powerful sentences, using the values we listed on the board. The next day, everyone shared their sentences and we collected them and arranged them in ways that completed our statement of purpose. After completing a few statements, we took our first vote as a class and chose the following statement to be the words that would guide all we do this year.
“This is our class and we are ready to take responsibility for it. We are devoted to creating an environment that allows our natural ability to learn through real experience to flourish as it once did when we were very young. By creating an environment that values trust, respect, participation by all, and reaching our potential as learners, thinkers, and members of a community, we will enthusiastically challenge ourselves and take risks on a daily basis. Our class will be run by a democracy that is guided by purpose and principles, restoring dignity to our education and demonstrating that we can exceed academic and social expectations if truly given the opportunity to do so. We will embrace our struggles and mistakes, as much as our successes and breakthroughs, and everything we do we, we will do with love.”
In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, I spent hours every day brainstorming on my own and with friends and colleagues trying to come up with the right way to fully implement democracy in the public school classroom. According to friends who teach at democratic schools, running a democratic classroom is hard on its own accord. So considering that I am attempting to do this for the first time in my life, with students who have no experience with it, on a school campus where nothing like this exists, I have my have my hands full. A breakthrough in the planning came when I more clearly defined what some of the keys to a good democracy were.
Above all, it seems to me that the idea that every member of the class has a voice that carries weight among peers is paramount. This has two implications. Firstly, it means that everyone in the class needs to be able to have the courage to speak and share their thoughts and opinions. Secondly, it means that the class must value the thoughts and opinions of each of their classmates. The prevailing understanding is that each person has the best opportunity to reach their potential only when the class environment is at its best, and furthermore that the class environment can only reach its potential for greatness when each member is contributing at their fullest. It is with this mindset that I determined that establishing the classroom community would be task number one.
I have seen each of my classes four times so far this year. That time has been spent doing a variety of activities and exercises designed to break down some of the natural social walls that exist between most high schoolers (and most people in general it seems). Author of The Social Animal, David Brooks said in an NPR interview earlier this year that “The reality of education is that we learn from people we love.” So while I’m sure that this sort of thinking induces eye rolls and cynical remarks, the ultimate goal is to create a classroom where love is at the core of everything we do. A classroom community founded on love gives respect, encourages emotional and intellectual risk-taking, is more creative, maintains dignity, and feels amazing. In this environment, students are going to want to show up every day, want to give their all, and want to learn.
While we have not scratched the surface of content learning yet in the school year, I can tell you this: the classroom feels incredible. There has been more smiling and laughing than I ever remember happening in the first weeks of school. Students are sharing their stories and connecting with fellow community members on a level greater than I hoped. We are a work in progress, and each day will be an opportunity to grow in love and community, but I love where we have gotten in just four short classes, and I am excited to see where we go from here.
It’s been almost two weeks since I returned home from Portland and the AERO Conference. I have intentionally put off posting anything because I have been so overwhelmed with thoughts and ideas lately, that frankly, I had no idea where to start. Without exaggeration, this past month in general has been filled with so many life-changing experiences and I just wanted to make sure that I did them justice. More than interesting events, I believe these moments to be markers of turning points in my life. Because of their ongoing implications, what I have resolved to do in response to all this is just begin with some initial reflections and updates because I am certain that natural elaboration will come in future posts.
The first major event is that after 6 years of trying, my wife Nicole is pregnant with our first child. After so many moments of frustration and disappointment that go with the process of unsuccessfully making a baby, it has been a surreal month with news that the IVF we went through was successful. I think at this point, I was almost callous to the idea of us having a baby, mainly, I think, as an emotional protection tool. But two ultrasounds later, both of which allowed us to see and hear that little heartbeat, disbelief has turned to nervous excitement for the road that lay ahead for our family. The word ‘awesome’ was created for moments when the right descriptors are hard to find, so in this case, it’s perfectly appropriate.
Meanwhile, the AERO Conference exceeded every hope I had for it. More than anything, I went hoping to find answers for the direction I wanted to take my professional life. That’s an unrealistic expectation for any conference, but somehow, it came through, albeit in unexpected ways. Saddled with my frustrations with the limitations and restrictions of public schools, I think that part of me hoped to meet some people who would want me to join their amazing alternative school or start one with them. Instead, I left with a renewed sense of educational values and a determination to return to my school this year and design a class environment that allowed those values to be the centerpiece of all that we do.
At some point during the conference, I became aware that while these amazing, mostly private, alternative schools are doing things that I think all schools should do, the public school system needs people who are willing to stand up and fight for the education revolution that needs to take place on behalf of all the students who can only afford to attend public school. On the second to last day of the conference, attendees were given an opportunity to speak in front of the group and share their thoughts with everyone. Now this is about as out of my comfort zone as something can be, but I felt compelled to share something that had been leaping inside me. My heart pounding and my voice shaking, I shared the following insight (paraphrased as best as I can remember): “As a Social Science major at San Diego State, I spent a significant time learning about the Civil Rights Movements and the Free Speech Movements that took place in the 1960s. I found myself in awe and envious of the members of those movements and their opportunity to be part of something amazing and revolutionary, often wondering if I would have had the courage to participate in them myself had I lived in that era, wishing that there was something equally important for me to be a part of. Now I realize that this revolution in education is the movement of my era, and that I am proud and excited to fulfill something that I had dreamed about years before.” This moment in front of the AERO audience is significant for me not just for the realization, but for the symbolic decision I made to get up and address the group. If I am to be part of a movement, I must be willing to take risks, step out of my comfort zone, speak up, and take action.
While I believe that I have been doing good things in my classroom these past 8 years, I saw huge opportunities for improvement, mainly in creating an atmosphere that most effectively allows students to reach their potential as thinkers, decision-makers, and community members. Armed with ideas, I have been feverishly working to figure out how to put all of this into action. I want our class to be a community where students feel like they have dignity, are trusted, and have a voice that carries weight in the class. The class will be designed and run democratically, with my role changing from one of authority to one of advisor and partner in their education. I have been reading, talking, and thinking about the implications of such a class structure, and to be honest, I am not sure how all of this will play out, but I can say that it will all be done with love. The first day of school is in 4 days, and I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to start back.
With the U.S. unemployment rate reportedly around 9%, there is a general tone of conversation pertaining to work that centers around the idea that no matter the conditions of our job, we really should be happy that we have a job at all. I know those words have been spoken several times by my principal and fellow teachers as a response to increased frustrations and concerns voiced by myself or other teachers regarding growing adverse constraints and conditions of American public schools. However, I resent the sentiment that I should just be happy that I have a job. Its not that I am not grateful for my job; its quite the opposite really. Teaching and coaching have been the source of countless blessings for me, both as a person and a professional, and I do not take those blessings for granted. That being said, something is missing for me. Whilst enjoying my job very much, I have struggled to put my finger on what exactly was missing from my professional life. As best I could describe, I felt like I wasn’t teaching to my capability and that limits of my environment inhibited me from being the teacher I imagined myself being. Only recently have I discovered that the missing component was something called flow.
Flow is a psychology term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the mental state of a person who, while performing an activity, is fully immersed in an optimized feeling of connection, clarity, effortless focus, ultimately getting lost in the moment. The result is intrinsic happiness, and success in the activity at high levels. Flow can exist in any sort of activity, and has been described in various terms in many settings.
Athletes have talked about being ‘in the zone’ or in the ‘in a groove’ where their performance seems to peak with seemingly very little effort. I’ve heard them say that the game seems to slow down, allowing them to make all the right decisions. The hoop (basketball) or the cup (golf) seems to be so huge that everything goes in. Of course these things are not really happening, but it seems to be the only way they can describe it. I remember watching Michael Jordan make six 3-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals in a moment where he was experiencing flow on the basketball court. Considered the best player ever, Jordan was not known as a 3-point shooter, and upon making his 6th 3-pointer, he sheepishly looked towards the sideline and sheepishly shrugged, as if to say, “I can’t explain what’s going on here, but this feels amazing.” Below is a clip of that moment, and listen closely to the commentators (former coach Mike Fratello, and Magic Johnson) describe what they are watching.
Moments of flow have been well documented by people in all sorts of fields: artists, musicians, dancers, gamers, spiritualist, speakers, builders, and on and on. Typically they find it difficult to explain to people in terms other than ones of wonder, serene happiness, and satisfaction. I have experienced flow many times in my life in a variety of contexts (from playing sports, to writing a paper), and I want to experience it more regularly in my daily work. The realization I have been coming to is that public school (with increased influence of so-called educational standards, the testing and evaluation that follows, and the limits placed on teachers and students by governmental policy makers) has become a setting that, for me, more readily produces an opportunity to fight than an opportunity to flow. However, there is one last thing I want to make perfectly clear. I think my job dissatisfaction is linked less to a sense of my own flow, and more to the fact that public schools (or traditional schools in general) are not designed for students to have opportunities to flow.
Csikszentmihalyi extensively studied traditional school settings and Montessori school settings and concluded that the students in Montessori schools experienced flow on a regular basis, while those in the traditional setting did not. Some of today’s most successful and innovative people are the products of Montessori education, including the founders of Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia. Before I knew of this study, I was convinced that non-traditional, democratic schools (like the ones I am going to learn about at the AERO conference next week in Portland) would be ideal for producing authentic education and opportunities for flow. In the big picture, I would love to see more students (and parents and teachers) become part of this exciting change in education and find themselves in a regular state of optimized happiness and flow. Ideally, I see myself joining (or building) a school that does it at an amazing level, allowing me, and all involved, to flow together in pursuit of genuine learning in all sorts of ways. Certainly, I feel the pursuit is worthy.
Maybe my favorite part of teaching AP classes is the last month of school, after all the AP tests have been taken. I really try to take advantage of that last, pressure-free month of school to get to know my students a bit better. Its not that I don’t get to know them throughout the course of the school year, because I do. Its just that the last month means we can, if the mood strikes, sit and talk about anything interesting without the weight of curriculum or tests hanging over our heads. I love it. This time connecting and talking taps into the interactive part of teaching that I find so fulfilling. This particular month, I happened upon a conversation with two of my junior students about a video I watched on TEDx the night before. In synopsis, the video featured an entrepreneur/philanthropist named Taylor Conroy who used unconventional fundraising methods to raise $10,000 to build a school in Kenya. I told the students how my wife and I were inspired by the video and the ease with which he was able to raise money and essentially change the world, and how cool would it be if a group of us pulled resources and used some of his methods to build a school in Africa over the summer. Since that conversation, things have taken off.
An email to Taylor Conroy led to a phone meeting where Taylor and I discussed the possibilities of using the fundraising/philanthropic powers of American students and schools to build, potentially, hundreds of thousands of schools in developing nations all over the world. He and I are still in talks of how to do something amazing, which pumps me up to no end. Meanwhile, my two students (we’ll call them T&C), took our idea and ran with it. Last week, they created a corporation (applying for non-profit, tax exempt status, and the whole shabang) as a means for collecting the money we are going to donate to build the schools. In one week, three of us have raised over $3500 and enlisted the help of 10 other students interested in joining the cause to use Taylor’s methods to raise the money to build a school. I would not be surprised if we have $10,000 raised in the next few weeks. Needless to say, things are still very much in their infancy and I hope there is much, much more to come. However, what I have learned is that big things can happen when you decide to act on thoughts. I have been inspired from TED lectures before, but only to the point to talk about them and share them with others. This time, with my new commitment to actually doing things rather than just talking about them, I think some actual purposeful good is going to come from the inspiration. I want to read this post one month from now and feel proud that things have progressed in the way that I envision them.
One note before I go. In my last post I wrote about my impending shoulder surgery and the tedious recovery that was to follow. Amazingly, the surgery revealed a far less serious shoulder issue than the doctor anticipated and informed me that recovery will be 4-6 weeks, and not 5-6 months as expected. It has been two weeks, and I am already out of my sling and have pretty much my whole range of motion back. Being almost back to normal so quickly has been very uplifting and that enthusiasm will certainly get put to good use.