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.
Back in October 2009, I tore the labrum in my left shoulder lifting weights, and now, two and a half years later, I am having it repaired. In fact, the surgery is tomorrow morning. This will be the first real major surgery I’ve had, and definitely the first with an extended recovery time. My friend had the same surgery eight months ago and is fully recovered and is really happy that he had it done, which makes me optimistic. I am uneasy though about the restrictions that are about to be forced on me. As long as I can remember, I have hated being restricted. In my head, its a sort of claustrophobia, where my inability to move causes me tremendous anxiety. I’m not sure what it stems from (maybe it was when my babysitter’s son locked me in a small chicken cage when I was around age 10), but I don’t think I am abnormal in this feeling.
I’m not sure for exactly how long, but after tomorrow, my left arm will be converted to a useless nuisance for several weeks. Not only will I not be able to use my left hand/arm to get dressed, open jars, drive, type (basically anything except squeeze a tension ball), but I imagine that it will constantly be getting in the way. I’ve been practicing doing everyday things with my arm locked in its future position, and I’m pretty sure its going to triple the time it takes me to do just about everything.
There is a small part of me that sees this as a positive challenge that will make me mentally tougher and help me be more grateful for my arm, and my health in general. That being said, I have much to be grateful for already, including medical insurance to pay for this surgery and rehab, my family who will certainly help me out, and a teacher’s schedule that allows me the summer to recover from this surgery without having figure out how to put on dress shirts or pants with buttons without assistance. It’s definitely a great excuse to wear basketball shorts every day this summer.
I first learned about the Stanford Prison Experiment in my college psychology class, but I didn’t really spend a whole lot of time thinking about its far-reaching implications until I began teaching AP Psychology 6 years ago. It was then that I began to read articles written by Stanford professor Phillip Zimbardo (the man who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment back in 1971), and eventually his book The Lucifer Effect, that I began to explore the common theme of his writings. In brief, Zimbardo believes that the situation is a powerful determinant of human behavior. With this belief, Zimbardo challenges the long-held belief that the good people in this world do good things and the evil people in the world do evil thing. Instead, certain situations have the knack for bringing out the best or worst in people (of which we are all capable). Instead of looking to punish “bad apples” in society, Zimbardo suggested that maybe it was the “barrel” that was bad and not the “apples” themselves.
The more I thought about it, the more I started looking for its application in all areas of life. What if the bad (or even just the less socially beneficial) behaviors in the world could be changed simply by changing the situation? There was a series of VW commercials that tapped into this type of thinking (you have to watch these: http://www.thefuntheory.com/), where people starting behaving better when the situations were creatively modified. As teacher, my thoughts have often wandered to how this could be applied to schools, classrooms, or any learning environment for that matter. What I hate seeing is how many students enter high school with a deep resistance to learning and school in general by the time they are 14; it doesn’t get much better by the time they graduate. I can’t say I blame them.
There were many aspects of school that I hated. I hated reading things that I wasn’t interested in. I hated testing. I hated boring lectures. I hated the routine of the day or the sterility of the environment. I hated being paced. I hated meaningless homework and busy work. I hated having to become proficient in a subject I had no interest in. Even crazier is that I was pretty much a straight-A student all the way through school, so to most observers, school was an amazing experience for me and I was able to thrive there. This was not the case. What’s funny to me is that the same things I hated about the typical public school system as a student are the things I hate from a teacher’s perspective. There has to be a better way to learn. A system of learning that strips a people of their inherent desire to learn is a broken system. As much as it seems that it needs to be fixed, I am of the mindset that what it really needs is to be scrapped and redesigned altogether.
In August I am attending the AERO (Alternative Educational Resource Organization) Conference in Portland, Oregon with the hopes of building upon my ideas of an education revolution. However, one thing I believe is that education needs to become decentralized and non-standardized. Every year, millions of American students drop out of school, and millions more begrudgingly stay, even though they are bored, uninterested, failing, or all of the above. These kids are not “bad apples.” At one point, they were excited to go to school and learn. It is the “barrel” of the school system that has failed them. Our young students need opportunities to learn what interests and excites them from early on and throughout their education. As of now, we force kids to wait until they graduate to do this. We hold it as the carrot for enduring 13 years of factory-style education. By then, much of that love of learning has gone dormant or has been beaten down. They associate learning with all those negative experiences. The downside of this problem cannot be understated. We are severely inhibiting the human potential of our young people, which limits the capacity of our society to improve. Like Zimbardo knows though, if we want people to be better, we need to pay attention to the situations we put them in and work to make them as optimal as possible.
This may be the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. To try to put into words the rush of thoughts in my head seems overwhelming, but my wife, Nicole, has convinced me to take this leap of faith. When I would write extensive essays or research papers in college, I would most often begin by writing my body paragraphs and save the writing of the introduction until very last. It seemed easier that way, knowing exactly what I was introducing by that point. I don’t have that luxury in this case; partly because the body of my thoughts is massive and constantly evolving, and partly because whatever I post first is my introduction whether I like it or not. I want what I share and write to be compelling and have decided that my only chance to achieve that outcome is to be as genuine and honest as possible. Choosing my name and tagline for this blog was the easiest part of all. In simple terms, those three words, ‘think, love, do,’ are values that I cherish and aspire to grow in daily.
I should mention that if I put the words in order of priority, that ‘love’ would have come first. But for whatever reason, think.love.do had a better ring to it, so that’s that. A few years ago, I painted the quote “Everything you do, do with love,” above the whiteboard in my classroom as a reminder for me (and maybe some of my students) to be mindful of what I say and do. Ultimately, the three are intertwined and must all be present and working in unison for me to be living the life I envision for myself. I want to love what I do. I want to do the things that I think should be done. I want love to guide my thoughts. And I want to be great at each of them…thinking, loving, and doing.
Of the three, doing has been my clear weakness. I could make up a bunch of excuses or give reasonable justifications for why I have not done things I haven’t done in my life, but upon reflection they usually seem shallow or embarrassing. Why didn’t I lift weights harder or work on my ball handling and shooting more when I played high school basketball? Why didn’t I speak up when my friends said things to, or about, people when I knew it was wrong? I can think of more, but the point is that I want to start doing more of the things I think I should do. Its not that I haven’t done good things in my life. Its mostly that I have allowed fear, ambivalence, or comfort to stop me from taking some risks and chances and that needs to change. I read a quote last week from Ben Franklin that said, “Well done is better than well said.” So that’s where I am. I want to develop my capacities and abilities in thought and in love, but I want to build on those things with action. Whereas my thoughts and dreams are ambitious, I need to do things that match that high standard.
While I think it will serve many positive purposes, I mostly hope that starting this blog will be the first step towards more doing. Before I end this post, I want to note that even though I can’t come close to typing as fast as the words come to mind, I am going to try and write down the words only as they come and not go back and edit what I said. Not only is that easier for me, I figure that will be just another way for you to understand me too. Anyway, thanks for reading and I look forward to whatever is in store ahead. Oh yeah…my name is Matt.