Sunday, May 22, 2016

Moments like these are too rare


During my son's second year at college, he started working with a professor  who really took him under his wing. My son, Luke, worked for his business, even did yard work, and his family became like a second family for Luke.

After Luke's graduation this past week, this man had us all over for dinner at his beautiful house on Long Island. This highly distinguished man, who has helped my son so much over the past few years, was going on about how much he appreciates Luke and how proud he is of him.

I turned to look out the huge window overlooking Long Island sound, fighting back tears. I know it's not over--Luke has a lifetime of challenges before him, but at that moment, there was no worry about what was next, about how he would overcome his next hurdle or make it in the world. At that moment I was overwhelmed with pride and gratitude for what he had achieved, for who he is, the support he'd received, and just the simple fact that he'd made it safely and successfully this far.

Right then, that moment was enough.

Moments like these are too rare. The fact that it was as if a huge weight had been rolled off of me speaks to my tendency to see dangers around every corner and flaws everywhere I look. The fact that the approval being heaped on my son overwhelmed me speaks of my own "trance of unworthiness" and life of never being good enough.

But it all points to a different way. That moment on the Sound was profound, but moments like it should be much more common. There's no doubt that some landmarks of life have particular emotional significance, but every moment should be full of gratitude for those around me, who we are, and that we've made it this far. Every moment is an opportunity to awaken from the trance and shower our loved ones, those around us, and even ourselves with acceptance, encouragement, and approval.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

"All my life, I was never good enough"

Probably the most peaceful moment of my life was lying flat on my back in my family's old gravel bank, my hand applying pressure to where the chain saw had cut into my shoulder, watching the clouds pass by in a clear blue sky.

I didn't know the extent of the damage, and it seems like I should have panicked instead of soaking in the feeling of the stones beneath my back and feeling at one everything.

It was as if, with nothing I could do but wait for help, I could finally just relax and not worry about striving for whatever it is I'm always striving for.

For just a little while that day, I was free from what Tara Brach, in her book, Radical Acceptance, calls the "trance of unworthiness." Like many people, all my life I've been walking around believing there's something wrong with me--that I am never good enough, that I have to prove something to the world, and always fall short somehow. And I find myself pushing my wife, kids, and students in the same way I push myself, always seeing deficiencies and room for improvement, sending the message that I don't accept them for who they are right now.

Improvement is good, but judgement and lack of acceptance is not. It keeps us from enjoying our moments, trapped in anxiety, resentment, and discouragement. It causes us to hide, pretend, and react to things in unhealthy ways, and keeps us from seeing clearly enough to bring about the change we need.

Radical acceptance, on the other hand, means facing and embracing everything about ourselves just as we are right now: weakness, anger, mistakes, envy, flaws, lust, frustration, fear, and failure. It means opening up to everything about our circumstances as they really are right now, denying nothing, hiding from nothing, feeling everything. It means seeing these self-imposed requirements and judgements and the suffering they cause to us and others. It means accepting ourselves without judgement.

In other words, there's nothing wrong with me. I have nothing to prove. What I am and what I have, right now, is enough.

Wait, is that true?

If not, then enough will be impossible for me. I know myself well enough. It's either enough now, or it never will be. I don't know if I'll have another minute on this planet, and I don't want to be like the woman in Brach's story who woke only long enough to say to her daughter, "All my life, I was never good enough," and then slipped back into her coma.

Accepting allows us to experience "enough" even in the midst of pain. Like the Buddha of legend, we can say to shame, fear and anger, "I see you Mara," and invite him to tea. Instead of being swept away in cascades of negative thoughts, we can defuse the chain reaction and experience the good around and within us, even in the bad.

But accepting doesn't mean being content with staying where you are. Like Tim Ferriss, whose interview with Tara Brach introduced me to her, I worry that accepting myself will mean I stop improving. I've struggled in the past on this blog about the balance between contentment and improvement. Tara Brach's answer is that honest and non-judgemental awareness of where you are (radical acceptance) is the only first step to real change.

My trance of unworthiness manifests itself in high achieving, never satisfied obsession, but I have students who are not high achievers, yet struggle more than I with self-condemnation and the trance of unworthiness. The outcomes may look different: me, enslaved to stressful striving, they, paralyzed in fear of failure. In both cases, we suffer.

For all of us, radical acceptance means being free: free to be enough, just as you are, to just lay there, feeling the grit through your shirt, maybe even bleeding, and just watch all those self-imposed requirements float by in a blue sky.

And then it means being free to act mindfully, and change.

So this is what I'm working on these days: practicing radical acceptance. 



P.S.: For an introduction to Brach's work, check out 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Balancing understanding with demanding

Balance: Will & Griffen practicing Kung Fu with their mentor
"Johnny, you need to clean up your mess."

"Later."


"Johnny, it needs to happen now."

"No."

"Johnny, can I speak with you for a minute?"

"No."

"Ok. Johnny, I need you to come with me or I'm going to have to ... "

********
 
Who wants to guess if Johnny complied?

Not a chance.

Dealing with students with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and other serious social-behavioral challenges sometimes seems like a full time job... and a losing proposition, but I'm learning it's a balance between understanding and demanding.

Sure, I've been working on some strategies for not triggering their oppositional behaviors, but what am I teaching them if I'm always trying to just avoid triggering them?

Nothing.

Future professors and employers won't be walking around on eggshells, and they won't be putting up with it.

This week, I started listening to the Total Transformation program. While I'm not thrilled with Lehman's approach (I was irritated by the apparent lack of basis in research), one thing has hit home so far: I need to balance understanding students' challenges with requiring appropriate behaviors and teaching healthy problem solving skills.


So I rolled out this new "a + b = c" approach this week with one such student. I said:
"I understand, as best I can, that you struggle with this--that it's not easy for you to respond correctly when I ask you to do something.

But I also need you to comply. We can't run a school if students do whatever they want and don't obey directives. And more importantly, even though you have a powerful and creative mind, you will not succeed in college and career if you don't overcome this challenge.

So that's why I'm going to require that you get more intensive behavioral support. I don't know what that will look like yet, but we're going to come up with a plan that will probably involve weekly counselling sessions."

In short: "I understand ___________, but I need __________, and you need __________ so you need more support."

It resonates with my growing philosophy of the centrality of support. It's about them, after all.

Every one of them.

Succeeding.


P.S.: I'm interested in trying out mindfulness training with them as one option for support. There's some evidence that it can help with ADHD and ODD, as it does with depression.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Breaking out of to-do list tunnel vision

I love my Moleskine notebook, even though people make fun of me for the stack of black, dated volumes on my desk in an age where it seems like there should be an app for this. My favorite part of the Bullet Journal system is the check-lists. I absolutely love checking off those little boxes, but sometimes I get caught up in the to-do-list and lose sight of what it's for.

I guess you could say I'm goal oriented. I even like SMART goals, which many educators have come to dread. Under the new state Teacher Evaluation Plan, we have to set goals for our students that must be:

Specific,
Measureable,
Achievable,
Relevant and
Time-bound.

That's why I started listening really closely when Charles Duhigg started talking about the problems with SMART goals. For one thing, people often just start focusing on whatever quantifiable goal they can get done and lose sight of the big picture. Their job becomes all about checking off boxes.


I can relate. I often find myself focussing on making phone calls, submitting P.O.s, filing paperwork with the State, entering data, making more check-lists, and other tasks that need to be done, because they are easy to measure and complete. Or I start a bunch of new initiatives: new rubrics, progress tracking and reporting systems, a kitchen crew, a fitness challenge, a Quiet Study and Support Center, tracking more and more data, without stopping to ask if all of this getting me closer to my real goal.

Wait, what's my real goal again?


The answer to the SMART goal dilemma, Duhigg says, is stretch goals: big audacious goals that will make sure our SMART goals are actually getting us where we want to go. Start with the big goal, says Duhigg, and write it at the top of the page, and then break it down into SMART goals. Our stretch goals don't need to be SMART. We use them as a guide to build a list of appropriate SMART goals.

So how's this for a stretch goal: To make every one of my students really ready for the college and/or career of their choice. A whole list of SMART goals could explode out of that one stretch goal: assess current college and career readiness of each student, determine areas of weakness, identify strategies to support each student, etc.

But hang on. Is that really an audacious goal? Isn't that what school is supposed to do?

That's the other problem with the SMART goal habit--the "A" makes us aim too low. High expectations is one of the key ingredients to student success, and we need to aim higher than we really expect people to attain.

So let's take it up a notch: We'll bring in at-risk students, and every one of them will exceed State benchmarks for college and career readiness. And taking it even further, they'll be like arrows shot from a bow, already on their way to making the world a better place.


I've had something like this in mind since the beginning, so I'm hoping that all of the initiatives we've started this year are moving us in the right direction, but I also know I need more focus in my day-to-day activities. I need a compass needle that will keep drawing me back to this goal when I get bogged down in the little stuff, something to re-calibrate me every day as I make my check-lists.


And this is just one strand of my life that needs this. I need stretch goals for my family life, relationships, and physical and mental health. I need to remember that I started Crossfit for stress management and not to make fitness the focus of my life. I need to remember that as important as my job is to me, I'm really working, first and foremost, to support my family, so they can't take a back seat.

Getting bogged down in the minutiae can get us off track in life, plodding along with our eyes on the ground, only to finally turn our heads up and realize we've walked in a circle, tired, bored and burned out.

Every day, we need to start by asking ourselves: "Where am I headed, again? And why?" We need to break out of the tunnel vision, look around at the landscape, refocus on the goal in the distance, and ask, "Now, what do I need to do today to get closer?"

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What if school was like a sport?

What if school was like an athletic team practice?

I was in a Twitter chat yesterday morning on the topic of school culture, and one teacher said a positive school culture "feels like home, looks like an athletic team practice."

What a beautiful and powerful image! What if kids came in all fired up (and maybe nervous), asking what the workout was going to be? What if school was like CrossFit for the mind? What would that look like?

To begin with, it would be highly structured. As I've written before, I've gone through a paradigm shift since I've been at the Depot. I used to think the less structure, the better. I imagined an organic, self-organizing, project-based learning environment in which students would be naturally motivated to learn. I found out the independent learning process needs to be scaffolded. At the Depot, we give the students tremendous freedom and hope they'll engage in complex projects on their own, but they often don't, and I think it's because they lack skills and confidence. They need more structure at the beginning. Then you remove the scaffolding as they progress until they are ready for full-blown independent learning. (Click here for a rough sketch of what that might look like.)

That structure would include plenty of explicit instruction, drill, and practice in basic skills with tons of feedback. Students need to master basic skills--math, reading, communication, planning, time management, self-control, motivation, and a sense of self-confidence before they will be able to design and tackle complex projects on their own.

Complex tasks are, after all, made of of simple parts put together. You may be able to teach them in context, but there's a reason basketball practice is not all made up of scrimmages.


As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine applying a project-based learning approach to a skill like Olympic lifting: "OK guys, in order to get stronger and be able to lift more weight, I'm just going to have you guys build a barn!" Nope. Won't work. Olympic lifting is a set of very complex movements and skills. Check out this video of just one movement--the snatch. It's even harder than it looks, and barn raising won't teach you that. On the other hand, how about training in all of the Olympic lifting movements and then going to the barn raising. Now we're talking. You may need to be told what to lift, but I'll bet you won't have any trouble lifting it. In other words, extract the skills, drill, and then reinsert them into the context, and do it all deliberately and intentionally.

Students working on their planking challenge.
Finally, in a world where school is a sport, there would be lots of goal setting and tracking, and tons of motivation, engagement, energy and celebration of small wins, big achievements and effort. Some of our students have been working on fitness goals that they set a couple of months ago. One group is working towards a 3:30 plank. They meet every day to increase by 10 seconds. Imagine if students approached all of their learning the same way?

I used to imagine that just by doing relevant and interesting projects the kids would learn. Now I see that is wishful thinking. Instead, let's turn the equation around--give them a strong set of essential skills first--and then they'll be ready for the heavy lifting of complex and creative tasks. They'll have the skills and they'll be ready for the game... and life.