Saturday, August 29, 2015

A different kind of school: The first three days.

Identifying our personal core values in advisory.
Wow. Three days in, and I feel like a puzzle piece trying to fit together with all the other puzzle pieces (while all of us are moving around on the table), but it was an amazing week.

First, it was amazing to see the kids RUN off the bus on the first day of school, one girl screaming and almost jumping into her teacher's arms.

And it's been such a privilege to start getting to know the students. Often, they just drop into my office, other times we just stand in the hallway and discuss college trips, work, possible internships, family issues, project ideas, or bad habits.

I've also been working with one of the advisories every morning before their real advisor arrives, and then just sitting in on other groups later in the day, and it's fascinating to see the goals, hopes, dreams, and interests of these young men and women.  In one group, they were discussing what they each would be interested in working on for their Trimester I projects. The lively discussion ranged from from genetics and gene switches to helping disabled children and building "tiny houses." I can’t wait to see what they do this year. This is how real learning happens. It starts with students' interests and passions. This is why I wanted to join the Depot.

I gave a little talk on "Purpose" on Day Two during "Pick-me-up" in the morning. It was so cool to see students listening intently and connecting with my story and message as I told about my childhood challenges and how finding a purpose helped me pull out of a downward spiral. It was so cool to see how many wrote about their passions and about helping others, but there were a couple of students who seemed to react negatively to the talk--there were two blank pages for the purpose brainstorming activity at the end. There is so much need here. So much pain and turmoil inside and at home in so many of these students. But I continue to be amazed and delighted to see the real care and concern the staff have for every one of these kids. That’s why this place works.

On Friday, our Town Hall discussion was awesome. Several students spoke out about how we should handle students going outside during the day. It's so powerful to make everyone a real part of decisions that affect us all.

In advisory that day, we went through some of the suggested discussion questions from Richard Light's piece on “How To Live Wisely”--questions like, "Would you rather be really good at one thing or pretty good at lots of things?" All of the students participated actively. They disagreed. They discussed. And then they identified their personal core values from a list of 150. It was powerful to see them choosing things like honor, adventure, laughter, loyalty, self-worth and inner peace.

And in the midst of all of this was a barrage of issues and procedures and phone calls and emails and appointments and meetings and OMG-how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-a-handle-on-all-of-this? But then I bring the focus back where it belongs amidst the barrage: The young people in this place. Teenagers never cease to amaze and fascinate me with their depth and promise and energy, and these students are no exception. It promises to be very challenging and tremendously rewarding to be a part of this evolving puzzle of people we call "the Depot," and I'm excited about the coming year.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A new adventure

We had barely gotten the kayaks off the trailer before our incoming students had scattered to the four winds on the lake.

What a great time getting to know these awesome and creative students!

I am so privileged to be a part of such this unique learning environment we call "The Depot."

I can't wait to get to know these students, and their more veteran peers, this year, helping them to find their passion and purpose and overcome the obstacles in their lives. I'm so glad they have this Big Picture school to flourish in--a place that's more than outside the box--a place where "there is no box."

And I am looking forward to working with the great team of advisors (teachers) and staff I have here. Pulling everything together for this outing was a bit complicated. The trailer, kayaks, and vehicles were all in different places, with different owners, and the ball hitch was the wrong size and the electrical connector was too short and the students were all nervous, but this team's dedication was amazing. I may be called the "Director" here, but I'm just part of an awesome team.

And by the end of our 4 hours together the students had cleaned up two watermelons, chatted up a storm, thoroughly explored the lake, tried to catch fish (barehanded, with the help of granola crumbs), collected garnet sand grains, made new friendships, strengthened old ones, and launched what I think is going to be an awesome year.

It promises to be an adventure for me as much as for them: an adventure in learning about ourselves, each other, and the world, learning new skills, confronting old and new challenges. I'm under no illusions that it will be easy, but I'm looking forward to it. And I'll be relying heavily on my team, plus my mentors, Brad Martin, now of East Bay Met, and the admin. at E. O. Smith. And that's what it's all about--life's an adventure, and we're all in it together.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why study when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?

When we have to resort to external motivators, that means there's something wrong. Often, it means something we're doing is not fitting with human nature. That's why we have to force it.

And I have to wonder how much of our modern system of education and even civilization really is not a good fit for humanity at all.

Christopher Ryan tells the story of three natives of Tierra del Fuego, who were brought to England by Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle to learn the ways civilization, in hopes they would serve as missionaries to their own people.

But when they were returned to their homeland, they just reverted to their old way of life--a primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The good Captain offered to bring one of them back to England, but the man declined, saying he hadn't "the least wish to return to England," because he was "happy and contented" with "plenty fruits," "plenty fish," and "plenty birdies."

His response was similar to that of the Kalahari bushman who was asked why his tribe hadn't switched from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture. He replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"

This may apply to school in at least two ways.

First, who can blame young people who are enjoying their social lives, sports, hobbies, and freedom from responsibility, and whose parents are taking care of all their needs, if they choose not to work their butts off in school? Why bust their tails when there are so many mongongo nuts around and they haven't yet learned the "skill" of worrying about the future like we adults have?

Or maybe they feel a need to improve their lives, but their experience has told them that the educational system doesn't work for them. I imagine it doesn't take many suspensions or Fs on your report card to get that message loud and clear. No wonder these students "revert" to lifestyles they feel work better for them.

And I wonder how many young people, when presented with the modern education-career-retirement pipeline are simply not interested. And I wonder if that's a bad thing. After all, what's the point of all that education and career if it doesn't bring fulfilment, if it doesn't make us "happy and contented"?

Darwin and Captain Fitzroy didn't take the hint.  They were saddened by the inability of these "savages" to see the wisdom of the "civilized" way of life. But what if they were missing the point? What if they were the ones not seeing?

I wonder if we too easily assume that our modern systems are best without looking for how well they actually fit humans.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Five meditations to develop better cell phone self-control

One of the challenges of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) classroom is that students get distracted by their cell phones. And they're not alone. A recent Gallup survey shows most people (me included) check their phones at least a few times per hour.

I, for one, could benefit from more self-control in this area--better "cellph-discipline." And I'd like to help my students do the same.

One way to do that is through mindfulness meditation. I've been working on mindfulness skills for a year and a half or so, and I'm still a beginner, but it's become an essential part of my life. It's relaxing, relieves stress, and trains your mind to be more aware of your body, environment, emotions, thought patterns, feelings, and habits.

Here are five ideas for using meditation to retrain your brain to better manage your digital life:

1) Susan M. Pollak's cell phone meditation is a variation of the "thoughts as sounds" meditation explained by Mark Williams and Danny Penman in the book that got it all started for me: Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace In a Frantic World. You start by meditating on the sounds around you. When thoughts arise, just observe them as if they were sounds. But in this version, you first turn on every beep, whistle and ringtone notification on your phone.

2) Thich Nhat Hanh cell phone meditation, from Lindsey Lewis. She writes: "Instead of grappling with our phone to answer it right away as soon as we hear the first ring, we turn it into an opportunity for peaceful contemplation. Ring 1: we pull out our cell phone. Ring 2: we notice who’s calling. Ring 3: We notice our breath. Ring 4: We answer."

3)  And here's a similar, simple one from a Reddit user: When your cell phone goes off, or when you feel the urge to check it, don't. Instead, observe your feelings and thoughts as you leave it where it is. Click this link for more details.

4) A similar one I'm trying is a variation of Williams and Penman's "meditation on difficulties." Intentionally bring your cell phone up in your mind and simply observe all of the thoughts that arise, and/or the physical sensations that arise--your heartbeat, tension in your jaw, nervousness, etc.

4) Or try this variation of the "meditation on form" of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: Gaze at your phone, focusing on it's physical shape, color, or form. As thoughts arise, simply watch them pass by like clouds floating across the sky and bring your attention back to the shape of the phone.

5) And a third I'm trying out: During any form of meditation, whether anapana (meditation on the breath), vipassana (body scan meditation), thoughts as sounds, etc., just leave your cell phone in front of you to encourage thoughts about your social media, games, etc. When they arise, just acknowledge them and gently bring your focus back to whatever you were meditating on.

Cell phones and the internet are powerful ways to communicate, access information, and build social networks, but I feel like they've come on faster than I've been able to wisely assimilate them into my life.

I'm looking forward to using mindfulness and other strategies to better manage this digital whitewater and help my students to do the same.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trying to make sense of late penalities

As I plan for the coming school year, I'm trying to make sense of late penalties.

A typical policy is that students lose 10% per day for late work and no late homework is accepted.

On the surface, this seems to make sense. Kids need to learn responsibility. Getting work done on time is an important skill.

But there are two problems with this.

1) Imposing penalties doesn't teach anything. It doesn't show kids who lack the skills how to manage their time and get things done on time. And while it may motivate some students to "kick it into gear," others--those most at risk, don't respond that way. They're used to failure. They expect it. That's the problem.
And we're not helping them. At the very least, we need to accompany the penalties with support and training until the start seeing success.

2) The second problem is that it places an inordinate amount of value on turning things in on time. What percentage of a student's grade should be determined by whether or not they can turn things in on time? In our system, a student who is routinely late by a couple of days on major assignments could easily lose 20-30% off the top of his or her quarter grade. Should timeliness be worth that much? Should we count time management and responsibility as 30% of the course grade, especially when we don't even teach it?

Right now, I'm looking at ways I can increase support so that students don't fall into this trap. But I'm hoping in the future we can do something completely different.