Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why Huck Matters: a Rambling Open Letter to My Students

My dear American Literature students,

          When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this year, I had a compass to guide me, but I can't say I had a map of where it would take us. With Huck, my ultimate hope was to make a connection between past and present. When it comes to American Literature, there is no meaning to the texts if there's no understanding of the context. So we began this course as an invitation to a conversation: a journey by invitation only - to do something game changing. 

          After a year of teaching British Literature, and a year off from teaching American Literature, I wanted to address topics that I tended to avoid in the past. Like polite dinner conversation, I would avoid discussing politics, religion, or race. But after my experience last year in SEED, a national project Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, I knew that I had to go there. I had no choice. Silence feeds injustice.
            In SEED, teacher to teacher, we had discussions on why race is difficult to talk about - how it's uncomfortable for everyone. We discussed diversity as well as privilege. And we talked about how to be an ally for others. We read inspiring essays. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter to clergymen from the Birmingham City Jail:

I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of goodwill. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity. 
                                               - Martin Luther King, Jr., (Alabama, April 16, 1963)                  
After this transformative SEED experience, I decided: 

Why teach if I don't discuss issues that matter?

              In the wake of recent events, I have been reluctant to explain specific cases, not wishing to debate details or evidence that has been polarizing in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The media spin could be a full masters level course in journalism. Instead, I asked you to read news from across the spectrum. 
              I elected to offer online discussion boards around questions and topics such as the Huck and the N-Word, micro-aggressions and the piling-on principle, and privilege and awareness. By articulating thoughts in writing and sharing compelling content, I hoped that you as students would be more informed and mindful of the issues. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. The goal is to engage in conversation and think about issues in writing; perhaps, more importantly, read and think about the opinions of classmates; then, follow up with meaningful and ongoing face to face conversations. This entire course is one long conversation between past and present.  
               Meanwhile, I obsessively read and collect countless articles via Flipboard magazines: America and RacePrivilege, Assumptions, and Awareness, and Ferguson, MO. I encourage you to read these and keep up with current events. Again, I recommend Twitter to follow news headlines and stories that unfold in realtime. 
               Recently, I shared with you an article by Andover's head of school, John Palfrey. I feel I have struggled to appear impartial because I have felt bringing light to events is a bias in itself. Echoing Palfrey, I want to be clear that I do not want you to think what I think. I simply wish you to be informed in your thinking; I want you to be able to express an opinion in writing

Remember, Dan Pink: "Sometimes we have to write to figure it out." 

Meanwhile, Palfrey articulates in his all-school address why recent events matter.
The other reason I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson is because I think it matters a great deal in an historic sense. It matters to every single one of us – Latino/a, Asian, Black, White, regardless of the race, or races, or ethnicity or ethnicities, that you claim. It matters to each person, perhaps in a different way. But it matters to all of us because it stands for a few important things. It stands for the difficulty we continue to have in talking about race and difference in the world. I know, in what I will say to you today, I will offend one or more of you; or perhaps I will stumble badly over my words.  We must each run that risk — of offending one another, of saying the wrong thing, on the way to the truth and to productive dialogue. This issue also stands for the very real challenge of effective law enforcement and global security — which we must accomplish with real effectiveness — and to do so in a world in which it is not possible to ignore the inequities between people in our society.

          I know I have stumbled in different ways this fall, especially while experimenting with a new learning management system. But in the grand scheme of things, I feel there are risks worth taking. I elect to embrace change and remind myself to be resilient. By now you know, I believe in innovation (and leveraging the internet) to restore integrity and greater purpose in the study of literature in the 21st century. I refuse to be nostalgic for old dusty books - and B.I. (Before Internet) times when kids read Shakespeare and Twain for just the joy of reading... 

          Let's get real. Let's stop pretending the internet does not exist. As teachers, we are in competition with compelling content via smartphones, Netflix, Youtube, etc. Another Dan Pink idea, we are all in sales. I could go on...

But recently I read this article on Privilege at elite schools: 
                     "The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager"

         Perhaps this article will resonate with you - I don't want to make assumptions - but I have been teaching at three different elite schools for thirteen years now and I have witnessed similar issues. I wish it were not the case, but I regretfully agree with the following:
Deresiewicz claims that this generation of highly accomplished, college-bound students have been robbed of their independence because they have been raised in a petri dish for one purpose only: to attend an elite college that ensures their and their families' economic and social status. Instead of being nurtured towards real curiosity and a genuine sense of citizenship, these millennials are conditioned to think that everything they do is for the purpose of looking good in the eyes of admissions officers and employers: you earn good grades not because they mean you are learning something, but rather because they will help you stand out from your peers when applying to the Ivies. You engage in community service not because you wish genuinely to make a positive difference in the lives of others but rather because that is how you burnish your resume -- service as check-off box. You play sports not because they build character and teamwork and are a whole lot of fun, but because you want to try to get recruited for a college team. You study art or music not because you wish to refine your understanding of human nature, creativity and culture but because it will help you look smarter.
Perhaps, this article hits a nerve - and I hope you will not be defensive and call it heresy. This article makes me feel empathy for students that carry the weight of high expectation that come with privilege. (I have empathy for all kids growing up today.) When some students hear privilege (and to be at EA is a privilege), there may be sensitivity to conversations around this privilege - we all have our challenges and stories. We can be defensive about the notion of privilege if it connotes an easy life on easy street. Everyone works hard and make sacrifices. We all face adversity and endure pain. 
         When conversations around embracing diversity come up, some students may be reluctant or even cynical. I have heard some say that I am colorblind and treat everyone the same. There is a difference between equity and equality - a future conversation I look forward to having.

Just a guess, but I feel that more students than anyone realizes are dealing with issues like depression, anxiety, and a culture of stress and high expectations (even Huck shows signs of depression and suicidal thoughts). Now, some hide it better than others...some cope with it in different ways - and some ways better than others. I feel many students struggle under the expectations to be perfect as they prep and apply to prestigious schools. 
              As privileged students at an elite school, students hear messages how they should be grateful, choose to be happy (nothing to be depressed about), and be aware of privilege... 

         After a recent chapel that I appreciated, even simple zen thoughts such as "be present" breeds surprising resentment in students. I get it. 

How can you "be present" if you're stressing about all the tests and quizzes to do? 

           When I read this article, it all makes more sense (to me) as to why there may be push back to deeper conversations that do not pertain to a test. When there's so much to do (and to study), we can become addicted to the busy-ness of the busy trap.

          I am sure this is not a novel notion - but a recent epiphany for me with a holistic vision - a community's culture will not be open to meaningful discussion of diversity and inclusion - wellness and depression (a topic I know too well) - in a place of stress and isolation for too many students. 
          I understand why we can be reluctant to acknowledge such issues. EA is a traditional school - focused on college prep, but America, and the world, is changing exponentially. I again borrow from John Palfrey at Andover - you may replace Andover with any independent school: 

I could not be more proud to live in this country; I could not be more proud to be an American. I could not be more proud to live and work at Andover; I could not be more proud to be your head of school. Neither America nor Andover is perfect. Neither one is completely exceptional. But on their best days, they are both completely wonderful. We can and must make both of them better – and with them, the world at large. Andover, it starts here – it starts with each of us and with our community. We can show that democracy works in the context of free, open, orderly discussion on topics that matter — whether they relate to what is right in front of us or what is occurring in the world at large.
So when we discuss issues that matter, we can be sensitive. But we cannot take it personally. We must take that risk to engage in civil conversation. We are all connected, living in an increasingly interdependent world. We have major issues to address. We cannot stick our heads in the sand. We cannot make assumptions and point fingers. We cannot just stand on the soapbox like I have on occasion...this being one of them. 

We need to engage in conversations about issues that matter.

And as I shared before, we need to remember The Four Agreements.
1. Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.
2. Don’t Take Anything PersonallyNothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
3. Don’t Make AssumptionsFind the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
4. Always Do Your BestYour best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

And we need to remember Huck - and ask what would Huck do?

         He heads west in the end. Why?

         He prizes his freedom. I like to think that Huck inspires and represents student autonomy. Huck sees the hypocrisy of the adult world. Huck sees school as boring and civilizing - and a slave-holding society as beyond dangerous.
          Now, Huck's example is not a suggestion to drop out of school... 
          For me, it's a call to read, to write, and to think. Think for yourself, in spite of society, like Huck.

         I am grateful that you, my students, are still with me, and hopefully enjoying the ride thus far on our journey. In many ways, we have been setting a foundation, a mindset, and a mode of operations. Please continue to trust me - and please keep reading and writing. Thank you! 
          I hope that we continue this conversation in 2015 with renewed focus and enthusiasm. We are off to a good start, but we have much work to do. I am excited about the direction we are headed.

P.S. - Take advantage of JTerm. I can't wait for my course: "21st Century Storytelling." Great opportunity to learn - for the sake of learning! Sorry to be didactic. Be intellectually curious. Read, read, and read. And enjoy the ride more. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Brainstorming a Presentation for High School Freshmen: What is Depression?

I've been asked to share my story as part of a freshmen health seminar.

The topic is depression - a topic I know far too well.

But first let's get clear on what depression is...

I want to speak with you, not as a teacher or a coach, but simply as someone that has struggled with depression at times in my life, and I continue to manage my life and stress through all of the tools mentioned in this video, especially getting exercise, practicing gratitude, finding humor, and taking to trusted friends and loved ones.

But today, I want to share more than just my story.

I want to share my brother's story as well as couple other stories that may make you rethink and reconsider your understanding of depression and offer tools for you to be an ally for others who may be struggling and realize when you may need to ask for help yourself.

We all endure times of pain, loss, and grief. We all weather storms when there seems like there's no end in sight.

It is hard to believe 15 years ago in February, we lost my brother Conor to suicide. Conor was bipolar and struggled through three high schools as well as college. He ended his life February 26, 2000.

Three years ago, I shared my brother's story and my family's story at a suicide prevention walk. Speaking to 1500 students and families, many that had lost loved ones, I was nervous to say the least, but I have come to realize that it's not about me and my fear of public speaking, it is about you.

Yes, you, not the person next to you.

Because the odds are undeniable that someday you or your loved ones are going to be touched by depression, or the unspeakable - what I thought was once unimaginable.

(Watch until 1:55)

Depression, and especially suicide, is not something anyone wants to think about - let alone talk about.

We only do so because we must. For in our silence, we feed the stigma - the shame that revolves around mental illness.

So let's get clear that depression is not a choice (and it's simplistic, and dangerous to simply say the converse, happiness is a choice).

Through technology and MRIs we are learning more about how the brain works.

Here's a story I wish we had more time to watch:

In conclusion:

A playlist of videos on Happiness and positive psychology - cognitive therapy can help, but sometimes we need medication to balance the chemistry in the brain.  

Monday, December 1, 2014

Professional Development and Pancakes: New Metaphors and Possibilities with Technology

Today I had grandiose notions to share new metaphors and most likely overwhelm my colleagues with TMI (too much information).  To be honest, I did not sleep much last night and over the holiday, I meditated much on what was I going to share with my colleagues.

I imagined TED talks with wow factor of PPT - with remote - or a Prezi that rivaled Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. 

I reread old tweets and considered my audience - tailoring talks to Math and Science and then Arts and Languages at a school of master teachers (many with PhDs) and far more experience than my 13 years.

I thought of countless ways to frame the conversation and reframe the conversation. Yet in the end, I decided this:

1. Empty the cup. Reimagine possibilities.

2. Bring light to FEAR. JAWS
"Tech is..."

3. My David Copperfield (abridged) story.

4. My Heroes

5. Growth Mindset

6. Teacher as Curator, Coach, and Learner.

7. Listen more. Read more. Write more. Less traditional lecturing, quizzing, and testing.

8. It's a conversation. This is an invitation to a conversation.

9. The Modern Pencil. Everything must work.

10. The internet exists. What is possible? Global Classroom.