Crossing the Divides

Our country is divided not only in terms of which presidential candidate we supported or which policies we support, but on a much more fundamental level. We differ on what it means to be a human being. We differ in our root beliefs, our understanding of the human mind, the self, and reality. It is a difference in the way of thinking and speaking with others, in activities we engage in, in our view of what a democracy is. It is not simply a matter of income, class or color, although I think income inequity and racism are central causes and indications of division. It is spiritual, intellectual and emotional. It is not a divide between one religion and another, or religious versus secular, but runs right through all such groupings. The differing sides all feel that the other, or one of the others, threatens the world itself. This makes extreme actions appear possible or even necessary.

 

Karen Armstrong, author, religious scholar, and former nun, provides an important perspective on one issue dividing our land. In 2005, talking about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, she said it is wrong to even speak of conducting a war on terrorism, because it is really a religious war, one form of fundamentalism versus another. Fundamentalism is a desire to return to the fundamental values, the original state of a religion. It interprets religious doctrine literally and calls for strict adherence to such doctrine. Truth is solid, fixed, and absolute and tolerance of the “other” can be considered sin. In our world today, there is a “mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism.” She said, “We are creatures who seek transcendence… We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Thus, religion has always had a place in human affairs and even the appearance of assaulting religion can have dire consequences.

 

But, she says, there is “good” religion and “bad.” “Bad” suffocates the sacred and the search for meaning and truth in dogma and rules. “Good” religion is compassion and the experience of dethroning the ego at the center of your world and finding another person or something bigger than your self there. This good religion is not anti-intellectual; it recognizes that understanding deep truths is a matter of feeling, imagination, as well as rationality. For example, some religions consider experience, rational analysis, and wisdom essential to religion. The Dalai Lama, for example, said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

 

Religion is not usually a consciously chosen belief. It can be foundational to one’s sense of self, culture and reality. To threaten religion is to threaten the world itself. Bad religion considers any statement, factual or otherwise, that is contrary to their religious position not only an untruth or lie, but dangerous. This can include science. Armstrong also argues that especially in nations like the US, where there is so much violent imagery in the media and entertainment, the reaction against secularism can be violent. “Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more rigid and absolute.” And when religion is threatened, fundamentalist membership and action increases and bad religion replaces good.

 

George Lakoff, in his wonderful book, The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, provides another way to frame the divide in our nation. In America, we often use the metaphor of the nation as a family. Yet, Republicans and Democrats have a very different notion of the nature of that family, or what should be that nature. The Republicans think of the nation as needing to conform to a “strict father” model. The Democrats think of needing a “nurturant parent” model. This is, of course, a simplification of both the reality and Lakoff’s analysis, but it provides a general overview of the theory.

 

The strict father family thinks of the world “as a dangerous place…because there is evil out there in the world.” It is competitive, there is absolute right and wrong, and children, when “bad,” are born bad. So a strict father is needed to protect and teach the children. Children need to be obedient and learn discipline, and be punished when disobedient. Without discipline, the world would go to hell. If you are wealthy, it means you are disciplined. Reality dictates that if you work for your own selfish motives and success, everyone will benefit. If you try to help someone else, be compassionate, and try to nurture others, you interfere with his or her own self-discipline, and undermine self-interest. According to this reasoning, the rich are good, the poor are bad. These metaphors and beliefs translate into domestic and foreign policies that maximize the value of the rich pursuing their self-interest.

 

Democrats and progressives are likely to believe in a more gender-neutral parent model. Any gender is equally responsible for, and capable of, raising children. Children are born basically “good” or full of potential and can be nurtured to be better. You need empathy, so you can know better what your child needs. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. You need a sense of responsibility and commitment, not only for your family but your community, country, and world. You want your child to be fulfilled in life, happy. You value freedom, fairness, service, cooperation, and trust.

 

To speak across this great divide, you must use language that reflects the values others hold dear and does not threaten their religion. To tell another person they are just wrong or their ideas are evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the person you are talking to.

 

These are just two different perspectives out of many. We’re multidimensional and complex beings. Progressives can be closeted conservatives and conservatives can be closeted progressives. So instead of just attacking those who disagree with you, use the language and metaphors that they value in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered. According to Lakoff, the Republican and conservative message is that Democrats, liberals and progressives are weak, angry, and softhearted, so be sincere, respectful, calm, and hold your ground. Re-frame any story anyone tries to use against you in order to illustrate that your point of view and your values show you, too, love your country. You, too, want security, opportunity, and freedom, just as they do. You agree more than you disagree. The road to the freedom and stability that conservatives’ value highly must merge with the road to equity and compassion you value highly.

 

*You might find this recent post on the election by George Lakoff extremely useful.

Do You Want A New Chief of Education Whose Aim Is to Dismantle Public Schools?

Betsy DeVos is Mr. Trump’s choice to be the Secretary of Education. She is in favor of “choice,” meaning she favors vouchers and charter schools. A voucher system means public funds are used to pay for students to attend religious or possibly private or charter schools instead of public ones. This means we might soon have a chief of education who wants to dismantle public education. I oppose this nomination.

 

Why is it a bad idea to privatize public education? Is this nomination a culmination of recent moves made by wealthy private interests to undermine public schools? If you’d like a short historical review and analysis from earlier blogs, read on.

 

For the last 30 years or more there have been waves of attacks on public schools in the US. These attacks go along with a larger war on the concept and institutions of democracy. How? One of the functions of public schools is to educate all students to be able to understand and meaningfully participate in a democratic government. It is to “level the playing field” so people who put in the effort can create a good life. Are we now purposely creating “separate and (certainly not) equal?”

 

Diane Ravitch argues in her book Reign of Error that different corporations, working with political institutions and individual politicians, have been leading an effort to undermine public schools by undermining teachers and teacher unions. They have been attacking the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system (or a water, health, or other system).

 

The strategy calls for publicizing often inaccurate and deceptive information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor, white and people of color, was diminishing. The A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning.

 

With the fomenting of decreasing trust in teachers and public schools, there was also increasing pressure to turn to private companies to create assessments, curriculum, and even to decide who would be allowed to teach our children. In 2001, President Bush supported and signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This was a “noteworthy” achievement. It increased the number of standardized tests that our students had to take which made us the most tested nation in the world. Then came President Obama’s Race To The Top legislation in 2009. Amongst other things, this set the stage for the Common Core, and mandated that test scores be used in teacher evaluations, and encouraged the closing of public schools whose students “underperform” on test scores. The result was that some of those dire claims about the education of our children began to come true.

 

Once most of the country was fooled into thinking of public education as facing a large scale crisis, there were increasing calls to privatize schools and create privately run, publicly funded, charter schools, and vouchers. From 2003-4 to 2013-14, for example, the number of students enrolled in charter schools rose from 1,6 million to 2.5 million. This number continues to rise. With charter schools, public money is transferred from teachers and administrators, who are mostly in the middle or lower class, to corporate investors. In the case of cities like NYC, hedge fund managers, whose primary goal is fast profits, have taken over several charter schools.

 

Secondly, these schools, as Diane Ravitch points out, “…are deregulated and free from most state laws… This freedom allows charter schools to establish their own disciplinary policies and their own admission rules.” Unlike public schools, which must take any and every student who comes to their door, charter schools can screen for the most advantaged students. Despite this screening, charter schools are no more successful then public schools. And, when adjusted for the economic situation of students, statistics show they often do worse. Charter and other privately run schools can hire uncertified teachers who are not unionized, not as well trained, and who can be paid less. The public sector can now be drained of funds and left to educate the most disadvantaged students with fewer resources.

 

Public schools were further undermined over this same time period by federal, state, and local cuts to educational budgets, including cuts in teaching staff. In 35 states, for example, the funding in 2012-2013 was below 2008 levels. At the same time, there was an increase in spending on standardized testing. I don’t think it’s smart to try to increase the performance of schools by decreasing the number of teachers teaching. During this time, however, there were increasing outcries against the common core tests. From 2013 until today, more and more parents have helped their children opt out of standardized tests, and the resistance to teacher evaluations based on those tests has expanded. And soon, we will have new policies by Betsy DeVos that we might want to oppose.

 

Proponents of “choice” argue their policies will benefit all students and increase equity by forcing competition in the education market. However, this approach treats our children as commodities, sources of money, (as exemplified by speaking of “value-added” to students by schools) and conceptualizes the purpose of education as meeting the needs of employers, not meeting the needs and dreams of students.

 

If our society truly wanted to create an equitable educational system it would begin by investing more money in schools where the need was greatest. It would treat teachers with the respect they deserve and need in order to creatively and compassionately meet the educational needs of students. It would do a better job of treating students as whole people with emotional, social, and health needs as well as intellectual ones. It would do any of these things before it would spend one nickel on corporate created standardized tests, charter schools or vouchers. So, is the corporate “reform” agenda part of a larger move in our country to undermine not only public education, but the power of the public in general? I hope not. But, I think, that is the result.

 

**A few links  and resources:

For a chart on vouchers and school choice, provided by Steve Singer, BadAss Teachers:

To sign a petition against Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, go to this link. For information on her connection to the religious right, read this article by Jeff Bryant.

Diane Ravitch blog.

Do You Agree “There Are No Such Things As Facts?”

A week ago, on the NPR Diane Rehms Show, I heard a beautiful example of a self-refuting statement spoken live on the radio. I didn’t realize what I was hearing right away, although the quote certainly caught my attention. The show was a panel discussion answering the question, “How are journalists rethinking their role under a Trump presidency?” The guests included 5 professional news editors, columnists, and reporters including James Fallows (The Atlantic), and Scottie Nell Hughes (RightAlerts.com & former D. Trump surrogate).

 

During the program, James Fallows said a lie was when you knew the truth, yet repeated a falsehood for a personal motive. He said there was clear evidence the apparent President-elect lied on several occasions. Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump “booster,” was asked for her response to this. Her reply was “There are no such things as facts.” She used Mr. Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the last election to explain her viewpoint. She says, [I edited the text to make it more comprehensible] “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet [about illegal voters, was taken] … [by] a certain crowd, a large part of the population, …[as the] truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, …his supporters, … believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say [his statements] are lies, and there’s no facts to back …up his claims.”

 

Think about this statement. And ask everyone you know, your students and friends, to think about this statement. Discuss it in your classroom or place of work. What could she possibly mean by this? It is of immense importance. Is she saying that because a large part of the population believes what Mr. Trump says and supports him, therefore his statements are true? And, therefore, there are no lies for him to be called to account for?

 

I think it is true those who believe in Mr. Trump take his words as truth. But is a truth or a fact decided by a popularity contest or vote count? Certainly popularity will influence whether or how well a truth will be perceived, and there is a social dimension to any truth. But how does her way of speaking of ‘facts’ make any sense—and how would a fact differ from an opinion? Or is everything somehow an opinion?

 

Mr. Fallows’ point that a truth is opposite a lie provides one way to answer these questions. If Scottie Hughes thinks there are no facts, she must think there are no truths and no lies. How do you know what’s a lie if there is no truth? A fact is by definition something known to be true, something based on evidence that you could demonstrate repeatedly. Likewise, ‘truth’ is from a root meaning ‘faithfulness’ (treowth), as in faithful to reality. It is real. If there are no truths, there are also no accurate or faithful definitions of words. You would never know if the sound you heard in your mind or uttered by another person is a word, nor what it meant. Nor would you know what you wanted to say. Therefore, you could never speak. When you opened your mouth, just noise would emerge.

 

To say “there are no facts” is equivalent to saying, “it is a fact that there are no facts.” By speaking these words you nullify the “fact” that you spoke. Therefore, can anything you say be other than meaningless gibberish? Or is Scottie Nell Hughes really saying that only what is in opposition to her statements is meaningless gibberish?

 

*P. S. Scottie Hughes’ viewpoint did not arise out of a vacuum and is not entirely new, only new in the blatant way it has been applied to the electoral process. It is part of a battle over the nature of the human mind, or what it means to be human, that has been waged for over a hundred years and maybe forever. A few years ago, students in one of my classes argued, “there is no such thing as truth.” When asked what they meant by truth, they responded with: “A truth is permanent, unchanging, absolute, like ‘God’s truth.’“ And: “Since I can know truth only through my own experience, and we all have different experiences, how can there be one truth?” This and other discussions on the topic showed me how important it is to discuss with students the meanings of words like truth, fact, and opinion, not just to voice diverse viewpoints but to analyze and question them.

 

It is easy for people to think that truth should exist in isolation from the minds of all those who perceive and understand it, like they might think the objects of the world exist in isolation from other objects. But isn’t a truth, like a fact, like a word, interdependent with the situation, context and mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears? To borrow an example from the philosopher Ken Wilber, the word ‘bark’ depends on the the context of the sentence and the ability of the speaker and listener to speak the language. (“The dog barks every morning,” versus “the bark of the tree.”) Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception itself a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we… experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” He thinks the world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two, and never separate. If he is correct, meaning his reasoning is logical, comprehensive, and based on demonstrably accurate information, then each mind influences the way a world is perceived, yet there are still truthful and not truthful statements, and facts.

 

**Terry Gross recorded a Fresh Air episode relevant to this topic on 12/7, interviewing Dean Baquet, executive editor of the NY Times. You might find it interesting.

Compassionate Critical Thinking, A Book Worth Owning and Sharing

Here’s a review of my book that cheered me up a little during a tough week.

I sat down with this book, very excited to finally have a copy in my hands to read. I was looking forward to feeling inspired by it as I read it quickly over the weekend, and to feel appreciation for the teacher who decided to share his work.

Two weeks later, I am still very excited to have it, but it is not a book I want to skim through for vague inspiration. Rather, I am awed by what an amazing treasure of detailed information this is! I wonder what the world would be like if these lessons could be offered to every school child. I went to a Quaker high school where every day started with a short period of silence for the whole school. This book takes that kernel of an idea and brings it into the rest of the school day.

I will go further and say this is a wonderful handbook for an ongoing mindfulness or meditation discussion group for adults. The wisdom Ira Rabois writes about is not superficial or difficult to understand, but instead the book offers topics, questions and reference reading on being a human being in this world. His students were so lucky to have a teacher who was able to approach their education with this respect and sensitivity, and the publication of this book brings this opportunity to the rest of us as well.

While it is clear that Rabois has a strong background in Buddhist teachings, what he is able to get across in this book is not limited by a particular philosophy or religion. Rather, he offers a detailed plan to study the human mind in all its fullness and frailty, all its potential and confusion. This book has found a permanent place on my nightstand with a couple other books (such as a book on Lojong) that I refer to again and again for guidance as problems come up.

If high school teachers are interested in helping students develop compassionate critical thinking, they would probably be most successful reading this book first, applying its questions and ideas to their own lives, allowing a first-person understanding of this information to be the basis of their teaching style. If a school has staff development days, even a small amount of time shared reading and discussing this book would be of great benefit to teachers and students alike.

I only wish that the table of contents had listed the Lesson Plans. The vast amount of information presented is not just a single line of knowledge, but rather is also a reference guide for approaching specific concerns as they arise in a classroom, or in one’s own life. For example, It would be helpful to be able to easily find out that “Anger” is discussed in Lesson 14, or that a lesson plan to study the “Geography of the Brain” is Lesson 8.

Definitely a book worth owning and sharing with others. Thank you Ira for being able to articulate and gather together so much wisdom in this form! I am deeply grateful to have it in my life.

When the News Feels Too Upsetting, Try Mindful Logic With Your Coffee

When you awake each morning dreading the news, it’s time to add mindful logic to your coffee. And its time for schools to teach how to think more empathically, clearly, and critically, with more understanding of one’s own mental and emotional state. Current events and election coverage classes are not a new idea. But what might be new is to do more than just listening to news media and testing students on superficial knowledge. Students can learn to analyze the news, discern lies, distortions and logical fallacies, as well as become more aware of how they respond to and are emotionally affected by a news item. They need to go beyond the mere memorization often pushed by standardized testing and actually imagine what the real people in a news item might be experiencing. By intellectually taking hold of the world they can feel a sense of power and will be more capable of acting meaningfully in it.

 

Of course, many might think this blasphemy. Supposedly, assigning students the task of analyzing and fact-checking the statements of politicians, for example, can lead to indoctrination. But how is the questioning of real people and events indoctrination? And what is the alternative? A politician running for office who, by most criteria and a simple use of Google, lies or distorts the truth about 90% of the time? To counteract indoctrination, teachers need to understand and reveal their own positions with care and humility, understanding that they might be wrong or missing something. ( I, for example, deplore the lies, misogynist statements and actions, and racist insinuations made by Donald Trump, e. g. about Judge Ganzalo Curiel.) They must teach the necessity of doubting any theory until it is questioned in some detail and shown to be well reasoned and supported, even a teacher’s position.

 

Students need to be allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions like: “Does the corporate media report more extensively on one candidate for office over another? What is the evidence for this?” And ask what happens to public discourse, what happens to the power of the public, when the truth is made to seem unimportant? What is the cost to the level of public discourse when politicians constantly lie and many Americans believe it?

 

Teachers need to appreciate, understand and explain the necessity for examining a diversity of viewpoints in forming an understanding of an issue. To get out of the way of a car speeding toward you on a street, you need to see it from the perspective of where your body is standing. But you must also understand the car and you must know what it can do. You must know it from its own perspective. To understand, you need this relationship of multiple perspectives. Once you leave behind exclusively taking the perspective with you at the center, you perceive and can think more clearly and with less bias.

 

Students can greatly benefit from learning how to recognize persuasion techniques and formal or informal fallacies, which can enable them to recognize how salespeople and political leaders try to sway their thinking. For example, there is the bandwagon technique in advertising or ad populum fallacy, which creates internal pressure to do something because everyone is doing it—or everyone you identify with. It is a version of peer pressure. Or ad hominem—which means, you attack the person and ignore what she says. Or you appeal to emotion, like fear or jealousy to distort thinking. If a statement is repeated frequently enough in a context you trust, you tend to believe it, even if there is little supportive evidence. There is overgeneralization, which is at the heart of prejudiced statements. The mere semblance of logic can be persuasive, as when someone adds “because” to a request (as in “can I please budge in line ahead of you because I get so nervous waiting on lines”) you are more likely to accede to what is being asked.

 

But you must be able to distinguish the mere semblance of logic from sound reasoning. Sound reasoning is both true, meaning it is based on evidence that is reliably verified. And the argument is valid, which means the position taken by the speaker follows logically or naturally from the statements offered as supportive evidence. Ask: What was actually said? What is your proof? Verify statements offered as supportive evidence through online and other resources, and not just with fact-check sites. You could discuss what is a fact and how it is different from an opinion or theory. Are the supposed facts really facts? You could teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.

 

Teach the following questions:

What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?

  1. Intent: What did she actually say? What did she mean by that? What might he have been feeling or what was his line of reasoning? What is the statement trying to convince you of? Is the statement consistent with other, previous statements? Is there evidence, for example, that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
  2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?

 

Researchers have argued that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates, as well as themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.

 

Students can be taught to mindfully recognize the speeded up heartbeat and breathing, the shakiness and sense of being pressured, as well as other sensations and thoughts which arise when they feel a threat or unconsciously distort what they hear, so they can let it go. When you listen to the news, hear what your mind and body say in response.

 

It is important both for your mental health and for acting as a responsible citizen to analyze the news with an understanding of your own mental-emotional state, your inclinations, desires, theories about the world, and how others influence you. This part of the curriculum needs to be expanded in our schools, or added if it is missing.

 

*For more assistance in teaching about the election, I recommend the article in Teaching Tolerance: Teach 2016. For more assistance in teaching critical thinking, see my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

Bias and Distortions in Thinking

During a discussion with friends at a party, I voiced a not very original analysis that Donald Trump’s proposed economic policies posed a threat to the interests of his supporters from lower economic classes. A friend replied that was “just your opinion.” Trump’s supporters held a very different viewpoint. My viewpoint was supposedly biased against Trump and so I couldn’t see him clearly—but, of course, “we are all biased.”

 

If this was a class, I would ask students what exactly was an opinion, a theory, or a fact. Do these words have different, contrasting, meanings? If so, what are those differences? But this was a party and the discussion was interrupted and dissolved. This view, this meme, that we all have bias, can be ambiguous at best, and undermine critical thinking at worst. It could undermine the value of taking a position based on facts instead of opinions.

 

What is bias? What could it mean to say, “Everyone is biased?” Or, “all viewpoints are biased?” ‘Bias’ is sometimes used in a way that is almost synonymous with having a perspective. We always speak and act from a particular perspective and all perspectives have limits. No one is omniscient. So, in this case, yes, everyone has bias. It couldn’t be otherwise. So, why even use the word ‘bias’ instead of ‘perspective’?

 

One student argued in a very insightful manner that ‘bias’ can simply mean a preference. This meaning, however, could run into the same difficulties as ‘perspective.’ ‘Bias’ can also mean, according to my Encarta Dictionary, “an unfair preference for or dislike of something” or “to influence someone or something unfairly.” Bias is not simply any preference but an “unfair” one. In statistics, ‘bias’ means “a distortion of a set of results.” To be biased can also mean to be prejudiced. Why do people use ‘bias’ instead of ‘preference’? Probably because of the emotional charge, which comes not from the meaning of ‘perspective’ or ‘preference’ but from ‘distorted’ or ‘prejudiced.’ You can’t say you want the emotional charge of a word and deny the implications or connotations that come with that charge.

 

And the fact that all perspectives are limited does not mean that all are biased. Limited is not the same as distorted. If it were, then it would imply that everyone acts unfairly or is prejudiced, which would undermine any effort to act against distortion/unfairness/prejudice. You need humility and understanding in the face of the limited nature of your viewpoint. You need clearer observation, more careful analysis, more reliable sources of information, and possibly more self-awareness and empathy in the face of distortion.

 

Saying “everyone is biased” also creates logical problems. It implies an “irrefutable situation” in which non-biased viewpoints are impossible. “A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.” (Karl Popper, Philosopher of Science) Likewise, “If a word’s meaning includes everything, then it means nothing. If a theory can’t possibly be proven wrong, then it is actually useless.” Since meaning is a function of being able to make distinctions, to say “everyone is biased” has no meaning.

 

And we clearly need to make distinctions, including between opinions, distortions of facts, and demonstrable facts. We are constantly forming viewpoints and emotions based both on what we hear and how we listen. When we distort the situation around us, we tightly restrict the information we allow into our awareness. Our emotional health, and maybe our political rights and power, might depend on our learning how to spot logical gaps, check the truthfulness of statements, read our own body responses, and be aware of when we listen openly and when we close our ears and eyes—and are aware of when our thinking is distorted, unfair, biased.

Teaching Writing and Discovering Who You Are

Sometimes teachers ask themselves, “How do I get students to use the full writing process, to start with brainstorming and proceed to outlining, first draft, etc.,?” I think that question assumes that the writing process, as usually taught, is the most appropriate way for each student to approach writing. Why not start with: “How do I help each student to think clearly and express that clarity?” Or: “How do I help this student to write well or to write at all?”

 

Even more, you can ask yourself: “How do you write what is your own truth?” Discovering what works best for you, and why, can help you relate to your student’s struggles. When writing is viewed as revelation or discovery, a means not only for expressing but thinking critically about your life, then writing becomes intrinsically motivating. It is not just something imposed by a teacher. And then the most important part of writing instruction is already taught.

 

I noticed that whenever I first try to discuss the process of writing with a group of secondary school students, they rarely like or fully understand how to outline or brainstorm. Or maybe they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. They think the “full writing process” is a waste of time. Outlining feels artificial, inauthentic, as if it would rob them of their creativity. Brainstorming, they think, only gets in their way. It feels reassuring to “just write” or just get something down on a page.

 

It’s helpful to ask students directly how they approach writing, what works for them and what is most difficult, but you have to listen and watch closely for answers. They might not be able or willing to say it all in words. And you need ways to individualize instruction in response to what they say.

 

Sometimes, the problem is that they don’t know how to organize their ideas or they are easily overwhelmed by material. In that case, offer a form to guide them step by step through structuring their essay. Or, show students an old, pre-computer scriptwriting process, that involves writing, on 3 x 5 cards, each scene you envision for the movie. Then you place the cards on a table and move them around to find the most appropriate plot line. You could adapt this to a research or persuasive essay by recording facts, theories, and lines of reasoning on the cards and move them around to build the strongest argument for your position. Or you could use a concept map or computer graphics to serve a similar purpose.

 

Underneath their resistance to writing might be a lack of trust in their intellect or they might not be able to focus attention enough to hold onto and clearly hear their own ideas. In that case, I explain that writing can be part of thinking. The purpose of brainstorming is to allow you to work with your brain and not against it. The brain processes that foster insight and creativity are different from those that edit, or check spelling and grammar. So doing a brainstorm frees the mind from anything that is irrelevant to simply getting down a first draft. But even more, I talk about uncovering your own truth. Brainstorming is a way to free your mind from assumptions and get at what isn’t initially clear. It is a way to integrate material and synthesize information. Start by assigning meaningful topics or questions to write about or get students involved in creating the topics. Then use prompts to help students understand the question or assignment: “How are you hearing the question? What is it asking you to do? What are the different parts of the question?”

 

Then brainstorm how to approach the question: “What is it that you really feel, think and want to say? What intrigues you about this subject? What do you love or hate about it? What are your assumptions?” Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, make the essay the unraveling of your confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay itself by voicing what troubles or confuses you. By going directly into your confusion, it unravels.

 

When you brainstorm, just put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you in response to the prompt. “What do you hear in your head? What thoughts and ideas come to you? If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. Write what you hear, hear what you write. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic. Write until the topic feels new or fresh to you.” Much of this instruction I learned from a wonderful writing practice called proprioceptive writing, developed by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It also asks students to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer or phone because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to see and hear what you write.

 

Emphasize that any writing, not just short stories or poetry or film scripts, is creative, and can follow the creative process. You begin with preparation and immersion in the material. You go through a time of frustration, even confusion and questioning. Then you allow an incubation period. You step back. You meditate. You play games. Especially for younger students, but its great with anyone, have some fun. Loosen up. For example, if the assignment is to write a persuasive essay, ask the students, ”If the different sides or aspects of this question were animals, which ones would they be?” You can imagine each side of an argument has a different tone of voice and have them speak to each other. Or you can have students draw the central questions they are dealing with. Then insight and understanding comes more easily to them. Then you test what you think is correct.

 

When writing is explained in this way, it’s creative, not just work. When the student’s actual thoughts, obstacles and ways of thinking are made part of the process, the assignment becomes less an imposition and more of a revelation. The student feels like you’re helping them discover their truth and power, not taking it away. And that’s exactly what you want and what writing is about.

 

*For more information on teaching writing and on a process of thinking creatively, critically, and with compassion, see my newly released book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

Question Authority! Taking Questions Deeply Enough

A question can be beautiful and exciting. A good question can be a gift. In education, for example, when a teacher asks students a real, honest question, it can fire up a real and honest discussion. Such questions are at the heart of education. To notice such a question you must be at least part way to an answer. The question reveals that, and possibly what, you don’t know.

 

“Question authority” can be a powerful and useful slogan. It can mean you can and should challenge, not automatically believe in, the power and viewpoint of those people in positions of power, whether it be institutional, social, or personal. It means you can question and challenge those who are charismatic and those you put on a pedestal or highly admire.

 

To question does not mean to denigrate but to elucidate the meaning, test the accuracy and applicability, or to do justice to the person or concept and reveal implications. There are different questions you ask when you doubt the truth of a statement, and those you ask when you simply want more understanding.

 

Sometimes, a question is asked facetiously, or to end or divert a discussion, so not all questions are honest, or insightful. I remember students taking “Question Authority” to mean there are no authorities; no one’s viewpoint has any more truth-value than anyone else’s. I think that all questions asked in a classroom should be heard; but the level of understanding of those with little or no experience in an area of life is rarely as deep or broad as those with actual experience, or who have extensively studied a subject.

 

To question that anyone who has experience in an area of life has a viewpoint that deserves a little more weight than someone without that experience, is to deny the value of experience and learning—is to deny there are truths to learn. The value of life itself can be undermined. Authority is not only a person in power but also a source of reliable information or truths, accurate observations and such. “What do you mean by ‘truth’” is one question a teacher must not ignore.

 

Sometimes, a question does not go deeply enough. People often question only up to the point of reinforcing their own, old viewpoint. A person, for example, might question whether the views of a climate scientist are biased by their science and not question how their own views are biased. They might inquire into what was in Secretary Clinton’s emails but not wonder what might be revealed by Mr. Trump’s emails or tax returns. They might question that teachers with experience with a student might be able to objectively describe the student’s learning, but not question the value of a score on a test created by an educational corporation. One of the most important times to question is when you assume your own viewpoint is the one and only truth.

 

‘Authority’ comes from ‘author’ or ‘creator,’ ‘originator.’ So when you assume your own ability to think, question, act, and you learn how to monitor and let go of thoughts and emotions, you are an authority. In Buddhism and mindfulness training, the meditator is taught to doubt any explanation, any conceptual thought, but not lose faith in one’s ability to understand—to doubt the thought until one’s awareness and clarity of mind and heart is sharpened.

 

Empathy is needed to take in, value and learn from other viewpoints. And a little humility regarding your assumptions or naming of what is true can be extremely useful. Such humility does not undermine your ability to think and act but enlivens it. Understanding, as Paulo Freire (and opposed to Professor Gradkind in the novel Hard Times by Dickens) and others have argued, is not like depositing money in the bank, not a thing to posses. It is more of a relationship, a guide, a clarity and a spark. It is not a wall to keep you or anyone else out but a hand to hold. Your understanding of the world and yourself is constantly changing, flowing. You need to make your questions into vehicles to help you navigate and work with the flow, not dam it up.

 

 

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Adventure of Teaching

For most of my childhood, my family lived in a house in Queens, New York, which is a suburb of NYC on Long Island. There was still a feel, where I lived, not just of suburbs but of the declining remains of a rural area. There were many trees. We were one block away from a huge golf course, with a lake and hills, where I ran with my dog, played football with my friends, and went sledding in the snow. It was quite a privileged and protected life.

 

I used to write all sorts of stories for myself. One fall, at the age of 6 or 7, I borrowed a little wagon from a neighbor. I invited 2 or 3 friends or relatives to hop on the wagon and took them on a guided adventure through my backyard. The adventure was partly a story I invented and narrated, partly theatre, partly a miniature midway ride. I had such a good time, I repeated it until there were no more customers and winter closed down the midway.

 

While my love of writing started in my early childhood, until recently, I thought of it only in terms of fiction. As I got older, I realized the motivation behind my writing was not just to entertain, but also to feel inspired. I loved the heady joy of pulling ideas, images, and feelings together. It was so alive. I felt that I had something worthwhile and meaningful to say and to give. In other words, creative writing had the power to teach. The only thing I was unsure of was whether teaching had the power of creation.

 

And I discovered that it did.  After college, I joined the Peace Corps, in Sierra Leone. As a teacher, I felt respect from my students. What I was doing mattered to them. So I wanted to do it even more when I returned to this country. I found this again in other teaching jobs, most notably at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. Part of my childhood desire was met. Now that my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, is being published by Rowman & Littlefield, the other half of my yearning is about to come true. It is not a novel, but certainly describes a creative approach to teaching.

 

When you teach, you hold the hearts and minds of students in your hands. You have this amazing opportunity that you just can’t ignore and dread disappointing. You can take students on the greatest adventure imaginable—into the depths of their own minds and hearts. You can show them that there are these depths unrecognized in many schools, or maybe unrecognized since they were small and inspired children. You can show them how valuable and important they are. Show them the joy of play in PE, the miracles of nature in science, the creative spirit in literature, and in social studies classes, show the great diversity of possible ways of living and the importance of relationships, .

 

My book describes and illustrates methods to use in teaching as well as an overall conceptual framework for understanding the way the mind and heart can work together— to take in more of what’s around you and think more clearly and critically. Critical thinking is fueled by caring and feeling, and guided by mindful awareness to focus attention, and notice, formulate, and ask questions. Compassion and imagination help you understand and explore diverse perspectives and let go of distorting judgments.

 

When you quiet the mind by accepting, caring for and valuing it, you hear the world more distinctly. You hear what your own body is saying and how to befriend your emotions. The world is not at a distance but at your fingertips, or is your fingertips. What you think is right to do is evaluated more clearly. You feel more joyful, your life more meaningful, your relationships with others more conscious and honest. Now that is a worthwhile adventure to undertake—that is a way of teaching.

 

*The release date for my book was delayed a few days, but the book launch in Ithaca, at LACS, on Thursday, October 13, at 7:00, will go on as planned–I hope. There will also be a book talk on Saturday, October 22, at Buffalo Street Books, at 3:00 pm. I hope you can come.