Endings

What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end?* How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I heard from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.

 

And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves if they feel they didn’t teach well enough or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers that you feel you can’t control or handle.

 

While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, and deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared, and engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.

 

In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.

 

Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can be a total surprise or shock, make you feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You might feel you weren’t paying attention. If so, one strategy that might help is to pay attention, moment by moment, to your feelings, or to whatever arises.

 

Why don’t people pay attention? Think about why you don’t. Some scientists argue that frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. And attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. You show you care with your attention. Attention requires energy. You might not pay attention because you don’t care or you consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. To attend well, embrace well.

 

Also, you might stop paying attention because it reminds you of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting, or a relief. Taking a breath means change. Perception is change. Learning is change. This goes way beyond what I understand. But I do know that fear arises when I cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. Even endings end. Change is another way to say living, feeling, understanding. I need to trust in my ability to know, however incompletely, and feel the living world.

 

So, it’s helpful to learn for yourself and then to teach students about attention. Teach about caring for the moments of your life. Mindfulness can do this. With mindfulness, there is more clarity about what needs to be done, more kindness, and less stress. Try the following practice:

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close and your mind relax. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small eddies, some large. And the water continued on, adjusting. Notice that you can focus either on the constantly passing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two types of perception, on an individual rock or drop of water, or on the whole scene, support each other. You can go from one to the other fluidly. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there is a sense of beauty in the whole? Just take in the whole scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to the whole.

 

We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, or year went. These conclusions can be a way of trying to exercise control over our lives, trying to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. We are also creating an image of who we are. “The year went well; I am a good teacher.” “The year sucked. Do I suck?” But can a year be summed up in any judgment or statement? Is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Specific lessons can be learned. But other than that, is it possible to hold our images and ideas more lightly? Can we enjoy our memories without being so judgmental?

 

It’s helpful to reflect on and appreciate, at the end, all you’ve done and learned. The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons you have learned but about coming back to your life right now. It is to view being in a classroom or anywhere from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school, this situation is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a classroom, that means at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what does being in this situation feel like right now. What do you feel, now, about this new, unknown, beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.

 

*This is a newly edited version of an older blog about endings.

 

 

Presence

My cats Milo and Tara often wander the world with me. If I sit at my computer, they sleep nearby. If I go outside, they follow me. They seem to like simply being in my presence. I sometimes feel a very silly sort of happiness seeing them sleeping by my feet. This happiness doesn’t just happen with cats, although the people I know luckily don’t follow me around or sleep at my feet. I love simply being with my wife, family and close friends. When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I lived in a big house by myself in a relatively small village in the bush. When I first arrived, there were no other Peace Corps people or friends within miles. A few of the villagers liked to come and sit with me. If I talked with them, they would often leave. When asked why they came, the response was that they didn’t want me to feel lonely. Talk was unnecessary, even an obstacle. What is it about presence that is so satisfying?

 

What is presence? It is certainly not well defined. Is it about feeling safe? My cats feel safe with me, I hope. I certainly feel safe with them—and certainly with my friends and wife. I can relax and open up. There is little or no need for pretense. Presence is an absence of pretense, a type of mirroring back. One party opens, trusts and the other feels it and gives it back. One hears, sees, feels and is in turn heard, seen, felt.

 

Presence is not just being in the same space with someone, and not just with other beings. It can be on one’s own or with any place, object or situation. Recently, there was an opinion piece about presence in the NY Times called, “Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters.” The author, Lawrence Berger, said many cognitive scientists argue that, “We are information processors rather than full-bodied human beings.” For these cognitive scientists, human beings don’t experience anything “outside” us, like another person or a tree, directly but only some sort of “internal” representation of it created by our senses and brain. We supposedly respond not directly to the tree or person but the representation. We are, in principle, locked away from the world. What is ultimately real are the physical and physiological processes, synapses, neurons, myelin sheaths, not presence. But on other “levels,” we can speak of electrons jumping around, or on another there are chemical interactions, etc.. So, isn’t each person a universe of multiple perspectives? Aren’t each of these perspectives equally about what’s “real”? And isn’t one of these perspectives, and an important one, the sense of a face lighting up in your presence?

 

One neuroscientist mentioned by Berger said that conscious awareness is “a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.” These cognitive scientists remind me of different, older theories which “reduce” consciousness to something mechanical, physical and measurable. For example, the behaviorists of the early twentieth century argued that consciousness could not be studied and was irrelevant to explaining human behavior. It had no causal significance. Human behavior, they theorized, is conditioned, basically “programmable,” like machines. This position led to some important discoveries but also abuses.

 

The cognitive scientists focus on the mechanisms of what happens in the body when we attend. For Heidegger, a 20th Century phenomenologist philosopher, attention is not just selecting what in the world we take in, but what becomes present to us, or what takes on life, being. The “beingness,” or the mere sense of aliveness becomes primary. Attention is not just selecting what we pay attention to and with what strength or intensity, but the quality or the “feel of” that attention. So, if this is true, isn’t presence crucial for constructing meaning, understanding, and clear thinking?

 

Berger said, “When we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters.” Presence is a recognition of our subjective experience as an event in the world, not separate from it. It is not just internal physical mechanisms or processes which have an effect. The quality of our awareness, our presence has an effect on the world.

 

And for scientists to say that conscious experience has no causal relationship to our behavior, or is merely a representation separate from a reality it simplifies and depicts, is untenable. To date, there is no clear or definitive understanding of consciousness from either science or philosophy. Anyone can theorize or have an opinion, of course, but must recognize the tentativeness of their position.

 

In my high school classes, I sometimes asked students: What are the implications of these different theories of consciousness on how you act or feel about yourself? If humans are totally programmable, would it be ethical or humane to hurtfully experiment on them and then just wipe away the memories of pain? What happens to how you treat other people when you conceive of them as machines, even computers? Which understanding of your own mind would best enable you to do school work—one which conceived mind as a cartoon, or one which thought of mind, consciousness as powerful?

 

And, you are never separate from the physical universe. If what you experience are representations you construct or cartoons you draw or theorize, this is an event inseparable from the universe that you construct. Thus, when “I” see “my” cat Tara, the perception is inseparable from me, Tara is inseparable from me. I and cat, (I-Thou) arise together. The theory by which I explain the universe is a metaphor I use to view and act in that universe. Thus, shouldn’t the effects on behavior of the theories you use be considered as part of the evidence by which a theory is evaluated?

 

If you’re a teacher, you must do the physical things, like prepare, bring in supplies, give clear directions and ask meaningful questions (and eat a good breakfast). But, as Berger said, you must also remember your “worldly presence matters.” For the student, the aliveness of the teacher, the caring, the “being heard,” the feeling that your is life mirrored, held and valued by the other—these matter. You model and teach presence and how to make theoretical questions “present’ or alive to your students. And when you do so, the mere act of listening with your whole being means you are heard, you matter. You give, you receive. This, I believe, is clear.

 

 

**The photo is of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey.

Endings

What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end? How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I hear from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.

 

And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves when they feel they didn’t teach well or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers and you feel you can’t control or handle it.

 

While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared. And engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.

 

In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.

 

Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can seem a total surprise. It can feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You feel that you weren’t paying attention. So one strategy is to pay attention, moment by moment. You don’t want to mourn for your own life.

 

Why don’t we pay attention? There are all sorts of reasons. Certainly, frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. Another reason might be that we never learned how to do it well. Attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. Attention is not automatic; it requires energy. It is an active reaching out. We show we care with our attention. Students might not pay attention because they don’t care or they consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. And then, at the end, they might realize what they have lost and they panic. Or they get so used to panic and stress that they think they need it to get anything done.

 

So, it’s helpful to teach students about attention. Mindfulness can do this. With mindful focus, there is more clarity about what needs to be done and less stress about the year ending.

 

Also, people might stop paying attention to the end because it reminds them of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting. Change means endings but is so much more than that. Taking a breath means change. Talking means moving lips, breath, thought. To know and learn is change. Fear arises when you cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. But even endings end. Change is just another way to say living, feeling, understanding. So, trust in the ability to know and feel the living world.

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close, your body relax and your mind turn inwards. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small, some very large. Yet, the water continued on, adjusting. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there a sense of beauty in the whole? Notice that you can focus either on the constantly changing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two perceptions, of the flowing water and the whole, support each other and you could go from one to the other fluidly. Now, just take in the scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to noticing the whole scene.

 

So, ending the year isn’t the problem. It is how we think about it. We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, moment, or year went. We need to realize the nature of thought. Why do we have thoughts? What are they? When we think about how the year went, are we trying not only  to sum up a year but create an image of who we are? “The year went well; I am a good teacher. The year sucked. Do I suck?” We try to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. But is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Can we enjoy our memories without distorting them with judgments? Can we teach the importance of critical thinking and intellectual understanding, yet recognize that the world always exceeds our ideas about it? We need to hold our ideas more lightly and the world more intimately.

 

The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons have been learned, but about coming back to now. It is to view being in a classroom from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a class, that means that at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what being in this situation feels like right now. What do you feel about this new, unknown, ending, or beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.