How Can You Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open with students? What do the students need? You can’t answer such questions solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness of feeling, will plan our classes or vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend you’ve already done it.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom. …

 

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How Can You Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.

 

First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know where you want to end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Which is more important, to compete against others or myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

And an added set of questions: after summers like this one, filled with violence, political upheavals, and environmental disasters, student’s fears, anxieties and questions must be acknowledged and, if possible, brought into the curriculum. They need to know that their real life concerns and thus their real selves do not need to be hidden away in this classroom. How do you face the violence in the news and the anxieties it can produce? What social conditions contribute to violence? What is anxiety? How can it be met in a healthy way and utilized for deeper understanding?

 

Second, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Create a supportive environment in your classroom, so students know, “this is a place of safety.” Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the importance of the other people there with you. This is compassion. You care and show that care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. Recognize there’s more you don’t know than you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are. When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being.

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan, with so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness and compassion practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions; I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life were one.

What Do You Do To Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Going to school and teaching gives you a deep sensitivity to cycles, especially how summer ends and a new year begins. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or even vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. So allow it, make it, as new, refreshing, as much an adventure as possible. To lessen your nervousness, step toward it. Make it part of your teaching.

 

To do this, I recommend two practices. The first involves your mental state when you enter the classroom. The second involves how you plan your courses.

 

First, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the importance of the other people there with you. You are very present. You care about the students and recognize there’s more you don’t know than what you do know about them. When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice it both in and out of the classroom.

 

Second, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know your intention for the end. To teach students, you need to know what you think is most important for students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. They are open-ended with no simple answers to them and evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. What, right now, is perplexing you about the world? What do you want to learn in this class? Let’s say you’re beginning a unit, in a high school English course on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse. The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development.  You might ask students: What questions do you have about dreams or archetypal imagery? Have dreams been meaningful in your life or the lives of other people you know? And their assessment on the unit can ask them what answers their study of the novel gave them to their own unit questions.

 

Education, in any discipline, to a large degree is about uncovering questions.  If you teach sports or PE, there might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea that I had a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. I felt distant, separated from the task. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time– I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life.

 

What do you do?

Teaching For Meaning

One of the great drives in life is for meaning, for living fully and deeply.  This is certainly true for teenagers, but it is also true for adults. As a teenager, I remember feeling a great fear that my life wouldn’t be meaningful. That as I got older my job and my society would deaden my dreams and my full humanity. I think Langston Hughes’ poem, A Dream Deferred, gets at this fear. I feared my life would “dry up” or “fester.” This fear was, on the one hand, a great distorting influence. So many times, I would hear of a potential job or opportunity and I would reject it as not good enough or I’d feel the daily requirements of the job, getting up early, sitting at a desk, etc. were walls that would imprison me. On the other hand, the need for meaning drove me to take chances. It drove me to hitch-hike across the country a few times and across Europe and to join the Peace Corps. It drove me to study philosophy, to protest against wars and to get to know people who knew what meaning tasted like.

 

As teachers, when we enter into the classroom, we have to remember that our students have this same drive for meaning. They might feel themselves pushed to the edge, to take chances, just like we did, but not be aware of why. We have to teach students how to look underneath their interests and fears for the meaning waiting there. We have to understand what it is that we seek in order to better understand and help uncover what anyone else seeks. By better understanding our own drives and needs we are more capable of understanding and feeling those of others. Other people become more alive to us. We have to remember the times when our lives felt full of meaning so we know what makes a moment or a life meaningful and we can make our teaching be the discovery of that drive. And we don’t do this by telling students what to think. We do it by mentoring students and ourselves in self-discovery and questioning.

 

In order to better understand what works for you so you can better help your students, try the following practice. It involves inquiry and visualization. Inquiry does not always have to be hard work. It can sometimes be relatively easy and fun. It will take just a few minutes and can be adapted to the classroom. You could record this and then play it back so it’s easier to practice.  If you have a lazyboy or a couch, feel free to use it for this exercise. Or if you’re in your classroom and the chairs are not so comfortable, just find the most relaxing way to sit in the chair.

 

Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now if you can, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Its good to feel comfortable, isn’t it? Especially in doing school work. Focus just on breathing in and out. Just follow the breath in. Do you feel how your body expands a little as you breathe in? Then what happens as you breathe out? Does your body relax, settle down, let go?

 

Pause between each sentence of the directions. Read in an easygoing, comforting yet focused voice.

 

Now think of a time that you had an illuminating, educational, engaging experience, where you felt truly alive, in or out of a classroom. Just let come to mind any experience where you felt involved, that had a sense of meaning and depth to it. It could be a walk you took, a trip, a conversation. Just see it in your mind. Let whatever comes to you be there for you. Where was it? Who was involved? When did it occur? What was around you?

 

What made the experience so engaging, illuminating? What did you learn from it? What did the experience feel like?

 

Now, just sit for a moment with the feeling of being engaged, of finding meaning. Sit with the feeling that your life is meaningful and full.

 

Afterwards, ask yourself: What lessons can I take from this experience and apply to my classes? To myself?

 

Another practice is to make the classroom a place where the deep questions in student’s lives can be uncovered, respected and made part of the curriculum. When I taught a high school course called The Historical Development of Human Ideas, one of the overarching understandings I wanted to teach was that history is the story of human interdependence. Change occurs through the interaction of multiple, maybe innumerable, forces. Out of this came essential questions like: How are the various forms of interpersonal human suffering created in and by a culture? So, on the first day of class, I asked them to write down: What are the biggest problems you see in the world today? We analyzed these, looked for the central problems, and then I told the students that their final assessment would be answering the question of how and why their problem developed. They would have to follow a strand through history and the different cultures we studied of the specific and defined “problem” in human history that they perceived and picked out.  They would have to describe and analyze the nature and extent of the problem and any forces, beliefs, conditions  (technological, historical, environmental, political, artistic, psychological, scientific, religious or other factors) which greatly increased or decreased the problem. In this way, their own questions became the class.

 

*Photo is of the library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey.

Beginnings: How Do We Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations or our blogs so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. A beginning is constructed of questions.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.

 

First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know the end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. For example, how might you begin a unit in an English class on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse? The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development.  You might ask students what questions they have about dreams or on the role of archetypal imagery or literature in shaping their lives. Their assessment on the unit can include using the novel in answering their own question.

 

Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

Secondly, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, say what you’re feeling in that moment. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the other people there with you. You are very present. There is no other place you want to go. This is compassion. You care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. In each moment, you are learning. You recognize that there’s more you don’t know than what you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are.  When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice mindfulness both in and out of the classroom.

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life was one life.