Is Governor Cuomo Supporting Education or Undermining It?

Last week, according to the New York Times, Governor Andrew Cuomo attacked New York State education officials for an “attempt to water down his new teacher evaluation system that was one of his earliest legislative triumphs.” The context is that the New York Board of Regents, due to mistakes in the rollout of the Common Core, proposed a two-year moratorium on holding teachers accountable for student test scores. The governor opposed the moratorium. He said it was unnecessary; the existing policy already allowed teachers to ask that the test scores of their students not be counted in teacher accountability ratings if the students were unfairly affected by problems with the rollout. The real issue here is why have such an accountability system at all? This system is more of a threat to education than a triumph. Does the Governor sincerely believe that this system would improve education in New York? That it would force teachers and schools to “do a better job” and thus create more equity between how richer and poorer school districts educate their students?

 

Standardized testing has never helped create equity and never will. The increased testing brought about by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation did not lead to equity in school funding or improve education and neither will the Common Core assessments. Fair Test, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, published a report on NCLB in 2004 clearly stating that making the boosting of test scores a priority in schools does not improve education. In fact, it detracts from education. Sanctioning schools that do not improve test scores is “counterproductive.” Holding teachers responsible for such scores is likewise counterproductive. To teach in any classroom, let alone a very challenging one, teachers need to be able to be creative. They need to feel trusted by the administration and community so they can adapt their methods to the individual students. The scrutiny and pressure of “raise scores or lose your job” undermines trust and creativity.

 

Linda Darling-Hammond takes my argument further. She points out that when school reform is used as a lever for external control of schools, as Cuomo’s system does, these strategies are “unlikely to be successful and the assessments are unlikely to be equitable because they stem from a distrust of teachers and fail to involve teachers in the reform process.” Tests should be used to provide teachers with “practical information on student learning,” not rate students and teachers. Instead of a top-down system, she calls for measures in which teachers and their communities work together to self-reflect, critique, correct, and renew their programs.

 

According to Fair Test, young people of color unfairly suffer from standardized testing. They point out that “the use of high-stakes testing in an overall environment of racial inequality perpetuates that inequality through the emotional and psychological power of the tests over the test-takers.” The inequality of resources in many districts which primarily serve people of color hits those students very personally. It leaves the message that the political system doesn’t care enough about them. If they want an education, they must work even harder to get it.

 

The Common Core says that one of its goals is College preparedness. Fair Test argues that standardized “tests provide no social or educational benefit. They do not improve college or employment readiness.” Furthermore, as I argued in an earlier blog, high stakes tests increase the level of fear in education and undermine creative thinking. Diane Ravitch points out in The Reign of Error that no nation tests as much as the U. S. now does. Supposed reformers claim that we are falling behind other nations, one of which is China. Yet nations like China and India look to the U. S. as a model for teaching how to think independently and creatively. Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian American technology entrepreneur, wrote in Business Week that “the independence and social skills American children develop give them a huge advantage when they join the workforce.” American students “learn to experiment, challenge norms, take risks… This is why America remains the world leader in innovation.” Does Governor Cuomo want to undermine that independence of mind by testing students (and teachers) into submission?

 

In my history class several years ago, I had a student with severe anxiety. The class was portfolio based and required an assortment of assessments. For the first quarter of the year, she could sometimes write a paper, do research, collaborate with other students to some degree, but rarely passed a quiz and failed the one test I gave. By the end of the year, she had completed her portfolio and passed the difficult final exam with a score of 75%–the passing score was 70%. Yet, when it came to the New York State Regents (a standardized test in Global Studies), which most students thought was easier than the final, she froze and did not pass. She faced more personal obstacles than I would wish on anyone, made more progress with her skills and learned more material than most of the students. Yet, according to the state, she did not do enough. She had to re-take the test and finally passed. Some people might say that the experience made her stronger or that students need to learn how to face adversity. She had enough adversity to face just coming to class and doing her work. Unreasonable adversity is institutionalized suffering. Such tests tell students that compared to their test grade, all else is secondary. That’s just wrong.

 

According to the Albany area NPR station WAMC, the governor’s new budget increase of $608 million falls short of the $1.9 billion called for by many legislators and education advocates to simply “maintain current programs and restore others that were cut over the last five years.” If the Governor was truly in support of public education he would be searching for ways to raise the revenue to fulfill these needs. Instead, he called for reducing many taxes, for example corporate taxes, and raising the cap on estate taxes.

 

So, I ask Governor Cuomo: Are you sincere in claiming you support public school education? Your support for standardized testing, and the evaluation of teachers partly based on those tests, argues otherwise. Failing to commit to raising the money to maintain current programs, restore ones recently cut, and reduce inequity in school funding argues otherwise.

 

And unfortunately, I think that too many politicians need to be asked the same questions.

 

Critical Thinking Part Two: Imagination and Visualization

 

Visualization is a natural capacity of the mind. It can be defined as “the conscious, volitional creation of mental sense impressions…” We generally think in images. To go beyond the superficial meaning of language we use mental imagery. The imagination connects us to our emotions. When you read fiction, or daydream or night dream or remember something, it is easy to notice images running through your mind. But it is not always obvious how you use imagery in possibly all of your thinking.

 

You could practice visualizations on your own, lead or be led by others. In my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, I also describe inquiry practices which directly use visualization for examining evidence, finding solutions, revealing hidden attitudes, synthesizing material or gaining insight. The process I will be describing today is not mindfulness. It strengthens the ability to create and apply imagery. For teachers, it helps students be more relaxed and focused in class. It directly connects course material to student’s lives and so provides intrinsic motivation for learning. With enough experience, you can do a visualization in about ten minutes.  In order to lead others, you must practice on your own first. Read hyperlinked or other resources.

 

The method begins with progressive relaxation and then proceeds to a mental journey. The relaxation section will last two to four minutes. Unlike mindfulness, students can sit back or rest their head on the desk in front of them. I usually play calming music in the background. You can center attention first on the feet and work your way up, or start at the forehead and work your way progressively down. Before you begin, tell the students what topic you will be exploring. The following is a sample visualization on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse.

 

Today, we will meet Sinclair in a new light, as we are first introduced to him in Demian. First:

 

When you are ready, sit back and relax. Assume a position that is restful, comfortable and that you can stay in for five minutes or so. Close your eyes when you’re ready. You could close them now or in a few minutes, when it feels right. Put your attention on your forehead. Calmly, breathe in, taking it nice and easy; then breathe out. As you breathe in, can you feel the subtle sensation of your forehead expanding very slightly? Just notice it as you breathe in. Then, as you exhale, notice how  your body naturally relaxes, settles down. You might settle more into the chair or feel heavier or warmer.

 

Keep the voice calm yet natural. Relaxed. You are teaching a relaxation method. Pace yourself so you introduce a new image or question just after the previous image has formed for your students.

 

Move you attention to the muscles around your mouth. As you breathe in, the area might expand a little; simply notice it. Then relax, settle down, let go as you breathe out. Pause. Move your attention next to your shoulders. You might find it easier to notice the effect of breathing on your shoulders. Breathe in, feel the expansion. Then, just let go as you breathe out. Notice how your body relaxes even more deeply. Your shoulders might drop. Do you feel any warmer, heavier? Just allow yourself to relax.

 

Now allow a flower to come to mind, any flower will do.

 

If not a flower, pick something that you think will be considered safe, familiar and of interest to your students. A tree? A quilt? A butterfly? A stone? An animal? One point of the flower is to get the mind ready for something more complex by starting with something simpler. This simple experience can be great fun. However, always remember that when people are relaxed and trusting of you, their minds will move instantaneously, at a mere hint.

 

Some students expect one thing, like a rose, and get something different, like a dandelion. It is important that there are no wrong flowers. In some cultures, the colors or specific animals have a meaning. This can be an interesting topic for research. For now, just notice and relax with what comes.

 

In teaching about primal cultures and religion, I had students visualize first a flower, then an animal. Visualizing an animal can be very revealing and exciting. Early humans, as in the art caves, extensively portrayed other animals with remarkable detail and aliveness. Humans, if portrayed at all, were stick figures, except for the shaman figures which were part human, part animal. Early humans obviously felt very connected to these animals. Most students even today easily bring to mind an animal.

 

Just notice what flower comes up for you. It might be one you know or have seen at your home. It might be one you imagined or read about.  Either way, it is fine. What shape do you see? Feel? What colors? Sometimes, you will simply see the flower. Other times, your mind will give you words that describe a flower or feelings. Just notice what comes to you. Is there a fragrance?

 

How big is the flower? Notice how delicate it is. How does the flower attach to the stem? What color is the stem? What is its feel, its texture?

 

The first time you lead a visualization, just do this much. After you’ve done this a few times, students will need less time to relax. Use mostly simple questions to develop detailed, concrete images. As much as it makes sense, refer to multiple senses. Transitions are important. They require the most sensitivity to how students might take your words.

 

Behind the flower is a beautiful path. Sinclair will soon emerge in the distance, from down the path. Can you picture him? What words come up for you about him?

 

Here are some sample questions you could use to guide such a visualization. Use those which best fit your goals. Remember to make the visualization clear and concrete.

 

 Notice how he walks. Does he stand straight? Does he stride, slouch or look calmly around him? How tall is he? What color hair does he have? How is he dressed? When you see him, what is your response?  When you hear his name, do any feelings arise?

Are you happy to see him? Are you upset with him? Do you want to tell him something? Is there someone on his mind? Who? What might he want to say? If Sinclair were a flower [or an animal] what would he be? Does he remind you of any other literary characters? Is he like you in any way?

 

Return attention to the classroom gradually. Proceed in reverse order of how you left, but in less detail.

 

Now, say goodbye to Sinclair. Remember that you can return any time you want. You can remember anything you want that happened here. Once Sinclair turns and walks down the path, notice the flower, its shape and color.  Pause. Then return your attention to your breath. With each breath you will be more and more aware of the room and the people around you. Your awareness will return fully to your body. Feel its weight on the chair or your hands on the table. Can you hear the music? Other people in the room? Pause. Move your fingers. Your toes. As you take a deep breath, gradually sit up. Open your eyes. Stretch. Notice the room and how it feels to be here.

 

Eventually, you will be able to simply ask the students to relax, close their eyes, settle down. Do the warm up exercise, then go to the visualization that ties to your class material. After the exercise, always process the experience with a journal prompt or a small group or whole group discussion. The processing will hopefully lead right into the heart of the lesson.

 

How was that? Were you relaxed? Did a flower come to you? Share with us the name and color of the flower. Did you learn anything about Sinclair? Name one thing.

 

I used this type of exercise over several years and with very diverse groups. If a student says that nothing came to them, that’s fine. If you sense something is bothering the student, talk one-on-one. Everyone is different. Years ago, before I started using mindfulness or a writing exercise before each class, I had a class of mostly middle school, active, even hyperactive boys. I thought they would never be able to do the exercise; I was wrong. They loved it. They relaxed and images came readily to mind. At least once a week after that, they asked to do a visualization.

 

There are other great methods for strengthening student ability to use the imagination in thinking critically. What do you do?

 

**One book I recommend is: educator and author Kieran Egan’s wonderful book Imagination In Teaching And Learning: The Middle School Years,

Critical Thinking Part One: Critical Thinking And Imagination

What is critical thinking? One element of critical thinking that most everyone agrees on is “higher order thinking,” which includes evaluating the appropriateness of evidence, the truth of propositions, and the soundness of arguments. My former principal, Dave Lehman, wrote a series of articles which get to the heart of the matter of critical thinking and how to teach it. He quoted Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, as saying: “From the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving.” Dave argues that this statement is a good beginning but incomplete. I agree. Other elements need to be included, like imagination, emotional regulation, and self-reflection.

In the 1960s, Roger Sperry and others carried out experiments on the human brain. They cut the corpus callosum, which is a large bundle of neurons connecting the right and left halves or hemispheres of the upper portion of the brain. His experiments disclosed differences in how the two hemispheres functioned. These differences seemed at first to be consistent with earlier theories about rational thinking and creativity. The left was thought of as the critical thinker, the languaged brain, analytical and sequential. The right was thought of as artistic, holistic, creative.

More recent brain research has shown this early conclusion to be inaccurate.  Both hemispheres have been found to be involved, in some way, in all human activities. The differences between the functioning of the two hemispheres have been found to be more subtle. The different areas of the brain work in a more interrelated fashion. You can’t understand how the brain works by only studying it as distinct parts. Likewise, you can’t understand how a person thinks critically without studying emotion, creativity, self-reflection and imagination.

‘Critical’ comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, able to discern, and ‘krinein’, to sift, judge, or separate. To separate, as in analyze or break down into component parts. But ‘discern’ also means to perceive or understand what is not immediately obvious or what might be beyond your previous viewpoint. It means to perceive, as much as possible, the whole or the truth.

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you proceed to answer this question, which frequently comes up in my class on the history of human ideas: “Why did early humans create so much art?” Or maybe, “Why did they do any art?” Students often reply, “They did it because it was fun.” But that answer needs to be questioned further. Students need to empathetically place themselves in the world of ancient humans. They could start by visualizing, for example, a world without any buildings. They need to immerse themselves in more information. One form of art created was extensive wall paintings in caves in southern Europe, Africa, Australia and other places. In France, for example, some of the caves were extremely difficult and possibly dangerous to access. Access involved crawling though long, narrow tunnels. Students decided to research in different groups various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, other species populating the world back then, tools, possible origins of language. A group of five or six studied the paintings in detail and then reproduced the art on the walls of a rarely used stairwell of the school. One day, when the work was complete, this group had the students line up. And one by one they entered the stairwell. It felt like a cave. The only sound was the music of a flute. The only light source was a series of small lanterns placed near the painted walls. When we had all entered and sat down on the cave floor, I led the students in a visualized journey into what being in the caves might have been like. Then the student-artists discussed the paintings.

We created the activity together. I bet most still remember the experience. It enabled the class to feel engaged and develop a more in-depth perspective. They could then analyze evidence, evaluate theories and derive their own conclusions.

This type of activity is not limited to history classes. In an English class, you could imaginatively journey into situations depicted in a novel. Or in a science class you could journey though a cell or the orbits of electrons. Or outside of class you could journey into the mind of a friend that you had an argument with. Critical thinking is not just logic or problem solving. It requires imagination.

My next blog will be about an enjoyable way to strengthen and teach with the student’s natural ability to imagine. Other elements of critical thinking and mindfulness will come up in future blogs.

 

Sources:

Lehman, David. “Thinking About Teaching Thinking Part 1, What’s The Urgency?” Connections. : 10- 14. NSRFHarmony.org/connections/2013.May.Connections.pdf

Lehman, David. “Thinking About Teaching Thinking Part 2, How Can We Do It?” Connections. : 7-15. NSRFHarmony.org/connections/2013.July.Connections.pdf

McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven, Connecticut, : Yale University Press, 2009.

The photo is of my student’s cave art.

Practicing Mindfulness and Awareness, Kindness, and Letting Go

How do you begin a class with mindfulness or practice it yourself? Once you and your students have all entered the classroom and greeted each other, invite your students to join you in practice. Or if you’re by yourself, commit yourself for a certain length of time, and even set an alarm, so you can focus on the practice, not on keeping time:

 

Let’s begin class today with a short mindfulness practice or just enjoying the fact that we’re here together. The focus will be on the breath and calming mind and body. Or if you’d prefer, simply sit quietly or take out a journal and do a free write.

 

Push away from your desk. Sit up straight but not rigid, near the front end of your seat, so you don’t get tempted to slump. Or, if you’d like, sit cross-legged on the floor. Then turn your attention inwards. Exhale through your nose, and then notice how you inhale. You do it naturally, spontaneously, don’t you? Just notice the sensations of breathing.

 

Mindfulness is both a practice and an open, curious, moment to moment awareness. When leading a practice use a calm tone of voice. Giving choices to students is important, so they feel empowered and that their own preferences are important to you.  When possible, give two or three choices. Some students won’t want to close their eyes, so give them a few different alternatives. Never force anything. Speak clearly, while monitoring your own feelings and thoughts as they arise so you can be in tune with the students.

 

Close your eyes partly or fully. Or if you want to leave them open, pick a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you, and let your eyes rest on that spot. Notice what it feels like to take in a breath. You might notice your body expanding slightly with the breath. Simply notice the sensations as you inhale. As you exhale, notice the sense of exhaling. Notice how your body can let go, settle down, relax a bit. It’s like a momentary holiday.

 

Never lead something that you haven’t practiced many times. Before leading any exercise, imagine doing it with your particular students, so you note who might have difficulty with it and what they might be feeling. Start with just this much, just two minutes.  You, and the students, will soon want more. Do the rest of this practice when you’re ready.

 

Once your mind and body quiet, you might notice awareness of what is going on inside yourself on a new level. You can become aware of awareness itself. You might begin to hear thoughts and beliefs or feel sensations that were previously automatic. You might feel pressure to immediately react to these thoughts and feelings and to take them as important. Instead, let whatever arises be the object of awareness. Even the sensation of pressure. By simply noticing, instead of a thought or sensation dominating your mind, your mind becomes simply noticing, becomes awareness itself.

 

Notice how long or short, deep or shallow your breaths are. (Pause.) Notice if any place in your body is tense. Go to that area with your awareness and just notice it. Notice how the area expands as you breathe in. Then relaxes, settles down as you breathe out. There is a natural rhythm here. Then go to another part of your body. Notice how you breathe in from that area. Notice your body expand as you breathe in and lets go as you breathe out.

 

If you feel tension, you might immediately react with an impulse to run away from the feelings. Or if you feel pleasant sensations, you might feel an impulse to grasp onto them and not let go. You might not want these unpleasant feelings and thoughts to be there; you might not want the pleasant ones to end. Or sometimes you might feel confused or not want to do anything. Your awareness might switch from the initial feeling to your response to the feeling. The two are different.

 

If you find yourself drifting away, just notice it and gently return your awareness to the breath.

 

What do we do when we realize we lost our focus or got caught by a train of thoughts or responses to sensations? Maybe we spent a few breaths engaged in a memory or following the sound of someone laughing in the hall. We all lose focus at times. If at the moment of realization we get down on ourselves, we lose focus again. If we get angry at the people disturbing our practice with laughter, or angry with ourselves, we lose focus. If we are kind, gentle, and committed to returning attention to awareness, we regain focus. We feel good.

 

The initial sensations or feelings of an emotion have a message for us. But we lose the message contained in the initial feeling when we switch attention from it to our emotional response. So if possible, return to the initial feeling, before memory or language arise.

 

We are learning how to respond to life itself, to be kind, gentle and aware. We are helping ourselves and our students learn how to return attention over and over again to the object of attention.

 

If you notice a student is falling asleep, just smile and take that in. If someone is having difficulty, their breathing rate is increasing or they seem to be getting lost in a painful memory, offer other points of attention to the class⎼ suggest students could focus on the feeling of their feet on the floor or their hands on their lap. Or if there is a gentle breeze outside or birds calling, you could offer that as a point of focus. Never force or pressure participation. You need to be aware of your own responses when you notice your students not participating and take it as a message to return your own focus to the breath.

 

If any thoughts or images arise, just notice them with your inhalation, and then settle down, relax, let go as you exhale.

 

Part of why we react to sensations as we do is because of our past experiences or the ways we were taught to respond. Many of us carry painful memories or trauma. We might have developed automatic ways to respond situations that undermine our sense of autonomy. We might fear awareness or simply were not taught how to be so aware. We might have become unsure of our ability to handle a situation. We might have beliefs or theories about reality that have not been carefully questioned.

 

For example, if we feel a pain in our chest and imagine it is a heart attack, the level of pain goes up. If we realize it is acid reflux, our fear decreases considerably. Mindfulness is not psychological analysis. We are just breaking down automatic responses by becoming aware of the simplest elements of our experience. What is the feeling of our feet on the floor? Taking a breath? Keep it simple. Yet, nothing could be more profound.

 

Just sit for a minute with the calm and quiet of having nothing to do but breathe in and breathe out or listen to bird calls outside the window.

 

And once we develop the ability to just sit with whatever arises for us, we have patience with ourselves and with others. We are kinder to ourselves and we allow ourselves to think more deeply. If something arises that we feel uncomfortable with in the situation, we know we have choices about how to respond. We can go back to putting our attention on a simpler sensation or switch to another practice. Or we can persist in completing even what feels difficult.

 

Or if we have to face a difficult task and we feel a tightness in the belly or a shaking in the knees, we just feel it. We understand the sensation as a message that we need to wake up and concentrate. Then once the message is delivered, we let the sensation go and return to the situation of the moment.