“Teaching As A Subversive Activity”

The year that I graduated from college, a book was published that greatly influenced how I viewed education. In fact, many books and authors influenced my early view of education: John Dewey, Paulo Freire, J. Krishnamurti, A. S. Neill, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol. But one stood out in terms of supplying specific techniques I used in the classroom — and almost ended my teaching career before it began.


I was in graduate school to get my Masters in Teaching English. It was the summer of 1971. I had finished most of the graduate courses in English and education, and one course remained which was supposed to get me ready for teaching in September, my first teaching job in the U. S. (I had already taught in the Peace Corps.) The course was called something like “Teachers As Agents of Change.” I was excited to learn how to meaningfully change the world with teaching. But when I arrived in class, the professor handed us a syllabus with assigned course work and research– and nothing looked subversive. Nothing asked us to challenge the status quo, do something about inequity, or be anything other than basically a passive recipient of his knowledge. So, I asked him, “When will we learn how to be agents of change? And how can we learn how to do it if we don’t practice it?” He said that we would have a discussion of this question in a class at the end of the summer. This shocked me. How could we learn to be “agents of change” by learning through the same methods that we wanted changed? And time was limited. In September, we would all have to step into classrooms. We needed to prepare.


Many of the students agreed with me. It was a different time period. Rebellion was in the air we breathed. The class revolted. Instead of kicking me out of the class (which he looked ready to do at first), the professor negotiated with us. The students were divided into four groups. Each group would have to design their own curriculum, arrange speakers and assignments, come to a better understanding of the state of education and how to improve it in a classroom, and then teach these strategies to ourselves.


The book that started this personal revolt was Teaching As A Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. The book began by stating the authors beliefs about the main problems in American society, most of which would be familiar to us today, even though the priorities might be different. The first problem mentioned was, “The number one health problem in the United States today is mental illness…” (Mental illness conceived as a result of social conditions and not solely as a personal problem.) Then there were a whole litany of other problems described, including crime, frauds perpetuated by large corporations, the “credibility gap” or the spread of misinformation, Civil Rights (or the denial of such), the environment (pollution), etc.  And international problems, like the Bomb, the war, the Middle East. The other belief they held was that something could be done about these problems. The majority of the book was about what a teacher could do to improve education and thus contribute to solving overall social problems.


The authors called for eliminating content standards and replacing them with questions that focus instruction on process and active learning. Such questions include: “Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as his capacity to learn? Will they give him a sense of joy in learning? … Will the answers help the learner to sense and understand the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?” The prevailing viewpoint at the time was that content and pedagogy were entirely separate. Content was what students were supposed to learn and existed prior to and independent of any particular student or group of students. The method of teaching was also separate. It was considered merely how the content was taught. The content, not the method, was what determined the importance of a course. Postman and Weingartner wanted to change this.


The first skill they discussed was “crap detecting,” being able to critique social, political, and other cultural forces, and discern the lies, deceptions and biases. They emphasized learning through inquiry and questioning. They had students study how language structures what they saw as real and analyze the effects of rapid social change. They discussed “the medium is the message.” Marshal McLuhan wrote his famous book of that title, although the phrase was first introduced in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964. McLuhan’s message was, as  summarized by Postman and Weingartner, “The most important impressions on a human nervous system come from the character and structure of the environment within which the nervous system functions.” Or, borrowing from educator John Dewey, what you do is what you learn.


This book influenced my whole career education (and influenced the book that, I hope, I just finished writing and is scheduled to be published in October), inspiring me to learn how to get better at teaching through asking questions and not just imposing answers. When teachers lead students into substantive inquiries into relevant aspects of their lives, they learn about their world in-depth, learn how to uncover questions and construct answers. In this way, they develop strong intellectual skills. They also discover one of the keys to mental health, namely creating meaningful and deep mental, physical and emotional lives based in supportive relationships.


What books have greatly influenced your working life and emotional well-being?


*Mural by LACS students.


Poetry As Meditation

For me to teach well, I cannot go into a classroom without feeling the value of what I teach. I must feel inspired. And isn’t this true with so much of life, no matter your work or profession?


So much of education is about the attitude that you bring to life and learning. The famous quote, (which may or may not have come from W. B. Yeats) “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” applies first to teachers. The fire is fueled by understanding your students and evoking questions that uncover hidden depths in their own lives–and yours.


Inspiration does not come once and remain forever. It must be re-kindled every day. But teaching can be so exhausting. So, what do you do? Maybe continual research, reading, studying. Meditation, to stay in touch with the reality of your own life so you can help students stay in touch with theirs. And poetry.


Many nights, when I’m tired or unsure or can’t find a way to connect the material I want to teach to student’s experience, I read poetry. I do it partly to forget my concerns, partly to hear words that have a depth to them. Good poetry is condensed insight. The deeper the mind of the writer, the deeper your own mind can go. So reading poetry can immerse you in insight. But it is not automatic. To make a word come alive, you must come alive. When you read, you need to enter the experience of another person. You let go of your own concerns for a moment in order to let in those of another. Depth of experience, and feeling the life of another being, is inspirational. Thus, reading poetry can both be a practice in empathy and compassion, and be enhanced by such practices.


Meditation and compassion practices quiet distracting thoughts and increase conscious feeling and awareness. When your mind gets quiet, writing gets simpler, more spontaneous and honest. You’re not distracted, so when something comes up in your mind or heart, you notice. Colors are brighter, sounds clearer. Words more meaningful. You feel the creativity inherent in the moment-by-moment sensing of the world around you.


To use meditation to enjoy a poem, don’t make the experience anything formal or big. Make it freeing, freeing yourself to do nothing but enjoy the poem and the quiet of your own mind. Go to a quiet place. Turn off any media, ignore any phone calls. Resolve to leave ten to twenty minutes to yourself, alone.  The only media to keep near you is a pen and paper, to use after you quiet your mind, and an alarm clock, which you might set for four or five minutes.


Sit up, close your eyes partly or fully, and feel your body breathing. Feel one breath at a time. Inhale. Exhale. That’s it. Notice whatever arises with each breath.  Notice sensations, your body expanding as you inhale, contracting and letting go as you exhale. There might be thoughts or emotions. Notice how they come and they go, and then return to the breath. Let your mind be merely openness, awareness, allowing. Be kind to yourself. If you drift off, notice when you realize this and return attention to the breath. Do this for the four or five minutes you set with your alarm clock.


After you open your eyes and turn off the alarm, pick up the poem and read it however you want. You might want to read it out loud or sing it. If you are doing this in a classroom, I recommend that you not suggest reading out loud. As you read, notice whatever comes to you. Thoughts, images, feelings. Connections. Some lines or images might stand out more than others. Pick one that stands out for you. Treat it like an entry point.  Ask yourself, “What is it about this image that stands out? How does it connect to me?” That’s how you begin.


If you’re a teacher, or maybe a parent, or you just want to do it for yourself, get copies of the popular Teaching With Fire: Poetry That Sustains The Courage To Teach, and Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains The Courage To Lead. The poems in these books deliver beauty and insight for you to share and develop. There is Marge Piercey’s “To Be of Use,” Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred,” Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” or “Wild Geese.” “Wild Geese” is so evocative. So many adolescents feel there is something wrong with them. This poem says you can free yourself. You do not have to adopt someone else’s idea of who you should be. Your love, your imagination can raise you into the family of the world. David Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness” can elucidate the nature of perception.


Many of the same poems are also in Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Redemption edited by Roger Housden. I had a class set of this book that I used in different classes. Use the Rumi poem, “Some Kiss We Want,” or “Two Kinds of Intelligence,” (in Teaching With Fire) to open a discussion of Islam. Rumi was a Sufi, which is a branch of Islam. The Sufis today are big opponents of those who would kill in the name of Islam, in the name of religion or love. Rumi gives such a different view of Islam, of life that can shatter the stereotypes and superficiality which often fill the news.


These books can be used for an inspiring education, one that challenges the easy, the superficial, and create a sense that your life, too, can be meaningful and have depth.


Compassion and the Social Implications of a Growth Mindset

One of the “in” concepts in education today is “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, a researcher and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, first introduced the term to many people. A growth mindset is opposite a fixed or stagnant one, one that says your intelligence or ability to learn or emotional nature is set and irreversible. Instead, a growth mindset says effort pays off. You can change; you can improve your intellectual abilities. It pays off not only in education but also business, relationships, sports. I agree with this perspective. And it’s not new.


When I studied psychology in the 1960s, I was told that brain cells do not regenerate and by the time you’re a young adult, the brain is set. Since then, neuroscience has shown that new brain cells can be produced (neurogenesis) and that new pathways in the brain are constantly being formed (neuroplasticity). Most teachers I know have been applying some version of this mindset since they began teaching. In fact, how could anyone be a good teacher without such a mindset? Maybe I’m being simplistic, but without believing in the possibility of intellectual growth, how can you believe in learning? Learning is change. Good teachers know that their attitude and assumptions about how well a student can learn will influence how well they do learn from you. Developing such an attitude in students is crucial to learning.


Dweck cites research to show that a growth mindset not only leads to an increase in learning, but an increase in compassion and a decrease in aggressive behavior and depression. Why is that?


To have a fixed mindset is not very different than believing in a fixed ego. According to Mathieu Ricard, such a view of ego has three characteristics. Firstly, you imagine you perceive the world as it is and that your perception is the only correct perception. Those who oppose you are just wrong. Secondly, you project onto the world attributes that aren’t there, attributes like goodness, beauty, ugliness, and these attributes are fixed, constant, unchanging and distinct, separable from the socio-historical context that supplied the label, which gets us to the third characteristic. You try to deny that you and others can change in meaningful ways. It is all genetics, out of your control. Your heroes are exceptional, superhuman. Successful people are born that way. God or nature favored them. Dweck described the fixed mindset as saying, “effort is for those with deficiencies.” (42) Thirdly, you think of everything you see as standing on its own, separate instead of as part of an interconnecting network. But life means change. Breathing is change. Learning is change. And there is no isolating of anything in the universe from the universe. A fixed mindset requires constant vigilance to ignore much of life and what is happening around you and to perceive instead your idea of what is or should be there. It requires ignoring empathy and compassion both for what others might actually be feeling, as well as for your own thoughts and emotions.


Depression can share these characteristics with a fixed mindset. Depression is not just depressed feeling; it is a depressed ability to take in, be open to, new information, experiences and viewpoints. You don’t recognize a difference between sadness, or feeling down as a natural response to events in the world, something everyone sometimes feels, and identifying yourself as a depressed person. You cut yourself off, feel stuck and unable to change. You can mentally lock yourself in a box built out of your own ideas about yourself and the world. Instead of being present and open, you are absent from the life that exists beyond the limited boundary of your box.


One way to end depression is to practice compassion. Compassion is empathy with extra benefits. You step out of your box and look around you. You treat yourself and others with more kindness and patience. Compassion can include the cognitive ability to discern what another feels as well as emotional resonance, empathetic caring and openness to what another person feels. Then there’s a readiness to act to reduce the suffering of another being almost as if the suffering was your own. You recognize you are two different beings but what you share is at least as important as how you are different. Compassion is the ultimate growth mindset in that you know and feel the other person can change and you commit yourself to work to help spur that change.


Compassion also means you realize that how you treat others is how you treat yourself. By being open to another person, your state of mind and heart become openness, caring, kindness. When you close yourself to another, you are closed off.  Whether you act on it or not, when you carry anger, the world comes back to you as angry. You suffer your anger. When you carry hate, you depersonalize others and turn them into merely ideas. Carrying hate can rob you of power and control by depriving you of perspective. You feel a world dominated by hatred. When you are compassionate and kind, the world feels compassionate; you, as well as those around you, get the benefits. Thus, one way to free yourself from a fixed mindset or depression, and expand your ability to think clearly and critically, is to practice empathy and compassion.


A fixed mindset is a distorted way of looking at other people and the world. Such a viewpoint can have disastrous social and political consequences. A growth mindset, on the other hand, has tremendous social as well as educational benefits. It realizes you cannot isolate yourself from the welfare of others or imagine those who are successful are somehow more deserving, by nature, than anyone else. Success is due to your care and effort as well as the cultural environment and how social/political institutions are structured. These institutions can change. A growth mindset can spur individual people, and those collections of people in large groups called governments, to work for the welfare of all.


“True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Compassionate Critical Thinking

My book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in September or October, 2016. My intention is to bring teachers and other readers inside a classroom to witness instructional effectiveness with increased student participation and decreased classroom stress. The act of teaching is turned into a transformational practice. Teachers can’t add more minutes to a school day, but with mindfulness they can add depth to the moments they do have with students in the classroom. I introduce core concepts and simple practices of mindfulness.


When students feel a lack of meaning and purpose in their lives, particularly in school, they resist learning. They fight back against meaninglessness and anything they deem a threat to their dreams. Using mindfulness and a Socratic style of inquiry changes the classroom dynamic. Self-reflection, insight, empathy, and compassion are used to teach subject material. Vignettes capture dialogue between teacher and students to illustrate how mindfulness practices elicit essential questions which stimulate inquiry and direct discovery. What bigger mystery is there—what more interesting and relevant story—than the story of one’s own mind and heart and how they relate us to the world?


My purpose in writing this book is to show teachers how to turn their intentions and goals into a classroom culture of compassionate critical thinking. Many books teach mindfulness, but few provide a model for integrating it into the classroom to teach critical thinking across the curriculum. I hope this book does justice to the courage, brilliance, joy and struggles of the students who inspired it and the Lehman Alternative Community School which gave me both the opportunity to find a sense of purpose in my life and to contribute positively to the lives of others.


To learn more about compassionate critical thinking, please subscribe to my weekly blog. And to learn more about the book and its release, please sign up for my (infrequent) newsletter.



An Education in Human Development and Aging

I think all of us, certainly all secondary school children, need to learn about the psychology of human development and aging. Schools are largely islands of youth and as such are highly artificial and developmentally problematical. Children need to be around people of various ages, who can serve as models and provide care and support. Children do need to learn from other children. But it is easy for them, especially when largely isolated from other age groups, to over-value the example of their peers, the example of youth, and of what is new and popular. In the 1960s, I remember the talk about not trusting anyone over thirty. As a sixteen to twenty year old, I couldn’t imagine being thirty, let alone sixty. Sixty was a time of frailty that I would never get to. I am now sixty-eight and am constantly astonished that I am not anything like I once imagined a person of sixty-plus years to be like.


Another consequence of the isolation of youth with their peers is a fear of aging. It is easy to fear or distort what you hide away. A study of human development can show students there are many phases of human life and all of them are valuable and have their own rewards.


I remember a discussion in a psychological literature class. I commented to the class that our society needs to value the elderly more, instead of hide them away in institutions. Students asked why should the elderly be valued? Getting older, they said, does not guarantee wisdom, or even intelligence, so why honor them in any way? In reply, I told a story. When I was in the Peace Corps, living in a small village in Sierra Leone, I once went to visit the home of an older man, a weaver of beautiful blankets. He was thin and his hair was grey. He had gaps between his teeth which meant it was sometimes difficult (for me) to understand what he said. His eyes were alive. When his family sat down to eat, he was the first person to be served. Why was he served first? Because he was the elder. He was highly valued by his family and village. He had the most to teach and taught by his mere presence that each phase of life had meaning.


What happens if we de-value the elderly? Since we all age, what does that de-valuing do to how we think of ourselves? To devalue aging, we devalue ourselves. As our lives go on, we become less and less important. If youth is the prime of life, then most of life is involved with regretting what was lost. Fear of death and the unknown is multiplied by fear of aging and fear of losing who we are. By valuing the old weaver, I said to my class, everyone in the village felt valued. As they aged, their core of selfhood grew ever larger.


Another purpose for teaching human development to teenagers is to help them realize what young children need, how they change, and thus, how to be parents in the future, and help raise younger siblings now. Many teachers recognize the value of teaching about adolescence. But teens often don’t want to hear about adolescence. They think they know it all too clearly, as they are living it. They might mistake learning about adolescence as the school prescribing what they should be as adolescents. They might all too readily anticipate being judged. However, if you start the unit by talking about infants, how their perceptual system and brain develop, their unique needs, then there is no apparent threat. Students get excited. They are learning about themselves but at a safe distance. Then you can move closer and closer to the psychology of who they are now, what is going on with their brains and bodies, what their unique needs are.


And for all of us, to value aging is to value life as a whole, to value human life in all its stages.


**Sometime, I hope to write a blog suggesting materials you could use to learn about and teach human development.