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.

Discussing Ethics With Children and Teenagers

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Should ethics be taught in schools? Many people shudder at the thought. It would be like teaching religion in public schools, some respond. It would be like teaching not just how to make a rational decision and think critically, but how to live one’s life.

 

And I am sure that position is valid in many cases. Some people think teaching is about telling students what is right and true—how to interpret historical events or understand a character in a novel. They would teach science or social studies by having students memorize facts from a textbook. So, to teach ethics in schools would mean having students memorize rules and make their thinking and behavior consistent with what is prescribed by the teacher or school system. So, maybe the first question needs to be, what does it mean to educate a person?

 

If education means something like providing the background knowledge and ability to analyze information, and think clearly and critically. If it means learning how to raise questions and cooperate with others, so children can live a meaningful life and contribute positively to their community, then how can ethics not be part of education?

 

In fact, how can ethics not be taught? Ethics means learning how to inquire into and figure out how to act morally, understand right versus wrong and what is good or proper. It has to do with figuring out principles to guide your actions. To provide any guideline on social behavior is thus teaching ethics. Don’t schools begin to teach ethics on the very first day of school, when children are given rules for classroom behavior? And do you want students to graduate without having examined how and by what principles they make or could make ethical choices? Or how to evaluate the implications and consequences of those choices? Considering the political climate in this country, can we afford to graduate students with a distinct lack of such understanding?

 

And students, particularly in secondary school, yearn to ask ethical or moral questions. They want answers. They want to know how to act, how to live, what is right.

 

So, to teach ethics, teach students to question using real, ethical questions. Such questions are essential to any discipline. In English classes, you could study the consequences of ethical choices made by characters in literature. In Science you could not only study atomic theory but the ethical dimensions of using atomic energy. Imagine asking the following in a class: Should you always try to tell the truth?

Imagine one student responds: “There is no truth.” Or asks, “How do you know what’s a truth or what’s a lie?”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is saying something you know to not be true.”

A third student: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale?”

 

Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They enliven a classroom and intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.

 

What are the consequences, if any, of lying?

One student says: “None— unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Another: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

A third: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”

 

So you suffer when you lie? The students said it. When you lie, you can create a fictional self that is weak and lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community? Conversation or speech is not simply self-expression. When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being. It’s a relationship. Lying, or any unethical behavior, has consequences. It can cause suffering and distort thinking.

 

So, why lie? What are your intentions? Your intention, if you lie, might be to help others or to advance yourself at the cost of others. Should the intention behind your actions be important in evaluating your choices?

 

What do you do when you act ethically? Which principles or ethical systems do you apply? Study this deeply and honestly and question your understanding of any topic or situation that calls for action. Study the ethical systems used by different people, systems like J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, Greek or Confucian virtue ethics, Kant’s idea of universalizabilityBuddha’s 8-Fold Path, or the Golden Rule. Students can work to discern if the principles or values they use to make ethical decisions actually make their lives, and the lives of others, better or worse. What role does compassion play in acting ethically?

 

And besides applying an intellectual and personal moral analysis, you need training in social-emotional awareness so you can actually do what you intend and think is right.

 

*The photo: a part of my yard after rain ended, hopefully, the drought.

The Gap Between What You Can Know and What You Can’t

How much can we know? And how do we deal with that limitation, if there is one?

 

Such old questions. Yet, occasionally, when I’m quiet inside and the world seems to slow down, I hear the remnants of these questions stirring in me. For example, just last night, I was thinking about the book I just completed. I worked on it for three years and it is scheduled to be published on September 30th. But, I still don’t really believe it. It is the third book I have written, and the first to be published. Yet, how it happened is mysterious to me. Mysterious not in the sense that I have no idea how I wrote the book or no idea of all the work, inspiration, joy and heartache that went into it. But, in the sense that despite all that intimate knowledge of what I did, I still feel “Wow, I did that!” I still wonder if it is really going to happen.

 

And so much of what it took surprised me. I thought a book was one person’s creation. Yet when you add all the people who edited, gave feedback, who were my students, colleagues, teachers, inspirations, and then add the publisher, etc.—how many people is that?

 

And how is it that I know how to write a clear, grammatical sentence (usually) and yet the book required several people over several months to sharpen the writing and eliminate mistakes?

 

Trying to understand is one of the biggest drives a human being has, so we are always trying to figure things out. And I don’t just mean things like about how my book will be received, but everyday things like how to set up a rain barrel system in my house or learn the best route to my brother’s new home in Virginia. And in the Presidential election, we watch polls to see what the future will bring. We research and try to understand who the candidates are so we can make good decisions about who to vote for and who will help us secure the future we think will serve us best. We do the same with doctors, places to vacation, bikes to ride, shirts to wear. We try to predict the weather and understand our friends and pets.

 

We often think knowing and understanding means to be able to predict, control, dominate and make safe, that it is linked to our drive to survive, possess and secure. We think it means to encapsulate in words. And that once we have created such a capsule of understanding or knowledge, it is the correct one. We seem to think that our mental models of reality are the one and only truth. And this truth will set us free. The internal pressure to replace the unknown and mysterious with the known and explained has led to both great technical and scientific advances and also violence and oppression.

 

Due to a limited perspective on what understanding means, many people try to fill the gap between what we can know and what we can’t with undigested or untested beliefs, often mistaking such beliefs for truth. We might be tempted to try to replace what we can’t know with a willful ignorance that masks wish fulfillment or shoddy thinking. We can do this with religion, politics, intellectual systems or relationships.

 

We need to recognize the limits of our knowing and control. We can’t know everything, but it is fun, important, and sometimes a responsibility, to learn and understand or think things through as deeply as we can. We can’t predict the future, although we can, to an extent, prepare for it. We can’t predict or control what our friends or loved ones or pets will do; yet we can be helpful, kind and caring. We can’t know when or how we will die, but we can live as fully, healthfully, and meaningfully as we can. We can’t pave over the unknown with the known, but we can be aware of when the attempts to do so lead to suffering.

 

We need to be able to live with and be mindfully aware of not-knowing. We need a little more humility, and a little less clinging to our mental formulations. We need to know how to tolerate, learn from, and let go of discomfort and other ways we hurt ourselves. We need to tolerate and even value some mystery, not mystification. The sense of mystery is a sense of the aliveness of life. When a person feels mysterious to us, we could be realizing they have an inner world of their own. That who they are exceeds our expectations, exceeds what we know, exceeds what we want of them. Any person or living being is so much more than what we want for or from them or words about them. And this mystery, this life, is what’s ultimately most important. It involves a very different sort of knowing, living, loving.

Learning to Question

How do you get students to formulate and raise their own questions and take a more active part in a class? This question is being asked by many university professors as well as secondary school teachers.

 

With students in K-12 being subjected to more testing, and college age students pressured by debt and expectations to be productive right away, or to graduate as soon as possible, the stakes are raised, pressure increased.

 

When students arrive in a class, they have expectations of what will happen. They give teachers, to a large degree, what they were taught to give. When students resist active questioning, one culprit is obviously previous learning environments where learning was more passive, rote, or simplistic.

 

When I was teaching, my solution was to ask questions of students right away so they would get used to living with questions. I asked what they wanted to learn, what interests and questions they had related to the course. The courses themselves were structured around questions and assessments about answering them. When possible, I gave them choices in assignments and projects in order to get them to engage more actively. I would relate, or ask them to relate, big questions or material in the course to their own lives, other historical times and places with their time and place. If the class was big or most students reluctant to speak up, during a class period I would formulate questions so they could do something simple, like raise their hands to yes-no-maybe questions, or something complex, like reflect in journals on their viewpoints and the implications or possible consequences of those viewpoints

 

To actively and sincerely question, students need to do at least four things. They need to:

1. Once they get immersed in material and work to understand it, they need to be able to recognize the questions they hold, and the “feel” of a question. Recognizing you have a question has as much to do with emotional awareness and feeling as intellect. You need to recognize the discomfort or inner pressure.

2. Value questions, value your feelings, the course, and feel it is worthwhile to engage.

3. Trust the environment, teacher, themselves. To ask a question or actively engage involves risk. You need to trust yourself and your teacher.

4. Know how to work with discomfort, especially the discomfort of not-knowing. People often want to turn away from discomfort, risk, threat, whether it is external or internal. But to question, you must go directly toward discomfort.

 

Some people think a question is a sign of ignorance. Actually, it’s a sign of strength. Recognizing you have a question or that there is a question is recognizing your knowledge or understanding is incomplete. A question is halfway to an answer. It is an insight, a moment of waking up, of increased awareness, when something unconscious becomes conscious. It is an epiphany, requiring unconscious synthesis.  As such, it is delicate. It needs to be treasured. Instead of punishing lack of insight, enjoy insight. You reinforce it by valuing it; you open to it by enjoying it.

 

To get students to question means getting them to let go of prior understandings and recognize what they don’t know. They need to be able to let go of what is comfortable, old, unexamined to let in what is new and reasonable. So, to teach questioning, you need to teach about the role emotions play in thinking.

 

What do you do when you’re unsure about what you feel or think, or you don’t know what’s bothering or driving you? How do you improve your ability to listen and hear what you’re saying to yourself, to see, not just look? Interoception is a relatively new word that means “perceiving within,” or hearing your own inner voice. It is crucial for thinking clearly. Mindfulness or learning how to be aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feelings, and sensations is one way to train interoception.

 

The teacher is a model for students and so must model listening and questioning and making their thinking process more visible, so student’s can learn how to do the same. When teachers enter the classroom as guides to learning, not know-it-alls; if teachers admit when they lack knowledge and have doubts, students feel more inclined to do the same.

 

Teach specific questions to ask when you’re discussing a topic or reading a text. The usual favorites are ‘what,’ ‘why’ and then ‘how.’ “What exactly was said? What was the context? What was meant?” And: “Why was it said? What reasons would/did the person give for saying it? What is the proof?” Then: “How did they or would you apply this?”

 

Teach self-examination and reflection through writing as well as meditation. Self-examination is only as good as your ability to be present with whatever is occurring in each moment, whether it be with others or your own thoughts or feelings. Ask students to pick up a pen and write down exactly what they hear, now, in their mind, without editing. Write even your wonder about what you’re writing. [I recommend the book Writing Your Mind Alive by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon, which describes a practice of revelation and understanding called proprioceptive writing.]

 

Cultivate joy in the classroom, joy in thinking, creating, and in being together as an intellectual community. This reduces pressure, fear, and increases engagement and thinking. Use meaningful projects to teach and assess instead of joyless exams. You can turn intellectual exercises into improvisation games. For example, show the class a photograph of a few people interacting in public. Ask students to study the photo and then write, “who-what-why:” who the people are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Tell them to simply listen to their first thoughts and let their imaginations work. Or give students a word that easily evokes an archetype, such as ‘no’ or ‘wonder,’ and ask them to say the word to themselves a few times. Then describe an imagined person who this word personifies. Or have students create three people, from three contrasting words, like ‘yes-no-maybe.’ Put these three in a situation and imagine what will happen.

 

Such exercises can also introduce empathy training. When students learn to understand, care about, and act for the well-being of others they feel cared for themselves. There are many meditation practices to develop empathy and compassion.

 

Of course, the whole environment of a school can aid or hinder a student’s ability to actively engage with her learning. Democratic schools are an especially supportive environment for questioning and critical thinking because student voices are valued outside as well as inside the classroom.

 

To question, first listen. To listen, first care. To care—hopefully needs no further reason.

 

*Photo of Sacred Way in Delphi, Greece.