Teaching When Mr. T Is In The Room: Questioning The World Of False Facts And Quick Intolerance

Trump is reaching from the White House and news media to classes throughout the US, and the world, so teachers are fighting him everyday. They’re fighting the way he is influencing individual children as well as the collective psyche of the nation. Many teachers have spoken about the difficulties they have faced in their classes since the election. They value open discussion, but too many students seem poised to verbally leap onto the metaphorical backs of fellow students. Many students do not feel safe to voice their views.

 

But to have a successful class means creating not only a safe environment, but a sense of community, of working together to learn. How do you do that? And how do you respond when students verbally attack one another, or you?

 

Ruben Brosbe recently wrote an article about this subject. The country has become more divided and partisan, he said, and teachers are supposed to be neutral. “But schools and teachers must resist the urge to remain ‘neutral,’ because doing so only reinforces the dominant political ideology of their communities.” The community, the media are certainly not neutral, nor are most teachers, no matter what they do or try to do. 82% of teachers in the US are white, despite a student population that is more than 50% made of minorities. This can make it less likely that teachers will engage with controversial issues related to race and other forms of identity.

 

Brosbe provides resources from the Morningside Center that can be extremely useful to teachers, like finding out what students already know about a controversy, making connections to student’s lives and allowing them to opt out of uncomfortable discussions.

 

The Center also recommends setting a tone of responsiveness and openness. To begin the school year, make group agreements about ground rules and processes to facilitate positive and respectful interactions. There can be no delay or hesitation in your doing this. And Social Emotional Learning has never been more relevant and important.

 

In my experience, to create openness in a classroom, you must be open. When students feel seen and heard, they come alive, so make sure to greet students as they enter the classroom. From the very first day, let students know you see them and they are important. Come to class as engaged and present as you can, so students see you as a person first, and then as a teacher.

 

The job of a teacher is not just to increase knowledge in a particular subject, but help students learn to think clearly and work with others—and learn that discussing issues with others is a vital component of thinking and learning. Brosbe quotes Dr. Paula McAvoy as saying that schools are one of the few places students can learn to go beyond campaign rhetoric to really examine evidence. I agree. Students who can’t speak to others respectfully or who don’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion, or a truth versus propaganda, do not meet those criteria. Trump might imagine that whatever pops into his mind is the only truth. He might believe that anyone who disagrees with him should be punished. But it is the job of teachers to challenge that way of behaving and thinking when it arises in the classroom.

 

To create the sense that logic and reason, as well as compassion, are equally the core of an education, always make clear your own reasoning, sources of information, and willingness (if the facts warrant it) to change your position on most anything—except how you will treat students and other people.

 

Too many people think of discussions as a competition for who gets to speak or dominate. They think of a viewpoint as their identity, which they must hold on to as tightly as they can so they don’t disappear. The competitive, warlike atmosphere that many politicians and bureaucrats mistake for a constructive educational environment undermines education. Fear is not a good teacher. When you teach with fear, not only are you limiting the quantity of information you can integrate, but you learn that learning is fearful.

 

People easily imagine that when you speak, you are simply expressing yourself. But to speak, you must create an idea in your mind of your audience. You can’t utter a word without an idea of who is listening. You speak differently to a one year old than an English professor, differently to your peers than your parents.

 

When some people speak, they speak to the crowd in their mind, not the breathing people in the classroom with them. They do not see others or try to learn from them, and thus feel isolated. Ask students what being isolated feels like. You must look at and listen to the people you speak to if you want a good conversation.

 

Make the class discussions themselves the teaching. Ask students: How can the way you speak to others influence how well you learn? Did anyone ever cut you off or shut you up by the way they spoke? If someone doesn’t hear you, will they learn from you? If you don’t listen, will you hear?

 

Occasionally, in a class discussion, especially if the level of tension is rising, stop the discussion. Ask students to close their eyes, partially or fully, and take two calm breaths. With the third breath, ask them to notice how they feel. Or with the third breath, ask them to bring to mind a person with whom they were having a disagreement. Have them picture the person and imagine that they have feelings, just like they do. They hurt, just like they do. They want to be accepted, just like they do.

 

Teach students three aspects of a learning dialogue:

  1. The quality of your listening: What exactly did you hear? Be ready to check if what you heard was what was said.
  2. The quality of your understanding. What was your evidence? Was the evidence factual, reliable, and well supported? Make sure students recognize the need for accuracy and truthfulness in their speech. Talk about what a fact is, and how it is different from a theory or opinion. How do you verify or support a fact versus an opinion?
  3. The quality of metacognition and reasoning. In order to think clearly and discover bias and points of confusion, you need to be mindful of your thinking process. For what reasons did you say that? What was your intent? And: How did you figure that out? Did you jump to a conclusion too quickly? Did your conclusion clearly follow from the evidence?

 

Help students be more observant of others by playing theatre improvisation games. Pair up students to mirror each other. The pairs stand, facing each other, hands up with palms facing their partner as if there was a glass surface between them that they never break. Ask them to decide who will first lead, who will mirror. As the leader moves her right hand back, away from the mirror, the follower moves his left hand away. They continue moving together until you call out switch—and they change roles without stopping. Or: show students an ambiguous photo of people in a group and let them create a story of who the people are and what they are doing.

 

Critical thinking is a process, not an immediate taking of a position. It requires that you question and test your understanding and ideas, as well as feelings, and recognize discussing with others is a crucial component of that process. When you consider a diversity of viewpoints and listen to those who disagree with your original position, this is not a threat to who you are but an expansion—if it is done respectfully. Viewpoints must be seen as evolving, not final. The process of arriving at a conclusion is as important as the answer or solution you derive. The process influences the quality, depth and breadth of that solution.

 

Students come to school partly to test reality and discover if what they heard at home reflects what happens in the larger world. Teachers know this. Intellectually opposing a teacher or other students might be the only way some children can rebel or learn to assert themselves.

 

This can be painful for teachers to deal with. It is so easy to feel you have failed if your students treat you or each other badly. But if you can keep in mind the depth and importance of the struggle you are engaged in, it might help you be kinder to yourself. We have a bully in the White House. We have to do what we can so a caring, clear thinking person, not a bully, presides in the classroom.

 

**The increase in anxiety and fear in the classroom and society also interferes with learning and reasoning. Here is a link to a blog on helping relieve student/teacher anxiety. And the New Yorker published an article in September of this year, by Clint Smith, called “James Baldwin’s Lesson For Teachers In A Time Of Turmoil.” It is about a talk given by Baldwin in 1963.

Thank You.

Thursday is Thanksgiving. It’s been a very full week already. We buried my Dad on Monday, in New Jersey. This afternoon, we will drive three and a half hours to my friend’s house near Woodstock, New York, to celebrate the holiday.

 

I am lucky. For the last forty-two years or so, my wife and I have joined with my friends from College, the University of Michigan, to share the holiday together. When we were younger, we all stayed in one house, like a small community. Now, we need to rent an additional place to sleep. This was always one of the most important events of the year for me, the time I could let go of demands and just be with people without the need for any pretense. They were part of my family.

 

My Mom and Dad had a similar relationship with some friends. I had an Aunt Matilda and Uncle Murray, and Beatrice and Jack. They weren’t blood relatives but our families would celebrate holidays and go on trips together, along with my actual aunt and uncle, Sylvia and Jonas. They would all support each other. Jack, who owned a gas station, would help with the car. Murray and Mat, who sold blinds, would help with covering windows. My real uncle, Jonas, would help if there were electrical problems. My Dad, the accountant, would help with financial and tax matters. My Mom, the historian, would fill in the historical context. Etc.

 

And on this past Monday, representatives of all these families and more came or called. After a death, it is truly helpful to realize all that you are grateful for. Mostly, I am grateful for the love, support, companionship, advice—the central presence of my Dad in my life. I am grateful for all the people who were touched by my Dad’s life and who helped us say goodbye to him. I am grateful to my brother and sister-in-law who were so reliable and caring, who had to deal with so many of the arrangements, for the funeral, for my Dad’s hospice care, and all the times they had to rush to his side when I was too far away. I am thankful for my wife, Linda, for her steady wisdom and love and that look she gives me to remind me to focus on what’s most important in life. Thank you to the Rabbi and others who helped with the funeral and the hotel staff who helped with our Celebration of Life afterwards.

 

I could go on and on. I could thank other relatives, friends and neighbors from New York, Virginia, Atlantic City and other parts of New Jersey, California, and Colorado.

 

And for people I know and don’t know, who take the time to care for other people and our world. Who, despite fear of retribution, speak out, take action to oppose the abuse of powerful men, or the greediness and stupidity of this political administration. Without thousands, millions of people speaking up, the economic and other resources of this country will be ripped off by the powerful and the lives of most of us made more difficult, if not oppressive. My Dad opposed such rip offs and so all those who join together to speak out are, in some way, also family.

 

So, thank you. Enjoy the holidays.

Why Don’t People Act?

Why don’t more people take action? Or, why don’t people who grow up in the U. S., in a democracy, where the stability and continuance of the government ultimately rests in the hands of the people, act? Even more, why don’t people who are informed of what’s going on, who read reliable news sources and have a conscience, act? People might not act because they are so frightened by the news they turn it off—or the news they do read or listen to is the propaganda arm of some group more interested in manipulation and control than education. Or what they’ve heard has been carefully crafted to increase their anger and distrust so they can’t discern who their allies are?

 

Why don’t more Americans vote? About 60% of eligible voters supposedly voted in the last election. And an even smaller percentage of those who vote actively participate between elections. Why don’t more people call, write, or demonstrate by the offices of their Congresspeople? Is it that they haven’t practiced being democratic at home or in their schools or workplace so it doesn’t feel natural to do so?

 

I hear people say, “Wait until 2018 or 2020 and we can vote them out of office.” But I don’t think and certainly don’t feel we can wait that long. What about today, for example, when House Republicans are trying to vote on a tax measure that would give corporations a huge tax break, give the rich an individual tax break, while many in the middle class would see their taxes increase, if not now then in 2026, and their economic security decrease due to increased costs for health care, and decreases in Medicare and Social Security. And those who rely on Medicaid, like the poor, children (48% of those on Medicaid are children), parents, the disabled, Seniors—that, too, will be cut. The Senate version will result in at least 13 million people losing their health care. And this is all being done right in our faces. They lie about it, as if we can’t hear the lie. They flaunt their disdain of the democratic process, excluding democrats from the discussion. So why isn’t everyone calling Congress? Demonstrating?

 

I’m sure there are many reasons. A phone call to a Congressperson takes about a minute. All you have to say is “Please tell the Senator to oppose this tax cut.” Give two or three reasons, and say “Have a nice day.” Some people say they are too busy. But how much busier would they be if this bill passes and their disposable income was reduced and they needed to work even more hours to pay their bills? Some feel their voice will not make a difference. If you do nothing, you certainly can’t make a difference.

 

I know I could make phone calls to register voters or get people to vote and I haven’t done so. I just write blogs and emails, make calls, hit the streets when I can. I think many of us are too shocked. We can’t believe this is happening. Too much is happening too quickly. But a big majority of Americans oppose this administration now. A big majority opposes this tax cut-denial of health care bill. The more each of us does, the more we will understand what can be done. The more powerful we will feel, and the more influence we will wield. The threat we face is a real one. Please make a few calls.

 

Suggestions of People to Call:

Congresspeople:

Charlie Dent

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Darrell Issa –opposes the elimination of the State and Local tax deduction

Barbara Comstock- opposes the elimination of the State and Local tax deduction

Claudia Tenney-(NY) 202 225-3665

Any of the New York, New Jersey, California representatives might oppose the tax plan (except for Reed and Katko, I think, although I’ve called both)

 

Senators:

Susan Collins – (202) 224-2523 – opposes the elimination of the deduction for teachers who spend $250+ on school supplies, etc.

John McCain – (202) 224-2235- who called for a fair and inclusive process, which hasn’t happened

Ron Johnson – (202) 224-5323

Capito – (202) 224-6472
Flake – (202) 224-4521
Gardner – (202) 224-5941
Portman – (202) 224-3353

Bob Corker – (202) 224-3344

When It’s Time

Death can be a powerful teacher. Maybe nothing is more powerful. Yet it is awful and terrifying. It can teach us not to waste a moment, and that no moment (if you can feel it) is ever wasted. It can wake us up to the central choice in our life, namely, how much will we allow love to animate our life?

 

My Dad is in hospice care right now. He is in Virginia, I am now in New York. He is 96 years old, no longer conscious, and can die at any moment. He wants to go. Over the last few months, he said I have accepted that I will die. What I worry about is the pain. He had seen his Dad beg to die. He had seen his sister beg to die. He did not want to beg to die. He had too much grace to say it in a hurtful way, but a few days ago, he begged to die, or beg that we would take away the pain. And we tried to take away the pain.

 

For several years, I taught a philosophy class for tenth-twelfth grade students called Questions. We studied the questions that the students and I most wanted to confront. The first unit, and often the most meaningful, was one on death. We talked about it from many directions and perspectives. How did different cultures think about death and dying? What rituals did they have? We looked at how people can face their death and help people who are dying. Teaching that class was helpful to me, too. What was most helpful to students, I think, was learning they had the power to face even their deepest fears and talk about them.

 

Yet, as I sat with my father, I realized there was so much I hadn’t learned. I knew that regret and feeling responsible for all that I hadn’t done or didn’t think of doing was normal, yet as I faced my father’s pain and suffering, I felt it anyway. As my wife, Linda, said it, death was not theoretical any longer.

 

One of my biggest wishes was that I had talked more frequently, so it had sunk in, with people who had gone through being with a person who was dying. Or I had listened more deeply to the one or two teachers I had in my life who were able to speak sincerely, insightfully, about it. How can we help others? How do we arrange for hospice? When the person is no longer conscious, should there always be a loved one with him or her? How much can an unconscious person hear or need us? How can we live with death?

 

I felt awful leaving him. He had called us, on Tuesday morning around 8:15 am, first my brother and then me, to say goodbye. He was in a hospital bed, having trouble breathing, and thought he was about to die. I think that after he spoke with us, he went through his contacts on his phone to call several more people. It took Linda and I about three or four hours to get packed and cancel all our work and appointments, and 8.5 hours to drive there, through snow storms and traffic. And luckily, he was still relatively aware and conscious Tuesday night. He told us to go rest and see him in the morning. Wednesday morning, he was occasionally conscious and with us, but in more pain. His condition dropped off rapidly after that. When we left on Saturday, he was unconscious. The father that I knew was mostly gone. My brother and cousins and the hospice caregiver was with him as we left. The nurses said he might continue like that for several days, maybe a few weeks. Yet, I felt awful leaving.

 

My course taught me some important lessons about dying. I knew to prepare on my own so I didn’t burden my Dad with with my tears and with my inability to let go. I tried to let go so he could let go. We had been very close over the last few years so there were no problems between us that we had to resolve.

 

I did not lie to him about his condition. I did not say to him anything that I didn’t, truly, feel. He said ”I know that if I felt there was an afterlife, I would be more comforted, but I don’t.” I did not talk about an afterlife. I did not talk about Karma. I just agreed with him, and added, “I guess we just don’t really know.”

 

What I mostly did, when I was with him, was sit with him. I told him I loved him, frequently. Sometimes, I meditated with him. Sometimes, even though he was unconscious, he would get agitated. He would move his feet, or try to get up, or start a sort of moaning. In those moments, I would hold his hand or massage his shoulders.

 

The caregiver was wonderful. She would sometimes hold and massage his feet and help him move, in bed. They’d do this sort of chant. She’d ask him, What are you doing, Mr David? His name is David. He would then say his name, and she’d repeat it back to him. That would go on until he quieted.

 

Other times, I’d silently wish him to be at peace, to feel loved, and be able to let go. I pictured him being surrounded, embraced by a warm, white light. I pictured him going into that light. Sometimes, it seemed to help. He would calm down, stop walking in the bed. But other times, even after he stopped sleepwalking, his breathing would remain agitated. He did not go off into the light or the good night. He did not, or his life did not, go by his or my timetable. Some other force was at work.

 

We might imagine we have control over our life and our situation. We imagine this control derives from our rationality. And some of it does. We can do so much. Our rational mind is so powerful. But the rational mind, as Jung and Freud, Buddha and Jesus, as well as countless others have said, is like a boat on a vast ocean. We have to let ourselves be more aware of, more intimate with, that ocean. We have to do that in each moment of our lives so that, when death comes, we have more of an ability to live even death as well as we possibly can.

 

Death is a powerful teacher, if we are willing to learn what we can from it. If we are willing to let ourselves look at our possible death, and thus, the individual moments of our lives, with as much honesty as we can, and to live with as much love as we can. I know this. I just have to do it. And I continue to wish, to imagine my Dad, peaceful, loved, and able to let go.

 

**Maybe,  in a future blog, I will write about some resources my students and I found helpful, but I can’t do that now.

Studying The Dreaming Mind At Home Or In The Classroom: Mindfulness And Dreams

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Dreams have fascinated, confused, scared and inspired people probably ever since there were people on this earth. How can we not wonder about the often bizarre images and stories that fill our nights and sometimes wander into our days? The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tales of the Mesopotamian hero-king and possibly one of the first stories ever written, cites dream narratives. The Greeks had dream temples to help cure people of their ills. The German chemist, Friedrich Kekule claimed his discovery of the molecular structure of benzene came to him in a dream. Artists and scientists throughout history have spoken of the role of dreams in their work. The famed psychologist and theorist, Carl Jung, amongst many others, have explored and written about the role dreaming plays in the psyche.

 

When I was teaching, I noticed my students shared this fascination. Every time the subject of dreaming came up in a class, students became excited and engaged. Many students expressed their wonder about the cause or source of their dream images. Dreams can wake us up to realize there is more to reality, more to our own minds than we thought. Or as Hamlet put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 

We dream every night, even if we’re unaware of it. Although neuroscientists still haven’t come to understand the full role of dreaming in human consciousness, many speak of the role it might play in integrating material from our lives and forming coherent memories. For example, how often have you gone to sleep with a question and woken up with an answer, or at least a clearer understanding of the question? We might think of dreaming as a phenomenon distinct and separate from other aspects of mind, but it is one part of the process we use to think about our lives and construct a viewpoint of the world.

 

In some of my high school psychology classes we left time to share dreams. I encourage other teachers to do the same—if students are interested. Or if you’re not a teacher, to do this with interested friends, or maybe parents when children wonder about a dream. Teachers should only do it if they take time to study methods of group dream work as well as study their own dreams. I don’t ask students to do what I won’t do.

 

For the last few days, instead of my dreams disappearing as soon as I woke up, like they usually do, some stayed with me. One question is why that is. Another is what the dreams are saying, if anything.

 

In one recent dream, I was standing by a bridge I drove over to get to the school where I used to teach and noticed a break in the metal under-structure. The exact problem changed as I explained it to people in the dream. The season changed too, as did the location of the bridge. In some renditions of the dream bridge, it was located in Queens, NYC, where I grew up. In that image, it was winter and there was snow on the ground. In others, it was in Ithaca, where I now live, and the season was a cool late summer.

 

As I tried to tell the dream people about the break in the bridge, there was a definite awareness in my mind of how others might take what I said. It was a little bit of lucid dreaming, or of conscious awareness while dreaming, and the present and past could change in one stroke.

 

In another dream, my wife and I moved our possessions into an apartment rented in some city that was new to us. When I went out to complete errands, I couldn’t get back to the apartment. I worried about my wife. Worried about what would happen to what I had left behind. And there were other dreams like this one. In one, I was back in college, trying to get to a morning class, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get to the class. Things kept getting in the way.

 

So, what in my life is getting in my way? What new activity do I want to start that I can’t manage to do? And what is the bridge to doing it—and what is the possible “break” (or “brake”) in the bridge to my future?

 

Dreams can mean so many different things. One approach I like is to think of them as stories built from residues of my day floating in my unconscious, as partly completed expressions of who I was in a particular moment, a partly realized idea, or partly recognized emotion. And I carry them in my mind and body until somehow, in the dreaming world or in waking life, I recognize or complete them.

 

So, to complete the idea or emotion, I try to let them speak through me and listen openly, without reacting judgmentally. They might complete themselves when openly witnessed and then no longer demand I rent then mind space. When I hide them away, the energy of hiding animates them. The energy of the suppressed joins with the energy of suppressing and thus lives in me in a distorted way. But when I step back as an audience and let them act on the stage of my mind, I know what’s there. I listen for and learn from myself. Instead of living the act of suppressing, I live the energy of open listening.

 

When you have trouble understanding what’s true, or can’t solve a problem, or can’t understand someone’s motivation—step back, take a walk in the woods, meditate— or dream on it. When you first get up in the morning and your mind hasn’t filled with thoughts of all you have to do for the day, this is the time to create a theatre of mind, or a listening space for dreams or the unconscious to speak to the daytime mind. This is the space for what was unheard in ourselves to be heard and embraced, and let go.

 

You could write down whatever you remember of a dream. Even if you remember very little at first, the act of honoring by recording might allow more to be remembered. And after you write something down, look at the words from different angles, or as puns. What you mindfully listen to, you hear. What you hide away continues on as a mystery you never solve.

 

Although sometimes a dream has a message, other times the purpose of dreams is simply to be dreamed and experienced. And most dreams are not to be taken literally. As Carl Jung and others have pointed out, dreams speak in their own language, a language more symbolic than literal. And like other symbols, there is more than one way to understand their meaning.

 

All humans dream. Every time you do it, just like every time you open your eyes and breathe, you share an experience with countless others. You share an experience humans have had for thousands of years. The bridge you cross over, as well as your destination, is this very moment, both uniquely your own and shared with billions of others. Being aware of your dreams can help you be mindfully aware in your waking life (and when mindful in your waking life, it can help you be aware in your dreaming). It can wake you up to your shared humanity, if you’d let it.

 

 

** If you’re a teacher and want to discuss dreams with students, I suggest you first establish an agreed upon process. One book to help think about a process is Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Powers in Dreams. However, Taylor’s techniques need to be adapted to the classroom. I would not share more than one or two dreams a day. I wouldn’t ask even for whole dreams. The purpose of dream discussion in a class is, of course, more modest than in a dream group led by a professional. It is to help students learn from peers about dreaming and to be better able to hear what their own mind and body is telling them. Maybe they might also learn more about the power of metaphor.

 

Students should agree to confidentiality and not sharing the dreamer’s identity out of class. Talk with students about not interrupting the person who is sharing. Only the dreamer can know what a dream means, so take the shared dream as one’s own. Instead of students interpreting each other’s dreams, ask them to notice their own responses, feelings and thoughts. They can say, after hearing another dreamer speak, ”I felt this when you said that.” Adopt an attitude of curiosity toward the dream. In dreams when you’re pursued and run away, the pursuer grows in size. When you turn toward the pursuer and study him or her, she gets smaller in size.

 

**Another resource is an insightful, recently published blog by Elaine Mansfield called “9 Ways to Unpack a Powerful Dream.”

 

***And remember to vote this Tuesday, 11/7. In New York, I urge you to vote against the Constitutional Convention, and vote everywhere for local candidates who will protect the environment, health care, public education, voting rights, etc. and oppose Mr. T. Exercise what power you have or you, we might lose it.

 

****The photo is from a bridge near the village where I lived in Sierra Leone. It had to be reconstructed every year and crossed over a river with crocodiles in it.