Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning (An Interview)

Mindfulteachers.org published an interview of me written by Catharine Hannay. Here is the beginning. Please go to their website for the entire interview.

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

First, what does mindfulness mean? Mindfulness is a study of mind and heart from “the inside.” It is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations illuminating how interdependent you are with other people and your world.

 

Without being judgmental, it notices whatever arises as a potential learning event. It is both a practice, as in meditation, and is also a quality of awareness or of being in the world.

 

When I first started teaching, like most educators, I made a number of mistakes. When you make a mistake, it is easy to get down on yourself, and then you don’t learn all that you could.

 

The more mindful I became, the more I could take in, the less judgmental I was, and the more I thought of my students as my teachers.

Mindfulness can be practiced either at a set time every day, or whenever you can do it. You might practice mindfulness because it reduces stress and strengthens your ability to focus and learn.

 

But if you practice mindfulness just for what you can get from it, you concentrate on your idea of who you will become in some future time and miss the whole moment you are doing it.

A New Review of My Book “Compassionate Critical Thinking”

The organization, mindfulteachers.org, a wonderful organization, just published a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The book was published by Rowman & Littlefield. It is a book that, I hope not only will help teachers, students, and parents in this time of anxiety and threats, but maybe help anyone trying to understand him or herself and what is happening in our world.

The review begins:

“Often, you have little choice in what material you teach; the only choice you have is how the material is taught… When a teacher enters the classroom with awareness and genuine caring, students are more likely to do the same.”


Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching is based on Ira Rabois’ thirty-year career teaching English, philosophy, history, and psychology to high school students. 

Rabois includes six types of practices in his teaching:

 

To read the whole review, go to the website. Enjoy.

“A government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people…”

Last week, Mother Jones magazine ran an article about how “The GOP’s Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded.” It tells the story of the failure and collapse of a charter school called the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, which recently had a student body of over 13,872 students, the largest public charter school, maybe the largest k-12 school, in the US. You might find it interesting. According to the article, the school provided for many a “sham education” and “functioned more like a profit center than an educational institution.”

 

Related to this, the Tallulah Charter School in New Orleans was closed in December after the Louisiana Department of Education voided 325 scores on the LEAP tests after finding evidence of systemic cheating. An investigation found the school was “administering incorrect accommodations, administering accommodations inappropriately and giving students access to test questions prior to the test.”

 

Charter schools are not subject to the same regulation as public schools, so such abuses as reported above are understandable. As Diane Ravitch argues in her book Reign of Error, they “…are deregulated and free from most state laws….” Unlike public schools, which take any and every student who comes to their door, charter schools can screen for the most advantaged. Despite this screening, they are no more successful than public schools. As educator Steven Singer put it, “school choice is no choice.” The schools chose the students more than the other way around. When adjusted for the economic situation of students, statistics show charters often do worse. Charter and other privately run schools can hire uncertified teachers who are not unionized, not as well trained, and who can be paid less.

 

But despite these problems, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, says she is in favor of establishing a voucher system, where parents can choose where to send their children for their education. Public funds will be used to pay for students to attend charters, religious, or other private schools instead of public ones.

 

She argues, despite evidence showing otherwise, that “choice” will increase equity among all students by forcing competition in the education market. But her approach treats our children as commodities, sources of money, (as exemplified by speaking of “value added” to students by schools) and conceptualizes the purpose of education as meeting the needs of employers, (or in DeVos’ case, meeting her agenda of Christianizing education: see the NYT article on the subject) not meeting the needs and dreams of students.

 

The push for “choice” developed over many years of attacks on the image and funding of public schools. Diane Ravitch argues that education corporations worked with individual politicians to undermine public schools, teachers, and teacher unions, and have been attacking the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system.

 

Once public education was forced into this deliberately manufactured crisis, there were increasing calls to create privately run, publicly funded, charter schools, and vouchers for private schools. In 2016-7, there were 3.1 million students enrolled in charter schools, triple the number from 2006-7. With charter schools, public money is transferred from teachers and administrators, who are mostly in the middle or lower class, to corporate investors. In the case of cities like NYC, hedge fund managers, whose primary goal is fast profits, have taken over several charter schools.

 

If our society truly wanted to create an equitable educational system it would begin by investing more money in schools where the need was greatest. It would treat teachers with the respect they deserve and need in order to creatively and compassionately meet the educational needs of students. It would do a better job of treating students as whole people with emotional, social, and health needs as well as intellectual ones. It would do any of these things before it would spend one nickel on vouchers or corporate created charter schools.

 

The call for “choice” is a call for privatization of the whole public sphere. It is part of an across the board effort to undermine all aspects of our democracy and to send taxpayer money to rich investors. It is happening with our water systems. In 2011 three quarters of municipalities had public water systems. But the Trump EPA has steadily worked to undermine the rule of law and cut back on protections for rivers and other water systems, and his calls for infrastructure improvements have been tied to pressure for privatization of municipal water systems.

 

It has been happening with prison systems. In 1983, the first private prisons were opened. By 2015, 126,272 people were imprisoned in private institutions. It has been happening with the military. Since the 1990s, the US and other nations have increased their dependence on private military firms (corporate mercenaries). This was highlighted last year when Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, tried to get the Trump administration to privatize the war in Afghanistan and turn it over to Prince.

 

It is happening with health, pension and earned benefits systems. The GOP has repeatedly tried to privatize Social Security and end or undermine Medicare and Medicaid in order to appropriate the benefits earned by workers. Mr. T and other Republican politicians repeatedly attack the FBI and CIA. These efforts are partly to undermine the Mueller investigation. It is also to establish an intelligence and investigation institution that owes allegiance not to the constitution, “the people” or the government as a whole, but to Mr. T, personally, as evidenced by T asking for Comey’s “loyalty” and saying he expected the attorney general to protect him from the Russia investigation.

 

I could go on and on, talking about attempts to end voting rights, economic justice and racial, religious or gender equality, destroy the free press, the postal system, etc. Privatization is a vehicle for undermining democracy and destroying the best hope of this nation. President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, called for people to dedicate themselves to “the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.” Maybe I’m going too far here, but it seems to me that ending a government of, by, and for “the people” is exactly what Mr. T is trying to do. Thus, resisting him and the GOP is nothing less than helping to complete the unfinished work President Lincoln called for.

 

**Thank you to Jill Swenson for the heads up about the first two links about charter schools.

When We Notice A Reality Different From Our Own Reflected in the Eyes of Another, We Can Come Together: A Look at Brooke Gladstone’s “The Trouble With Reality.”

Many books have been published lately shining light on the Trumpf darkness, and bringing rational analysis to seeming confusion. Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, or Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, are two such books. Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR’s On The Media, gives us The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. This is a very short book on a large question, built from her interviews. She ties Mr. T’s political strategy to how we perceive and understand the world, and shows us that to meet the threat of his administration, we, citizens of a democracy, will not only have to grow in our understanding, but in our emotional awareness and capacities.

 

It is too easy to get lost in Mr. T’s manipulations. His attacks on the media, truth, women, etc. are not simply the ravings of a deluded narcissist. His lies serve a purpose. They make it more difficult for many people to see the truth. Gladstone quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt, speaking in a 1974 interview about her own time and the rise of totalitarians: ”…[A] people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. With such a people, you [the demagogue] can do what you please.”

 

Truth, in a sense, is what we all share. If we lose a sense of what we share, we don’t know how to act. Just think how confusing it can be when everyone around us disagrees with us. Even if we are, or were, sure about something we saw, if everyone around us says they saw something different, we would most likely begin to doubt our perception. So Mr. T aims to undermine our sense of commonality, not only with other humans but with our understanding of what democracy is. A democracy does not require agreement over policies but of how to decide on policies. It requires at least some basic agreement over rights, responsibilities, and laws. Mr. T undermines all such agreements.

 

The existential threat to democracy “is not just the lies but the lying.” In a Gladstone interview with journalist Masha Gessen, Gessen says Putin and Trump might be very different, but “they are kin in the use of the lie:…they lie in the same way and for the same purpose—blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” Mr. T and Putin want their reality to be THE reality. A demagogue does not just impose laws but dictates reality. In a way, he makes himself his own religion.

 

Many laugh at Mr. T’s tweets, calling them delusional or mad. But linguist George Lakoff says the tweets are often more complex and layered, more manipulative than we might think. According to Lakoff, T uses tweets to:

  1. Frame an issue: dominate discussion by getting his viewpoint out first. For example, “Only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big…” First, he implies hacking the DNC by Russia, a foreign government, was no big deal. Secondly, his win was “So Big,” Dems loss so huge. Thirdly, the RNC was just better defended, “even though the RNC was also hacked by the Russians (only, they didn’t leak any of that stuff).”
  2. Divert attention: provoke the media’s attention from a more important story, usually by using a cultural issue, e.g. the tweets about the musical Hamilton and the cast’s comments to Mike Pence, appeared on the day it was revealed Mr. T paid out $25 million to settle lawsuits for fraud by Trump University.
  3. Send up a trial balloon: mention a possible policy to test how people would react, e.g. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability…”
  4. Deflect: He tweets “Lock her up” when he is acting in ways that should get him locked up. He blames the messenger instead of taking responsibility. “The real scandal here [media revelations about Russia] is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy…”

 

And then there are tweets that might frame an issue, but I think mostly frame how vicious or vindictive he can be or how totally lacking he is in understanding an issue. (As in his recent tweet: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming….’”) The tweets are ways of shouting at the world and attracting those whose anger echoes his own.*

 

Gladstone says it is important to understand the purpose of his tweets so we can undermine their usefulness to him. If we repost, or allow ourselves to get too upset by them, it only supports his goals and upsets our mind. We need to take meaningful action, make calls, get facts out there, and never give up on the values, the faith in the possibility of public reason that makes democracy possible.

 

The fact that Mr. T largely isolates himself in his own Breitbart or Fox news reality, and uses other news media mostly to fuel his anger, might be what eventually undermines his administration. According to Arendt, what makes a demagogue vulnerable is his own self-deception. “The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but the real world, which will catch up with him…”

 

“Not knowing,” says Gladstone, “is much scarier than knowing.” We might not be able to know the world fully, but “we have to live somewhere.” We often think our own facts are true and other people’s “facts” are wrong or incomplete. We need to learn to be more humble with our understanding of reality and what we think is “the” solution. There are always many actions we can take, “but all such efforts are hobbled, inexorably, by rage, bafflement, and despair.” We need to lower our blood pressure (and fear) so we can work and think more clearly. Rage might fuel our willingness to act, but should not decide what we do.

 

We need to understand, even to feel, that we share a great deal with other people, yet the reality reflected in another person’s eyes can be very different from our own. And this is an advantage, not a threat. It is what makes democracy not only possible but desirable. Only by perceiving the value of this difference can we learn from each other. Only by expanding our own capacities can we, those of us who understand the threat, truly work together to oppose Mr. T and create a better, more equitable and just, society.

 

*On January 5th, Politico had an article by Mathew Gertz, from Media Matters, saying that Mr. T is live-tweeting Fox, particularly Fox and Friends. He is not trying to distract us as much as himself. Despite having at his disposal the largest intelligence gathering machine on the earth, he relies on a conservative news organization to shape his views on current events.

 

 

Don’t Let the Party of Grinches Steal Your Holidays

As linguist, cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff has clearly pointed out in his book The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Republicans have too often dictated the terms and imagery of political discourse in our country. It is time for this to stop. Read this book.

 

It was the GOP word machine that branded Conservatives as Populists out to save America from “big government” and “effete, wasteful liberals.” But after this week, and this year, this imagery is no longer going to capture anyone, except for those who have walled themselves off in forts built from right-wing news distortions. After this week’s debacle with the tax-health-care-environment rip off/”scam” bill, we see very clearly that the GOP attack on “big government” is just a way for the wealthy and their paid representatives to steal money from social programs. Americans are discovering new political metaphors that touch more and more people and undermine support for the GOP agenda. The struggle against oppression that we are waging is not just against politicians, but against metaphors and ways of thinking. Here are some metaphors I have heard this week. (If you noticed or created other liberating metaphors, please share them.)

 

Last night, I was listening to MSNBC. Chris Hayes and others were using imagery, with a sweet touch of humor. Humor is always helpful in dealing with a threatening reality, although I don’t feel very amused right now. Mr. T is the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The GOP is the party of Grinches. (This goes back, possibly, to Joe Scarbough’s album of Christmas music.) They are stealing not only Christmas but Hanukah, Kwanzaa, all holidays and vacations for years to come, if their tax bill gets enacted.

 

For those of us not in the dictator class, the cost of living, and health care premiums, will “rise” even more “precipitously” under this new bill than before the ACA. The tax bill will “de-stabilize” health insurance markets. (Some GOP supporters say the premiums for Obamacare are already too high. They should examine the rates before the ACA and look at how the GOP have been trying to increase premiums in order to undermine the Democrat’s program ever since the ACA was passed.) By 2026, when the temporary tax cuts for the middle class and lower class that are in this bill end, it has been predicted that health insurance premiums will be doubled. 83% of the tax cuts in this bill will be for the rich, the would-be dictator class. The GOP is not just trying to steal Christmas; they are stealing the future. They are “looting America.” One of my favorite images is from Bernie Sanders, who talked about the GOP tax plan back in October as “the Robin Hood principle in reverse.” Of course, I always loved the story of Robin Hood.

 

The future the GOP envisions has children suffering without care. About 50% of those on Medicaid are children. Yet, as the debt goes up next year, or the year after that, the party of Grinches is salivating over the chance to cut Medicaid. They have been trying to end this insurance for children, the disabled, the elderly for years. They do not believe it is right for people to help others. They also, somehow, forgot to renew CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program). They will fight for a foetus in the womb, but not a child who’s been born. They also want to cut Medicare and Social Security, to deny most of us the chance to collect our investment and retire with dignity.

 

Many Republicans are trying to reverse the American Revolution, and re-establish one-man rule. One aim of the constitution was to prevent any one person from getting the power of an autocrat. But create an autocracy is exactly what it seems Mr. T and his followers are trying to do. This is what traitors to democracy try to do. They are trying to take away our freedom, take away voting rights and freedom of the press. Going along with this, is the “figurative” assessment by former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, that Putin is treating T as an “asset” or “pawn” of the Kremlin.

 

They claim Dems are stealing their freedom by stopping them from polluting or limiting choices in health care. Well, how free are you if you can’t afford the premiums for health insurance? How free do you feel if you have to choose between paying a medical bill or your rent or food?

 

If you doubt the GOP are trying to reverse the American Revolution, just listen to the sycophantic ceremony of obeisance by Republican congresspeople yesterday. They were fawning over Mr. T for his leadership. Tennessee congresswoman Diane Black said: “Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to have you as our president.” They sounded like politicians in North Korea giving obeisance to Kim Jong-un. Are Republicans equally afraid of what their ruler might do? Or are they being paid so much they don’t care?

 

They are certainly trying to undermine progressive taxation, which means a tax system that attempts to have those who get more from the economic system pay a higher rate of taxes. It is a way to preserve some power for the great majority of Americans to influence the political process.

 

Last night, Rachel Maddow talked about a report by Politico that there is a secret working group of the GOP in Congress, using material, even classified material, to try to deceive people into thinking the FBI is biased against the president and engaged in a criminal activity. They claim members of the Mueller investigation are so dastardly that a few even gave money to the campaigns of democratic legislators (as if it is only legal and acceptable to give money to the GOP). Ignore the fact that Mueller, McCabe, etc. are Republicans. The GOP claim that the FBI is involved in criminal behavior investigating the President. They talk about “the fix is in.”

 

When Mr. T and other Republicans do something illegal, they deflect. They claim those who oppose them are doing something illegal. They shout “lock her up” when they feel they might, deservedly, be locked up. This is not just Newspeak of 1984. It is the undermining of free speech that happens with dictators. It is Dictator-speech. It is undermining the rule of law speech. It is time to wake up and protest speech.

 

Senator Mark Warner said Republican congresspeople are engaged in “irresponsible” attacks, coordinated with right wing media, and aimed to undermine Mueller and undermine the rule of law. They are dangerous. He warned us to be vigilant. “No one is above the law… It is critical that all of us… speak up against these threats, now, before it’s too late.” Only if we can rise to the occasion will we save ourselves.

 

While I am sharing my outrage with you, another metaphor I’ve heard from more responsible media is that Democrats lack a vision. They are divided. The GOP who have been so divided they couldn’t pass a major piece of legislation until this week, try to influence the news media to say it is the Dems who are divided. They have taken the Dems imagery of the GOP as “The Party of No,” when Barack Obama was president, and turned it on Dems today. “The only thing Dems can unite on,” they claim, is an opposition to T.

 

Well, the Democratic party has, at times, certainly been confused and dastardly. But one thing this week and this year have made abundantly clear is that although both the GOP and DNC operate in the same money-driven system, there is a great difference between them. The DNC is made up of different people with different viewpoints, and underwriters, and many often fail to do what I think is just or reasonable. But I think Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others have vision. I think most people who identify as Democrats share a vision of freedom, of the right to vote and of a free press. They share a vision where people can disagree without disagreement being criminalized. They support the role of government in caring for fellow humans. Do not forget that it was Democrats (Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton) who largely brought us CHIP (along with Republicans who were not afraid to work “across the aisle”), and it was liberal Democrats who brought us Social SecurityMedicare and Medicaid. Dems actually think science is valuable. Hopefully, we can get the DNC to catch up to Democrats.

 

We need to support politicians who recognize we are all part of the community of humans and we share the neighborhood with other species. Those who oppose the dictatorship of Mr. T and his right-wing followers need to unite, now, in any way possible to preserve the environment of the neighborhood and preserve the right to wander, speak and live freely, justly, in it.

 

So, for the holidays, whichever ones you celebrate, please enjoy, but be vigilant. And remember what has been done this week. Remember and work to support the rights, freedoms, dreams of justice, education, equity, and metaphors that most of us share yet some would squash.

 

 

 

How Mindful Focus Can Help Free Your Mind From Painful or Repeating Thoughts

How often do you feel plagued by a thought? Or you feel pushed around by an idea or image, as if it were a phantom bully, disrupting your concentration or making a moment of life, of school or work, more difficult? You begin to look more at the ghost that trails you than the people or events that face you. Especially in times like this, it can be difficult to find comfort and clarity.

 

One way to get free from an obsessive, painful or distracting thought is to center your mind on feeling a sensation. In this way you break the apparent chain of thought. Every time you stop reinforcing an old and hurtful habit and calm your mind, even for a second, you set your mind free and show yourself you can do it. Your mind stops rushing. You give yourself a moment’s respite and allow a new pattern to be created. Find a place safe and quiet enough so you can stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. You can be sitting or standing. And focus your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe out. Simply feel the air going out. Mind has only one object at a time. If you focus on feeling, you let go of thinking.

 

You can feel the temperature of the air as it passes over the upper lip, or whether the exhalation is smooth and deep, or choppy and shallow.

 

Then notice how your body automatically strives to open itself and take in air once again. Notice where you first feel the impulse to inhale and whether the impulse comes quickly or slowly. Then feel the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe in. Feel your whole body expanding, your belly, shoulders, and face as you return attention to the air entering through the nose.

 

Notice the pause between breaths. You get quiet. For a second, you are simply there. For a sweet second of life, all that is important is the simple enjoyment of life.

 

And then you want to let go of the air, and let go of tension. You settle into the sensation of letting go as you push the air out. If a thought does arise, congratulate yourself on being able to notice it. And then let it go by shifting your focus to the air passing out, over the upper lip as you exhale. Usually, what is most important is not what arises but how you respond. You become aware of the thought precisely in order to learn from it and let it go.

 

Breathe in and out through the nose. This is the cycle of a breath. When you are aware of it, you appreciate the simple, basic aspects of living. You are kinder to yourself.

 

If you are leading a group or class, first study and practice, daily, on your own, to know it from the “inside,” and possibly find a mindfulness teacher or counselor. You might give students a choice of where to focus, on the upper lip, on the shoulders, or on the bottom of your feet—focus wherever it is easier to focus. Focusing on the feet can be helpful for facing anxiety and fear as it helps you feel more grounded, or centered. You breathe out and feel your feet pressing down against the floor or earth as you push the air up, from your feet and out your nose. You focus directly on the breath and let everything else go. Then as you breathe in, feel the air enter your body and go all the way down to your feet. Feel your body expand slightly—your feet expand down, into the floor or earth.

 

Do this for three breaths, or three minutes, whenever you need it, or at a set time of day. Just a small investment of time can be significant. Start small and your body will ask for more.

 

You might feel that if you’re not rushed, you’re not important. In our society, it is easy to think the busier you look, the more important you feel. Being constantly connected to social media, for example, means people value you. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation. So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected from technology or from busy-ness can mean to them they are less valuable or they are missing something. If you don’t fill each moment with tasks or texts or thoughts, you are wasting your time. But being connected to media often means being disconnected from yourself. You miss yourself. When you quiet your mind, you hear the world more fully and clearly.

 

Focusing on feeling is only one of many methods you can use. You can teach yourself to mindfully face uncomfortable emotions and question thoughts. If you turn away from feeling fear, for example, you let it rule. Usually, when you face something directly, you can break its hold on you. When you face what bothers you, you feel more powerful. Distraction is another technique many people use, reading a book, working out at a gym, or taking a walk in the woods when you want to “get out of your head” and back into the rest of the world.

 

To let go of a thought, it might also help to understand why you have thoughts. So study yourself. Thoughts are an expression of mind testing and abstracting from reality to create a viewpoint. The initial level of any mental state is what psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized and you begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral. You explain the world to yourself and you get the desire to hold, as in the emotion of joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate.

 

You might hold on to a thought in order to control what you feel can’t be controlled. You might worry about something occurring in order to magically prevent its occurrence. You might think your viewpoint is the absolute truth in order to prevent yourself from noticing how contingent and subjective a truth is. You might hold on to a thought out of fear of having nothing to hold on to.

 

When your mind quiets, you are more likely to directly notice the feeling that precedes thought. You can notice an idea without being caught by it. When you mistake the thought about an event or person as the entire story, you miss so much. When you focus on feeling, it shifts your perspective so you perceive and live more deeply the entire reality out of which the thought arises. You feel more centered and enjoy more fully the individual moments of your life. When the mind is calm, you act, teach, and learn more effectively.

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.

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

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.

Is Social Media Promoting Or Undermining Democracy—Or Both?

Just two days ago, on October 25th, Mr. T once again treated the facts of a situation as clay he could shape any way he pleased. He accused Hillary Clinton of giving Russia “20% of American uranium and, you know, she was paid a fortune.” This, he claimed, is the real Russia scandal. Of course, this is another in a long line of lies and distortions. According to Politifact and the Washington Post, a one time owner of a uranium company that was sold to the Russians did give money to the Clinton Foundation, but this was before she was Secretary of State and before the uranium company was owned by Russians—plus, she had no hand in approving the sale to Russians.

 

Is this simply another example of a President who either has no care for the truth or who believes in the big lie, a lie so outrageous that people who hear it will think there must be some truth to it? Is he being so outrageous because he understands that social media, the internet, and news outlets that are more like organs of propaganda supports such behavior? Does social media promote or undermine democracy in this or any country? These questions are asked directly or indirectly almost every day lately, with Trump on Twitter and Russians on FB.

 

It wasn’t long ago that many people were proclaiming that social media would be a democratizing force in the world. In late 2010, early 2011, during the Arab Spring, we heard how social media led to powerful demonstrations that brought down established oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. According to an article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal, it enabled a “twitter revolution” to build extensive networks of protest as well as to gain information beyond the borders the government controls.

 

But as the authors of the article state, using the example of the failure of student-led protests to further democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, a very tech-savvy city, “the power of social media is mischaracterized, its potency exaggerated.”

 

It is so easy to get lost in the advantages of social media and ignore the dangers. One danger is an increase in oppression. The “Great Firewall of China” is “a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance” that prevents information that opposes the Chinese Communist Party from reaching its citizens.

 

In a discussion at the Aspen Institute on the role of social media in diplomacy, Alec Ross, former State Department senior innovation adviser, described how Vladimir Putin built a digital information system in his country that has become a “truly effective propaganda machine.” He said the success of Putin’s efforts are illustrated by the fact that just a few years ago people throughout Europe believed that the United States shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July, 2014, not the Russians.

 

In the US, the last election has led to an epidemic of “fake news,” much of it seemingly supplied by Russia to support Mr. T and increase divisiveness and anger in our country. It has intensified racial and religious divides, for example, as well as political, such as between Bernie vs. Clinton supporters. It has become increasingly difficult to know what’s true. According to an article by Hunt Alcott and Mathew Gentzkow, in the Stanford University Journal of Economic Perspectives, during the election 62% of US adults got their news from social media and “the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on FB than popular mainstream news stories”—and they were believed. Fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favor of Mr. T. “Our database contains 115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories shared a total of 7.6 million times.” The authors conclude that fake news most likely helped elect Mr. T president.

 

Madeline Albright also took part in the Aspen Institute discussion. As reported by Catherine Lutz in her article on the subject, Albright said, “We’re operating in a rudderless world.” Social media technology is helping create a “dangerous force” of nationalism. People are “grouping more and more with their own kind, whether it’s national, ethnic, or religious groups.” [Italics are my own.] This was in August, 2014, and Albright’s words are proving even more true today.

 

Ross said, at the Aspen Institute discussion, that the media is value-neutral, but I question that. I can’t forget Marshall McLuhan, in the 1960s talking about “the media is the message.” We have to look more at the effects of the media itself, not just its content.

 

One effect of social media and related technologies is an increase in the hold on us of a consumer-driven capitalist society. They enshrine ever more deeply the values of immediate gratification, distraction, us-them thinking and an over-simplification of how we view issues in our society. Ease of pleasure replaces depth of experience. Many of us recognize that usage of media has become a habit we feel we cannot do without. We worry if we are away for any length of time from our phones or social media platforms, “what have I missed?” We want the latest cell phones or other devices, despite the fact that this technology can be costly. Some studies claim American teens spend on average 9 hours a day on their cell phones and other media, more time than most of them sleep. According to the World Bank, Americans in general spend 1.7 hours a day on social media.

 

Parents and educators especially are seeing an increase in anxiety and difficulty concentrating in their children. This can partly be attributed to the “Trump Effect” and the fear engendered by this administration, but social media shares some of the blame. (I’d argue an increasing divide between the very rich and the rest of us is also to blame, but that’s for another time.) Psychologist and educator Larry Rosen, in his book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology And Overcoming Its Hold On Us, argues that social media has contributed to an increase in disorders like narcissism and anxiety in both children and adults. He goes further and argues that when hidden behind our media screens, our thinking is more easily distorted, and we display thoughts and actions that characterize different psychological disorders. For example, Rosen cites studies showing many people, on FB or other social media, display the “me first” grandiosity, lack of empathy, envy of others, sense of self-importance and entitlement that characterizes a narcissistic personality disorder.

 

According to Mark Matousek in his book Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, words are never more than a small part of any face-to-face communication—one study showed as little as 7% of the emotional meaning of a message. The rest is expressed through facial expression, posture, gestures, and tone of voice. But on social media, we only have words, names, or photos to respond to. We can lose the feeling that the people we meet on FB have an inner life similar to our own. We have to fill in so much with our imagination and prior understandings that it is easy to misunderstand or not care. Matousek argues we suffer a virtual blindness that can undermine our sense of shared humanity and morality.

 

Truth has a difficult time competing against the pressures to fit in a group and believe what your friends believe. We understand only in a context, and one of the most important elements of any context is who we are with. This leads to a cognitive bias to believe what other people, especially those in our group, believe (bandwagon effect and herd instinct), and we are more likely to notice information that supports our pre-existing views than what doesn’t (confirmation bias).

 

Never before, thanks to the internet, have facts been easier to find. Yet, lies and distortions by politicians have increasingly filled the headlines. We have to take time to check sources of any information we read in order not to be deceived by a fake news story. Democracy is a complex, time consuming political system demanding more education on issues and involvement from its citizens. Yet, the internet itself fosters the expectation of immediate answers, undermines tolerance of complexity, and thus makes it easier for corrupt politicians to deceive and manipulate.

 

So, does social media promote or undermine democracy? Maybe both. I am disturbed by how easy it is to spread propaganda and fake news on social media. But besides the obvious (check sources, not rely on social media for news, take frequent tech/social media holidays and walk in the woods, replace the current administration with one that truly cares about the well-being of its citizens and one that cares about fighting, not supporting, Russian interference in our democracy), I have few answers. I do know that in order to think clearly we need to know how to create a mental silence when we need it, so we can mindfully hear our own thoughts and feelings. And we need to learn how to listen for the reality of others, both for all that we share and all that makes us different, even when we know little about them except a name in the headlines or a few words on FB. Mindfulness and compassion can be revolutionary.