“Teaching As A Subversive Activity”

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


*Mural by LACS students.


Experiments with Awareness and Metacognition

Try these experiment with yourself and, if you’re a high school teacher, with your students. (I’m borrowing this from Zen teacher Albert Low with a touch of David Hume.) It might reveal and challenge accepted ideas and beliefs about metacognition and perception. Put your hand on the surface of a table. What does it feel like? Hard. Cool. A little sticky. Gross. How much of what you feel is the table? All of it? Half? Half the table, half you? Is the sensation of being “gross” from the table? Let me ask this another way. Does the feeling of grossness or stickiness belong to the table or the hand? Does the table “feel”? Maybe that seems like a crazy question. When you’re feeling the table surface as gross, what makes it gross? Is it the table? Are you mentally commenting on a memory of the table? Are you possibly feeling your own judgment or interpretation of a sensation?


With your hand still on the table, close your eyes. The table is obviously not the same as your hand. Nor is your hand the same as the sensation. But, does the sense of hand, table, smoothness all arise together or sequentially? When the hand touches the table, is all that you sense sensation? All you feel is feeling? Are you aware only of awareness?  Or even more precisely, cut out the you. There is just perception or awareness. If you are feeling your own interpretation, there would have to be a separation between the act of feeling and the object felt. Can feeling and felt ever be so separated?


Or what about other senses? Listen to a symphony. Where is the symphony? The instruments and musicians might be on the stage in the music hall.  The sound vibrations might fill the space. But the symphony? Or let’s re-phrase the famous question asked by the English philosopher Bishop Berkeley : “if a tree falls in the forest, is there a sound?” Without an ear (and a brain) is there a symphony? Or you see a beautiful sunset, with deep reds and vibrant yellows. Without an eye and a brain, where is the vibrant color? “Where does hearing end and sound begin?” Where does seeing end and color begin?


When we reflect, we think there is an ‘I’ who reflects. What does the ‘I’ reflect on? Another ‘I’? A memory or a concept of ‘I’? Some objective “fact”? But as we’ve possibly determined through our experiments, the “I” who sees and the “thing” seen are not separate. When we reflect, we reflect on our own perception or memory and then create a conclusion based on that memory. We’re reflecting not on some depersonalized truth but on a very personal creation. Are we the seen, the seer—or the seeing?


One more experiment. As you sit in a room reading this, sit back a little and just take in the whole space. You are at the center, yet all you are aware of, feel, sense is your surroundings. Just be aware of the whole room. Then, change your awareness to focus on one thing, maybe a word in this blog, a book, a table. Sense yourself at the periphery looking at the object of your gaze. This is another type of awareness. You can and constantly do shift easily from the center to the periphery and thus provide a necessary contrast. You need to be aware of the whole so the details can have a context and, thus, make sense. You need the details to construct the whole. Details and whole are interdependent.


But remember the first experiments. This word being read is not separate from the awareness reading. When you read a word, what is the nature of the awareness of the letters? The word comes to you as a whole. But the letters make up that whole. Albert Low argues you are aware not “of” the letters but “as” them. Can the letters have meaning without awareness-as them as letters? Pick up a pen and write a word. You can guide the pen to write a word because you have a non-focused awareness-as the weight, size, texture, and point of the pen. Or going back to the table; if you put your hand on the table to steady yourself as you stand up from your chair, you are aware-as the table. Or, even better, let’s say you turn on the music. You can be aware-of the music as you study and appreciate it. But as your feet start moving, are you aware-as the music as you dance?


What are the implications of these experiments in awareness? How can they help anyone? I find them fun. Each time I do them and try to describe what I find, I understand my own life and perceptions better. And possibly, if I understand awareness better at this very basic level, I can do a better job of recognizing and interrupting suffering as I notice it arising. I can better understand the role I play in the perceived world.

Teaching With Ethical Questions

Here are three books that I think will help teachers enliven any classroom. The first was published in 2001 and is out of print for the moment but its message desperately needs to be heard. It details how to teach with essential moral questions. The second is a relatively new book (published in 2012) and illustrates how dynamic a course can be that is centered on a moral issue. The third is easily available and gives a Buddhist perspective on morality, and the nature and causes of human suffering.


Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork by Katherine G. Simon. This book reminds me of what makes teaching real and learning inherently motivating. Morals: we often think of morals as in moralistic. But morals are what guide our behavior. When we think about reality and try to figure out what’s true, we are usually doing this so we can know how to act most appropriately. So the two questions, what is true and what is moral, are tied together. In fact, many of our most important questions have a moral dimension to them. How shall we live our lives? How should I earn a living? Should I go to college? Should we go to war? What is the best business strategy? Does thinking of my own self-interest help or damage society? Should I tell my mother the truth? How shall I relate to my best friend? Should we build the Keystone pipeline? All of these are moral questions and can excite student engagement. They are easily used to teach critical thinking skills. Kathy Simon spells out strategies for discussing, analyzing, gaining clarity on these often emotion packed questions.


High Schools, Race, and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us About Morality, Diversity, and Community by philosophy professor Lawrence Blum, details a rigorous high school course he taught on race and racism. The book shows us how teachers can lead students deeply, sensitively and meaningfully into a burning issue of our time. After reading the book, you can no longer harbor the illusion that racism does not affect you. Classroom discussions are included so the reader is drawn into the class and can actually hear authentic student voices. We often think about how society should educate students. This book illustrates how students can educate society.


Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution, by Buddhist teacher and philosopher David Loy. Why behave and think ethically? What makes an action ethical? What is the tie between ethics and clarity of mind, or unethical behavior and suffering? What are the traps society conditions in us that lead to suffering? For our own health and happiness, we need to understand these traps and free ourselves from them. In Buddhism, ethical understanding and action is tied to mental and emotional freedom. Without such freedom, the very continuance of human life on earth might be threatened. In a very clear and comprehensive manner, David Loy spells out the nature and causes of suffering and the Buddhist path for ending that suffering.


At a time when schools are often criticized for being boring, educationally deficient or just irrelevant, these books show how to change all of that. Excite students with meaningful learning that gives them insight into themselves, their world, and how to act to better that world.

Teaching For Meaning

One of the great drives in life is for meaning, for living fully and deeply.  This is certainly true for teenagers, but it is also true for adults. As a teenager, I remember feeling a great fear that my life wouldn’t be meaningful. That as I got older my job and my society would deaden my dreams and my full humanity. I think Langston Hughes’ poem, A Dream Deferred, gets at this fear. I feared my life would “dry up” or “fester.” This fear was, on the one hand, a great distorting influence. So many times, I would hear of a potential job or opportunity and I would reject it as not good enough or I’d feel the daily requirements of the job, getting up early, sitting at a desk, etc. were walls that would imprison me. On the other hand, the need for meaning drove me to take chances. It drove me to hitch-hike across the country a few times and across Europe and to join the Peace Corps. It drove me to study philosophy, to protest against wars and to get to know people who knew what meaning tasted like.


As teachers, when we enter into the classroom, we have to remember that our students have this same drive for meaning. They might feel themselves pushed to the edge, to take chances, just like we did, but not be aware of why. We have to teach students how to look underneath their interests and fears for the meaning waiting there. We have to understand what it is that we seek in order to better understand and help uncover what anyone else seeks. By better understanding our own drives and needs we are more capable of understanding and feeling those of others. Other people become more alive to us. We have to remember the times when our lives felt full of meaning so we know what makes a moment or a life meaningful and we can make our teaching be the discovery of that drive. And we don’t do this by telling students what to think. We do it by mentoring students and ourselves in self-discovery and questioning.


In order to better understand what works for you so you can better help your students, try the following practice. It involves inquiry and visualization. Inquiry does not always have to be hard work. It can sometimes be relatively easy and fun. It will take just a few minutes and can be adapted to the classroom. You could record this and then play it back so it’s easier to practice.  If you have a lazyboy or a couch, feel free to use it for this exercise. Or if you’re in your classroom and the chairs are not so comfortable, just find the most relaxing way to sit in the chair.


Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now if you can, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Its good to feel comfortable, isn’t it? Especially in doing school work. Focus just on breathing in and out. Just follow the breath in. Do you feel how your body expands a little as you breathe in? Then what happens as you breathe out? Does your body relax, settle down, let go?


Pause between each sentence of the directions. Read in an easygoing, comforting yet focused voice.


Now think of a time that you had an illuminating, educational, engaging experience, where you felt truly alive, in or out of a classroom. Just let come to mind any experience where you felt involved, that had a sense of meaning and depth to it. It could be a walk you took, a trip, a conversation. Just see it in your mind. Let whatever comes to you be there for you. Where was it? Who was involved? When did it occur? What was around you?


What made the experience so engaging, illuminating? What did you learn from it? What did the experience feel like?


Now, just sit for a moment with the feeling of being engaged, of finding meaning. Sit with the feeling that your life is meaningful and full.


Afterwards, ask yourself: What lessons can I take from this experience and apply to my classes? To myself?


Another practice is to make the classroom a place where the deep questions in student’s lives can be uncovered, respected and made part of the curriculum. When I taught a high school course called The Historical Development of Human Ideas, one of the overarching understandings I wanted to teach was that history is the story of human interdependence. Change occurs through the interaction of multiple, maybe innumerable, forces. Out of this came essential questions like: How are the various forms of interpersonal human suffering created in and by a culture? So, on the first day of class, I asked them to write down: What are the biggest problems you see in the world today? We analyzed these, looked for the central problems, and then I told the students that their final assessment would be answering the question of how and why their problem developed. They would have to follow a strand through history and the different cultures we studied of the specific and defined “problem” in human history that they perceived and picked out.  They would have to describe and analyze the nature and extent of the problem and any forces, beliefs, conditions  (technological, historical, environmental, political, artistic, psychological, scientific, religious or other factors) which greatly increased or decreased the problem. In this way, their own questions became the class.


*Photo is of the library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey.

Beginnings: How Do We Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.


To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations or our blogs so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. A beginning is constructed of questions.


To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.


First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know the end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.


The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.


I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. For example, how might you begin a unit in an English class on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse? The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development.  You might ask students what questions they have about dreams or on the role of archetypal imagery or literature in shaping their lives. Their assessment on the unit can include using the novel in answering their own question.


Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?


Secondly, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, say what you’re feeling in that moment. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the other people there with you. You are very present. There is no other place you want to go. This is compassion. You care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. In each moment, you are learning. You recognize that there’s more you don’t know than what you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are.  When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice mindfulness both in and out of the classroom.


What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life was one life.