Finding Balance & Space

There are four different spaces that make up the canvas of our lives:

  • personal, when we are alone;
  • interpersonal when we are in relationship with another;
  • community when we are part of a group with a shared purpose;
  • spiritual which can exist within each of the other three spaces or all of them combined.

On the coldest day of the year, or so it felt to me, I ventured into the warm and beautiful Kadampa Meditation Center in New York City, a spiritual space and refuge for those of us who wish to explore Buddhism and meditation. As part of my ongoing commitment to the practice of conscientious engagement, my purpose is always twofold: to experience and to study the phenomena of that experience. This is in a nutshell the nature and nurture of my own consciousness, as well as the pathway I have chosen to better understand how to develop consciousness in the world.

Unlike my other posts, this one will be brief. I wanted to take a moment to quickly share what I learned on my visit, which included approximately forty minutes of guided meditation in a room with about fifteen participants.

The first thing that was revealed to me was just how important it is that we engage in all four spaces that make up our human experience if we are to experience wholeness and well-being—in other words, balance.

Second, this experience revealed the enormous impact of how we design our spaces, via architecture or process structures such as when we design a school building or even a learning experience divided into modules, protocols and time.

Each detail of a space (the external and the internal elements) communicates value of purpose. For example, if we work in a place where the only common area is the size of a cubicle, what does that say about how our company culture values interpersonal relationships? Similarly, if we omit access to one of the four spaces entirely (as we often do in education) then how are we to experience holism and well-being? An example of this is designing a school entirely centered on personalized learning at the expense of community building. Or, creating schools in which no space is allotted for teachers and students to explore philosophy, ethics, the nature of our existence or the spiritual dimensions of consciousness and its impact on cognition.

There was something very beautiful and uplifting about sitting in meditation with other human beings as compared to sitting alone in my living room. Not to mention the open, simplicity of the architecture of the space, the room was large and spacious, with crystal clear windows and natural light and we were not cramped on top of each other. The voice of the instructor was soothing sending energetic frequencies into the space, and I knew we also transmitted energy to one another in our meditation. The space transcended the space itself.

I need to do this, I thought. And more often. I also left wanting to share these insights with my education colleagues who spend so much time cramming teachers into tight spaces teaching from curriculum and instruction designs that lack careful attention to the mind-body-spirit balance and the three spaces we need to communicate a value for the whole person. All of this refers to education spaces that meet the needs of the whole child. No wonder we we struggle with innovating the public education!

As such, I decided this experience deserves greater exploration. Some of the questions I will be thinking about over the next week are:

  • Do all four spaces require an equal amount of time for well-being? Is this the same for each person, or does it vary?
  • What is the difference between experiencing spirit alone as compared to being in a group?
  • Are we optimizing our energy/learning/well-being when we engage in experiences that integrate all four spaces or domains?
  • How has modern day living and technology coopted our access to space and what has been the impact on our consciousness?

 

We Need Evolutionary Teachers: A Growing Consciousness

The impact of the presidential campaign and transition of power have resulted in large-scale social movements mobilizing women, teachers and school leaders to consider our work for equity. Over the last two decades, we have narrowed our focus on closing ‘achievement gaps’ and collecting data at the expense of examining the very foundation of how we do teaching and schooling in America. Now is the time for us to be responsive to the cry out for change. Now is a good time to look at the character of our schools and our role as teachers and change agents. How can we ensure our schools are sanctuaries for peace, equity and democracy?

One of the important tasks ahead of us is building systems, structures and practices that truly reflect the values of equity and democracy. As an in-service teacher educator and instructional designer, I wonder how we can best support teachers and school leaders to stand firm in their commitment to truth, shared responsibility and care for the well-being of all human beings? No one can argue that we are facing the greatest challenges of our time such a global warming, rising income inequality, war and terrorism and the privatization of our public spaces.

I am also deeply concerned with how we can help our teachers shift their attention away from spectacle and rhetoric that debilitates us through divisiveness and pay greater attention to our collective wisdom about what it means to work for equity. In my forthcoming book, Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge Press, 2017), I argue that we need to stop action for actions sake and take the time to examine and develop a new agency for equity in light of our failure to realize these goals. In addition to critically analyzing our context, we need to consider our inner thoughts, our use of language, the complexity of our professional relationships and how we often channel energy in ways that leave us exhausted without any real change.

Our school system and communities often divided by race, class and ideologies perpetuate bias and politically driven decision-making. These divisions are a manifestation of something deeper, a consciousness that is based on rivalry, fear and compartmentalization. Schools and whole communities that are divided by race and class in areas where there is sufficient diversity should not be acceptable in the 21st century. The way we distribute resources should not be acceptable either. More importantly, the election of a President that based his campaign on divisive rhetoric targeting very specific groups must be seen as a red flag in the education community that we are fundamentally lacking in holistic, critical thinking.

There are very important matters we must address if we are to consider schools the foundation of a healthy democracy and a place where all children flourish. Without prioritizing the time and space to dialogue about these matters in groups that cut across race, class and ideology—we can not ensure that we are in fact working together to build a culture of tolerance, inclusivity and critical mindfulness.

In my experience as an educator over the last fifteen years, I have learned that grappling with tough questions that pertain to education are not easy for teachers and school leaders. I am referring to questions that reveal our personal values, feelings about race and racism, the notion of equity and poverty. These types of questions surface fears, our shame and attachment to identity. Many teachers and school leaders wonder if they are positioned in society to do anything about these big issues when their roles are clearly defined by compliance and market driven expectations. However, teachers and school leaders know that they are at the epicenter of all social and cultural movements. They know these big questions are at the heart of the work we do every day. So, how are we to manage this angry sea of conflicting ideologies and stay focused on what matters for equity?

First, we must turn our attention to the hard work in front of us. In doing so, we will realize that we are hungry to step up to the challenge. As demonstrated at the Women’s March, we are ready to give voice to our concerns, our fears, our shameful thoughts, our suffering and confusion about these perennial issues that continue to plague our society such as race and poverty and—what do we really mean when we say student achievement in a society with widening inequality and a break down in access to opportunities? We also know that part of this work is confronting our own economic insecurities and confusion about our role as teachers. What do we owe the communities in which we teach, that are often not our own? In this process of mindful inquiry, we all will need a guarantee that engaging in these important conversations can lead not only to healing, but to a shared vision and concrete action steps to move us forward.

In working on my book, my goal was to offer educators a framework that can help teachers and school leaders examine and develop authenticity and agency for equity. In all my years of service to the field, I know teachers and school leaders want to make a difference that matters and often that means looking beyond the four walls of our classrooms. The Conscientious Engagement framework that is based on six principles (Spirit Consciousness, Authentic Presence, Entanglement, Freedom, Meliorism and Emergence) helps teachers and school leaders heighten their awareness of the nature of our thoughts and how we use language, the complexity of our professional relationships and the need for belonging and, lastly— how we channel our energy in ways that either impede or strengthen our work for equity. Engaging in critical mindful inquiry with ourselves and with others will build awareness that we are all connected—that each and every one of us belongs to a larger human spirit consciousness that gives us rise and access to our inner wisdom and strength to work for the common good. Knowing that we belong to something greater than ourselves can unify us in ways we’ve not known before.

What does it mean to be an evolutionary teacher at this critical time in our history? For me, an evolutionary teacher makes a commitment to stay conscientiously engaged in the school and in the community. This requires critical mindfulness and deliberation over the real foundational issues in education. An evolutionary teacher understands that we are interconnected and we all have creative intelligence. An evolutionary teacher practices authentic presence. An evolutionary teacher rises above all that is divisive and values all life equally. Seeking out and living truth, being authentic, and honoring all life equally as demonstrated in every day practice is the next step in our human evolution and teachers are central to this process.

Our time is now. We are in the position to make a difference that matters, a difference that extends beyond the four walls of a classroom. Ultimately, we know that this is our work, this is our true nature as teachers— to model, to grow, to teach, to have courage, to advocate, to ensure that schools remain sanctuaries for peace and equity.

 

 

Common Core Dissonance 101 & the Age of Cyborgs

Tightly squeezed into a round table during a week-long Common Core institute, I float in and out of semi-conscious paralysis reminiscent of the last time I was called to jury duty. After what feels like hours (which could very well have been mere minutes), my body shifts out from under the blanket of limbo-ness and lands into a wild wave like spasm of irritability, which quickly escalates into anxiety then disgust. The descent is fast and my internal organs shake as if I’m going down on an old rickety roller coaster. I look around to find cool eyes and eager faces and wonder if I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

It’s a drone of a lesson that transports me into a first-world-third-world classroom where students (probably high school) are desperately trying to cope with the onslaught of eight-hours a day in front of a supercilious, factory style TA (teacher professional in training) in an oppressive school designed to fix (sorry, I mean save) poor students.

Common Core Dissonance 101. According to the online Oxford dictionary, dissonance arises in the event of a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.

Education ≠ education.

After all, CCSS is supposed to be about critical thinking, embracing multiple pathways for problem solving, collaboration and other neatly defined career ready/21st century skills. Yet somehow these elements are strangely missing from the institute.

I escape the room with my smart phone in hand desperately texting with my now clumsy fingers due to the aftermath of toxic brain shocks. I see a big round clock in the corner that tells me how much time I have. I’m on the job, I think. While my mind races over a number of plausible excuses that could get me out of the next module I think about all the young people who cut class and hide themselves in bathroom stalls. I consider slipping out the back door but aware of my current identity, I choose the bathroom. I wash my already clean hands hard and take stock of my feelings. As I do, feelings slip outside of me all over the floor like rogue Slinkys and I get down on my hands and knees desperately trying to shove them back into the neat color coded box I kept them in labeled F.N.P (Future Novel Project) I think I do a good job but I get the feeling later I must have left hope and joy on the floor. I leave the bathroom thinking hard. I lean inconspicuously against a wall and breathe deeply.  In my breath, I watch my life’s work float out of my head like a balloon. It hits up against the glass ceiling and bounces as if there is a wind somewhere keeping it high. That’s when I ask myself, What am I becoming?

No one will argue reading multiple sources will help a child draw out deeper meaning on a topic or that rigorous, collaborative tasks are better than closed answers and multiple choice. It’s not the common core, I fear, it’s the how we are doing education in this country. It’s the internal mechanism, the co-option of terms like social justice and equity, the taking over of buildings and rechanneling funding. It’s the business of selling a product that will sell well because it is a monopoly, it’s complexity separating teachers from the real world of students, it’s demonizing unions, the normalization of segregated thinking always thinking black and white, reducing children to data bytes and ruminating over and over again, what we should do with kids in poverty as if kids in poverty are drowning and we have some magical special sauce that can save them. It’s the business of orchestrating and commoditizing human beings.

But none of that matters.

I slip back into the class, my footsteps pillow soft. The drone flies under my radar like a radioactive field and attacks every cell in my frontal cortex. Our robopresenter creates complexity and mystery around topics that should be simple, practical and open for shared inquiry. She is a robomagician. I’m struggling now to live in the narrowing parenthesis of my mind, that safe space between yes and no that I told myself could protect me from being at-risk, or worse yet, implicated. A tiny echo reminds me that poor people are exempt because we are concerned with survival and that’s different. Maslow is so far away and I can hardly remember the research behind it, or maybe there was no research and it was all a figment of my imagination, that thing called self-realization.

I fight for my imagination by focusing on the robopresenter who literally transforms into a doll made of metal. Her blank stare, the repetition of her words, the inability to respond emotionally to her audience all makes sense now. There is some fun in this for a while. Then I whisper to a colleague and we share a second of freedom, but it doesn’t last long. Robopresenter is driven entirely by inputs and streams of data and she zooms in on us. I pity her and admire her at the same time, her ability to memorize. How boring it must be to be her. I disconnect by dehumanizing her further and this separation allows me to extrapolate meaning from what otherwise might have been a void. I want to live and she is death so I hate her.

Robopresenter says, we need to dig a little deeper. Her hand curls up in a half ball as if she is digging into soil that is magically floating in the middle of the conference room.  We’ve been digging deeper all day but I find nothing. The emptiness of digging when you know there is nothing to find is so much worse than hopeful digging or not digging at all. Every word, activity, tool, is an illusion. New education talk snuffs out truth, like Styrofoam snuffs out sound so that you can’t even recognize it anymore.

Why are we building more and more layers that separate teacher from the child? I see this monstrous wall that prevents any true meeting of human beings. Why do we create so many barriers and obstacles for teachers to love students? What might happen if teachers saw their students as children, like their own, with nothing between them but deep love and commitment to their well being?

It’s been a few hours, days now. I look down at my hand and instead of veins, I find tiny wires curling up through my forearm that reach my shoulders that begin to push back like a soldier. The new wired nerves in my neck stretch my mouth into a smile and I watch my arm raise. Oh, dear. Am I? Am I a cyborg? Robopresenter calls on me. She is pleased with my active participation and we make eye contact for the first time and there is a twinkle, a knowing. I thought she was dead but in this dimension she responds differently. I’ve entered her world. When did I step out of that safe space called, yes and no?

I admit, the rumble in my guts has subsided. I feel better now. My teacher compliments me. Other students in the room nod and I am feeling the warmth of belonging. My sore ass and fragmented brain begin to re-wire themselves so quickly that now my buttocks is equipped for several more hours of sitting.  My brain is elastic and stiff, greater toxic retention and stored with passivity complex.

I am an educator of the new age, getting paid to unlearn everything I’ve ever learned about learning. I am learning to think differently everyday. My life’s mission is to save children, teach them that struggle and hard work is productive.  We have to work doubly hard if we want a ticket into the American dream. I am a teacherhero who with the Common Core under my belt, can undo hunger and shoot PTSD in the face until it’s annihilated.

I am a warrior.

I feel better now.

 

 

 

 

Entitlement: Knowing Your Place

In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol wrote about the apartheid conditions of America’s public schools and begged educators and policy makers to do something about it. That was in 2006 and not much has changed. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared education ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’ however sub-standard education conditions continue to be the norm for low-income children of color, particularly for blacks and Latinos. Half of all black and Latino children grow up in or near poverty. Half of all black and Latino boys fail to graduate from high school. Fully two thirds of black men without a high school degree will serve time in prison as some point in their lives.[1]According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 50.3 percent of students identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or another nonwhite ethnicity. White students no longer make up the majority of students in California and Texas.  In New York City, nonwhites make up somewhere between 58 and 65 percent (depending on whether Latinos identify themselves as white) and if we step back and consider the population of the globe, you will find that whites make up only 16 percent of the total population with Asians being the majority. With numbers like these, it becomes clear we need to consider our use of language in this country especially when it comes to the term minority. Putting a false label like minority on the majority acts as a pernicious mental barrier that blocks us from really unpacking the systemic and structural elements of white privilege and apartheid-like conditions of our schools.

The truth is if you are a Latino in New York City, for example (or a member of any of the ‘non-white’ ethnic groups) you can and should stop identifying yourself as a minority and should refuse to be labeled as such.  Furthermore, you should consider it an act of protest just a powerful if not more than laying down in Grand Central station with a placard on your chest. Changing the language we use in conversations around race, equity and human rights can and will get us closer to seeing the true nature of who we are as a society. Misleading labels perpetuate false notions of entitlement for some and second-class citizenry for others and tearing them down can heighten our perception of how we identify ourself and others as we struggle for sustainable change.

In response to the Eric Garner case in New York City, many whites across the nation communicated that it was the first time they felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. According to them, unlike other incidents of police brutality this was different because there was clearly no evidence to dispute the criminal nature of the killing. In the midst of outrage and protests that took hold of our city (in great part due to the connection with Ferguson events), I was confronted with mixed feelings about how to engage in constructive conversations around social justice and race particularly with educators. I thought a lot about Rebecca Klein and her article in the Huffington Post entitled A Majority of Students Entering School are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White.  I realized that although I was in New York City and represented the majority in numbers, I was still perceived as a minority. How does this perception inhibit or strengthen my voice when I talk about injustice and equity?

The incongruence of being labeled a minority is magnified when my work with educators often takes place in all brown communities. I’ve noticed an overwhelming reticence to allowpeople of color to take ownership of an event and how it is shaped publicly even when the event has direct implications for communities of color and especially if the conversation can leverage a movement for equity. Freire calls this phenomena false generosity. False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation.[2]  Unless we see the relationship between power and language in society and examine who are positioned constantly in positions of leadership aka the ‘executors of transformation’— we are never going to make a change.  It is time we ask ourselves: What does equity “look” like rather than sound like?

There is a plethora of research behind the notion of power in language.  Using a term like minority to identify a person is a tool of power. There is also power in the notion of pedagogical authority— that is who we by default turn to for decision making. Who do we associate with critical thinking and strategic planning in our society? Who is the expert?

Refusing to use the label minority is about understanding  your  place. It is about entitlement and staking a claim in a situation with full confidence, determination and leadership. Entitlement is the precursor to agency. Without a feeling of entitlement, one cannot take action. Language and labels such as our antiquated use of the term minority can make those who are central to a situation feel marginalized and less equipped to act.

At a time when we are struggling to make sense of recent current events that remove blinders from our eyes and for educators in particular who work in schools that are microcosms of society— we need to consider different, long lasting forms of protest that will change how we see the world.  Reject false labels and challenge the language of status in society. Refuse to label yourself or others a minority or try seeing yourself as a minority if you are white and live in a city like New York.  Dare to change the conversation by engaging in the real practice of equity.


[1]Warren, M (2014) Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice Movement. New England Journal of Public Policy: Vol.26: Iss1, Article 11.
[2] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)