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Willpower. Not necessarily a new concept. I’ve been thinking of willpower primarily as the ability to activate self control. When one has high willpower they are better able to resist temptation, restrict behavior, and work through the push to act impulsively. I also thought that willpower was fixed. Some people have a lot, some people have a little bit, and that’s all you get. After spending six hours with Kelly McGonigal as part of the New Teacher Center Symposium, I’ve learned that I held an incredibly impoverished view of willpower, how to activate it, and how to grow my own capacity for willpower. After one day, her work on willpower has completely invaded my life.

For McGonigal (a psychologist) willpower encompasses the regulation of three primary impulses: I won’t, I want, and I will. These three components work as a unit to create a willpower system that we activate differently. We may activate willpower to decline dessert, to encourage ourselves to jump off a high dive, or to maintain focus on a long term goal.  All three of these impulses require the work of the prefrontal cortex in different ways and based on our experiences and our neural pathways we are more or less adept at activating different aspects of our willpower.

With a base definition out of the way McGonigal proceeded to add her own definition for willpower layered on top of that three part system, framing issues of willpower as a competition between different versions of our self. These different selves exist concurrently and it is through our willpower that we balance their competing influences in order to create the best version of ourself. The version of ourself that best aligns with our values. By recognizing and accepting this duality we can best leverage and grow our willpower. This is an incredibly empowering concept of willpower as it honors one’s current status and expects growth and change will occur.

Willpower with a Growth Mindset

Central to the entire framework that McGonigal established is the assumption that willpower is a growable skill. In short that Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset for intelligence is immediately applicable to one’s willpower. There’s been research lately around willpower that we have a finite amount of it, and once depleted it needs to be restored. McGonigal did not refute this, however, she made it very clear that this store of willpower, while finite in the short term, is expandable in the long term. This is an extremely important distinction because it means we can get better at leveraging willpower and McGonigal used a muscular model to explain the concept.

In the muscle model of willpower we have to work our willpower much in the same way we develop physically. This means that we can begin to develop our willpower now. It’s an easy misconception to think that we need to fix something before we work on a difficult task, but part of the point of developing willpower is that difficult actions get easier when we take action. It’s the whole point of the growth mindset. Jumping off that high dive looks extremely intimidating until you do it the first time. Do it once, and it’s immediately much easier to do again. The other key component is that we need to see failure as progress. When you’re weightlifting, you regularly push your muscles to the point of fatigue and the recovery day is where your body rebuilds itself you get stronger. You only know your max deadlift by hitting your max, and then failing the next rep. The same goes for willpower. You need to get to the fatigue point in order to know where your limits are, then you recover, recharge your energy, and come back stronger. This can be easily leveraged by setting up willpower challenges for yourself in the same way you’d design a muscular or cardiovascular workout. It’s absolutely fantastic to think that this will work for my willpower in the same way that it works for my posterior muscle chain.

The last important piece of the growth mindset framework for willpower is that the feedback loop has to focus on effort and growth. You improved your ability to resist refined sugar by 10%? Fantastic! Honor that growth and keep growing. Set the next benchmark. You worked really hard to avoid that cigarette, but finally gave in? Honor the effort you put in. You probably resisted longer than you did last time. Respect that you tried, and try again next time. Beating yourself up for failure won’t help. In fact, beating yourself up over failure or relapse completely undermines the growth mindset and often encourages us to double down on the coping mechanisms or behaviors we’re trying so hard to change. We need to act from a place of compassion and forgiveness for ourselves.

Willpower Requires Self-Connection and Compassion

This is where McGonigal’s talk seriously opened a crack in my reality. I could easily accept that willpower is potentially infinite and we can develop it through practice. That concept fits for me right next to my thinking about a growth mindset, but when I hit the failure wall with willpower I’m pretty quick to apply some guilt and try to shame myself into correcting the behavior. The theory goes like this: I hate that I procrastinate, so if I give myself the third degree when I procrastinate then I’ll be motivated to stop procrastinating. Right? Wrong.

Turns out that doesn’t work. When we apply shame or guilt to an action (or lack of action) we encourage ourselves to apply the coping mechanism that we already use and we run back to familiar neural pathways. When I berate myself for procrastinating I make it more likely that I will continue to procrastinate because I want to avoid the feelings associated with thinking about procrastination. Simply put, you can’t shame or guilt yourself into improvement. You need to honor the fact that the self that wants to procrastinate and the self that wants to change that behavior coexist in you. This may be frustrating to think about the self that procrastinates, but it also means that your best self already exists. You just have to activate it.

In order to facilitate this process McGonigal claims that self compassion and forgiveness is the proper path forward. By practicing self-compassion we can be mindful of our stress, suffering, and failure, without perseverating on them. This allows us to act from a position of non-attachment and without judgment. (McGonigal definitely has some semi-covert Buddhism going on in her work.) By doing that we can perform what she calls “self-mentoring,” meaning that we can advise ourselves as a mentor or coach would: maintaining big picture perspective, and encouraging corrective action instead of perseverating on our failures. This is extremely important because it’s so easy to spiral in on ourselves and dwell in our perceived failure without performing the necessary actions to correct for that failure. By removing our self-attachment, while still acting from a position of self-compassion we can remove judgment, which can be paralytic, and act.

Know Yourself

The cherry on top of the self-compassion sundae is self-connection. If willpower is making decisions that align with our long term goals when those goals conflict with short term rewards, then we can only properly exercise our willpower if we understand our long term goals. Similarly, if willpower helps us maintain a personal agenda when other try to hijack it, we need to be sure enough of our personal agenda that we are confident that the agenda of others is inappropriate. Therefore in order to use our willpower effectively we need to know ourselves and understand our goals.

I did not initially expect this, however, it became immediately clear when McGonigal explained it by saying that when we feel a weak connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our current self, while if we feel a strong connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our future self. Said another way, if we don’t know what we want in the future, we ignore it, and focus on the present. This immediately highlighted the importance of self-reflection to our ability to grow our willpower. If I want to stop eating sugar, and eat some celery instead, I need to have a very clear image of the long term benefit of eating less sugar. Without that clear image I’m weighing an immediate, concrete, desire to eat sugar against a vague image of “I want to be healthy.” This vague goal simply cannot compete against the concrete desire for sweet things.

To this end McGonigal introduced a practice of vividly imagining self defining future moments from a self-compassionate perspective. She described it as creating future memory. Want to get fit? Create the most detailed image of yourself being fit as you possibly can. What will you look like? Where will you exercise? What will you eat? How will it taste? What will it smell like? What does it feel like to be covered in sweat? What’s it going to feel like when you do push-ups until you fatigue? The more completely you can create that future memory, the more clear your target is for your willpower. By concretizing (new vocab word!) your long term goal, you make it easier to make decisions that lead you do that goal and you begin thinking about the process by which you can achieve it. You’re building pathways that support your willpower to replace your current neural pathways.

Conclusion

Willpower is about control. Physiologically, It’s about using your prefrontal cortex to rationally control your midbrain urges. In more everyday terms it’s about subordinating your immediate urges in favor of your more long-term goals for yourself.

It turns out this is pretty difficult. Those immediate impulses are strong, and there are a myriad of internal and environmental factors that encourage us to act on impulse. We are well trained to listen to our midbrain In order to more reliably act in support of our long-term goals we need to practice and grow our willpower. This includes creating a concrete image of our future self, thus allowing more equal competition between long-term goal, and immediate impulse. We also need to reframe willpower and failure within the framework of a growth mindset. This allows challenge to become a growth opportunity, and failure becomes a learning experience. Lastly we need to practice a mindful acceptance of our failures as observation without judgment. This will allow us to understand the influences that cause us to submit to impulse while viewing ourselves with compassion, thus helping us to stop perseverating on failure, and encouraging positive action.

This five hour talk has seriously invaded my life. It’s only been a couple days and I already know that I will continue to reorganize and apply the information to my work as an instructional mentor, my work as a spouse, and my work as a human being. There are significant portions of McGonigal’s work that I’ve omitted (like her excellent presentation technique and her focus on the role of the physical in developing willpower) for the sake of space, and I’m sure, as with Mindset, I will be continually revisiting these concepts.

Schools teach about African history and schools teach about the difficulties of improving living conditions in Africa. Schools teach about the destruction caused by conflict in Africa and schools teach about lack of healthcare and clean water. Students learn about Africa in the broadest brush strokes, taking very little time to cover extremely nuanced and complex issues. In the service of introductory information we lose humanity.

Ishmael Beah’s The Radiance of Tomorrow provides that humanity. While in the classroom students discuss conflict and how to recover from conflict in a generalized way, at the level of country, Beah examines these issues at the level of the town and the individual. We discuss the moves a government or international organization need to make in order to recover and Beah looks at the compromises a teacher has to make in order to feed and clothe his family. In Radiance, Beah skips right over the broad context and opts instead to focus entirely on the level of individuals without apology or exposition. This small-grain, human level, is an essential piece of understanding that is missing from how we teach modern issues of conflict, development, and what happens when tradition and modernity butt up against each other.

This book is very much a companion to Beah’s first book, A Long Way Gone, his memoir, and I read Radiance with that context as well as substantial background on the civil war in Sierra Leone. However, in Radiance (a novel), beah is freed from the pressure of historical accuracy and in doing so he can write an extremely compelling narrative and he can develop characters to serve a purpose, as opposed to relying on Truth. A novel like Radiance fits in the same category as Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” in that “a true war story does not depend upon [absolute] truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Beah captures this sentiment excellently, blending the reality of the situation in post-war Sierra Lone with a story of his own fabrication.

Beah’s novel is not driven by plot, but by character and through this we gain an intimate understanding of the cognitive dissonance required to live in post-war Sierra Lenoe. The people are simultaneously traditional and modern, hopeless and hopeful, defeated and determined. Not through any desire to be contradictory, but through necessity as they examine how to put their lives back together after such far-reaching destruction. Beah does an excellent job of avoiding the easy route here. It would be easy to commit to hope or hopelessness. It would be easy to write that Sierra Leone is a lost cause, or to create a hollywood ending of pure hope, but these are inauthentic. Instead, Beah remains committed to humanity and the complexities we love with. There is no simple solution and as a result we have to be willing to take the time for nuanced and complicated solutions that bring opportunity without squashing tradition. Beah opens the can of worms with the understanding that it cannot be easily closed.

Much like A Long Way Gone, Beah does not pull punches. There are brutal descriptions of mining accidents, the impacts of unclean water, and the daily reality of extreme urban poverty. Beah’s characters are continually grounded in a harsh and unforgiving world. These depictions, while graphic, are not gratuitous and are presented with grace and serve to honor the importance of individual people. Beah uses death to honor the value of human life.

From a teaching perspective, this book would be an excellent companion to a social studies course on contemporary modern issues as it brings a sense of humanity to the statistics on poverty and death. One wouldn’t need to be explicitly studying Sierra Leone, or even Africa, as these issues of recovering from conflict would be equally appropriate in Latin America, or Afghanistan. Additionally this book would be extremely valuable in a world literature, or creative writing course as Beah takes an uncommon, and extremely compelling, approach to language. Throughout the book Beah uses non-traditional translation as a way to approximate the imagery present in the multiple languages spoken in Sierra Leone. This is a powerful literary device and when reading I had to bring increased intentionality to my reading so that I could experience the language of the book at face value while also translating phrases like “nest of air” into “ball” for myself. This served to reinforce Beah’s commitment to the story of the individual throughout the book. Characters from different backgrounds leverage language in different ways, and this serves to deepen the human connection I felt between myself and the characters.

I’ve read A Long Way Gone, and I’ve seen the film Bling, in which Beah brings a group of rappers to see the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and while both were powerful and highly informative, they missed the human connection that is so central to Radiance of Tomorrow. Despite the concrete sense of truth provided by memoir and documentary respectively, A Long Way Gone and Bling suffer from the common issue of being another story of human suffering. Radiance of Tomorrow stands apart due to its complexity and nuance and Beah’s commitment to avoiding simplicity and highlighting the contradictions inherent in human life.

We’re coming up on the semester in my district, and it’s a good time to take stock of the year so far and think about opportunities to make changes.  So far nearly all of my teachers have been working in triage mode, responding reactively to address needs as they arise, always working to prevent getting overwhelmed.  They tend to move from one problem to the next with a high degree of presentism.  Similarly, I’ve been working reactively with my teachers, targeting those teachers that I perceive to have the highest needs, and trying to get everyone to a baseline of “this job is doable” before deeply pushing practice.  I want to change this in the second semester both for myself and the teachers I work with so that we can push a more philosophical and transformational approach to developing a teaching persona.

To this end I’m scheduling midyear reflection meetings with each teacher. In each of these meetings I’m specifically blocking out time to move our discussions away from the day to day issues and to look at first semester holistically, then setting focus areas for our work in the second semester.  In light of my previous thoughts on structuring discussion, I’ve put together a template for the discussion, something of a hybrid between open discussion, and a formal protocol.

The process works as follows with room for individual variation:

Step 1: Begin with an informal post winter break check-in to reestablish the teacher/coach relationship.

This is a quick way to reconnect and remind teachers that I am focused on supporting them as an individual person within the teaching role.  They are a human being first, and a teacher second.  A trusting relationship is essential to all of our work together, and therefore I need to remember to deliberately inject micro moments of relationship building into the process.  I cannot simply jump straight into the work and assume that a relationship will follow.  I need to intentionally build collegiality and trust so that my teachers will feel comfortable being vulnerable with me.

Step 2: Explain purpose of mid-year reflection.

The purpose of the meeting is to explicitly step away from the day to day, reactive, work of teaching.  Put aside the discipline issues, step away from evaluations, and put down the grading.  By stepping back like this we are able to get a more holistic perspective to the work, and we can move in a more proactive direction.  This wider perspective is commonly lost on teachers, and they are unable to see bigger patterns in their work due to a myriad of immediate needs.

In addition to the shift in focus, the timing of the meeting is highly intentional.  I am a big proponent of making change immediately once a need is identified, however, some changes (such as a change to grading system) need to wait until the semester.  Additionally, my teachers with semester classes have a chance to completely reset the structure of their course.  With a structured conversation that reflects on first semester, and makes plans for second semester, I can help teachers put their desires into practice at a logical time while continuing to act against the sentiment of, “next year I’d like to…”

Step 3: Move into a reflection on successes to date.

I specifically address successes before areas of growth because of how infrequently my teachers discuss their own success.  Whether from a sense of humility, high standards, or a lack of perspective my teachers rarely lead with discussing their successes.  Self-critique is far more common.  While thoughtful critique of areas of growth is extremely important, it is also important for my teachers to be able to identify and name their areas of strength.  This serves to boost teacher morale at a difficult time in the school year, as well as to improve teachers’ reflective accuracy.  Appropriately identifying areas of strength and success, is equally important to identifying weaknesses when building a teacher’s ability to self- assess.

In practice, I find that teachers have many more success than they initially give themselves credit for.  By taking the time to think critically about success, and not just failure, we can investigate how to maintain successful practices, and how to extend those patterns of success into new areas of instruction.  This serves as an important foundation for creating longterm patterns of growth.

Step 4: Ask teacher what they would like to add to their list of successes.

I’ve found great success wording the transition from discussing success to growth as “now that you’ve identified your success so far, what would you like to add to the list?”

This question does two things that benefit the teacher.  Initially, this wording honors the list of success and places value on them.  There is an agreement between teacher and coach that the previously identified successes are valid.  This confirmation is an important piece of feedback that helps teachers improve their self-reflection.

Secondly, there is an assumption inherent in the question that it is possible to grow the list of success, thus reinforcing a growth mindset.  This is a subtle move, and extremely important.  Continued growth is an essential component of success, and I want the teacher to work from an assumption that these are workable goals.  When I, as a coach, assume that my teachers are capable of growth, it makes it easier for them to grow in those areas.  This is also an act of modeling.  I show that I operate with an assumption of continued growth, and teachers can take that into their working in the classroom to help students grow.

Step 5:  Explore how to begin making progress toward those new items.

This is the step where we move from the reflective stage into practical planning.  We prioritize from the collaboratively generated list of ideas, and start to lay out the steps by which these areas will be developed.  This step is highly differentiated based on the specific needs of the teachers, but the goal is to turn the plans for growth into a reality.  The process can vary from a few simple interventions where a teacher needs exposure to new ideas, or it can be a more involved process that requires a teacher to think deeply about their identity as a teacher, and what that means for how to structure their classroom.

So far this process is going well.  I am only part way through my caseload, and I am seeing meaningful gains.  For some teachers this includes managing difficult teaching assignments, for some it is establishing more collegial relationships with their co-workers, and for others it is finding the personal strength to forge their own path despite external pressure to conform.  I am hoping that these midyear meetings will establish the focus I found lacking in the first semester.  I also hope that from our first semester work my teachers are empowered with the skills needed to work through many of the smaller issues with teaching more independently, thus allowing me to focus on developing their persona as a teacher and honing the more philosophical aspects of the profession through the second semester.

It’s that time of year again. Students and teachers are anxiously preparing for winter break, a much needed respite from the day in, day out, school routine. Meanwhile, governments, and media are pouring over the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

Do a quick search on the PISA exam and you’ll find all kinds of articles wondering “Are American Students Falling Behind the World?” or “Can’t We Do Better?” These aren’t terrible questions necessarily, but they’re misguided.
“Can’t we do better” is not an interesting question to me. Yes. We could do better on the PISA exam, and other international exams. More compelling is figuring out whether we should; whether this is the proper target for our energy.

Assessment informs instruction and you get what you measure. This makes sense. If you measure how far you can run without stopping, that’s what your subject will improve on. Your speed may not improve, but your ability to run long distances without stopping should. If you measure students test scores on an exam, that’s what will improve. Should we improve our scores on an exam? Well, that depends on what the exam measures. What’s most important is to ensure that our measure aligns with our intended outcomes.

Let’s stick with running for a bit. Imagine that Jane is trying to get faster. She wants to run a mile in under six minutes. As a coach, it stands to reason then that I should measure how fast she can complete one mile of running and include interventions that will help her run a faster mile time. Measuring how quickly she completes a 5K run, or measuring how far she can run without stopping do not provide the data that lets me know if she’s progressing toward her goal. Just because I’m capable of collecting these other kinds of data, doesn’t mean I should collect them. In fact if I measure data that does not inform the goal (such as distance without stopping) I may try to implement interventions that hinder the initial goal. Strength training is essential to improving times over shorter distances, less important to increasing a runner’s endurance.

The same holds true in education. I need to set goals for what I want to improve in education and measure accordingly. At every level of education, from the individual classroom, all the way up to Arne Duncan’s office, the first question has to be: “what do we want to improve?” (The follow up question is “how do you know that’s the right choice,” but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Do we really want to improve PISA scores? Does PISA measure the data that we want? Is that the best goal we can come up with? I really hope there’s something more interesting that’s getting discussed at the Department of Education. You want to improve PISA scores? Ok here’s a freebie: figure out what the test measures. Teach it. Go home satisfied.

My challenge to education reform is that we can do better. Measuring changes in test scores is certainly easy, but they tell us little. Learning is an extremely complex system the is influenced by countless variables including, but by no means limited to: parents’ education level, income, age, physical health, mental health, peer group, and class size. Let’s work on developing more complex measures of student learning. I’m much more interested in whether students can create a reasoned argument, if they are curious, if they have the social-emotional ability to sustain effort, if they have a growth mindset, and if they’re interested in developing their community. Ability to take a standardized test does not inspire me.

I’m missing the argument for why PISA is a good assessment. Everywhere you look there’s a push for better scores, but no reflection on the value of those improved scores. We’re making an assumption that improving these scores will tell us that education is solved, and that’s simply untrue.  Shanghai tops the chart regularly, and their students work in an extremely competitive environment centered entirely around improving scores on exams. Singapore also scores well on PISA and their government spends large amounts of money on consultants to help shift focus off of standardized exams in order to build in more time for discussion and student-centered education. There is evidence that some of Japan’s intense bullying in schools is a reaction to extreme academic pressure to succeed. Is this what we want to create?

PISA scores are easy. We can count and stack rank anything we want. I am suspect of an easy solution to a complex problem. Improving our scores on international exams won’t fix our education system. In fact, when controlling for child poverty the United States scores extremely well already. Ability to follow instructions, and do what you’re told is not invaluable, however it is not enough. We need citizens capable of critical thought and if we want our students to improve their critical thinking, we should model it for them by thinking critically about how we measure academic achievement and how we define successful education.

Calling Ron Wimberly’s Prince of Cats “a hip-hop retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”  is too simplistic.  Wimberly goes beyond retelling, he reinvents and recreates. Like the DJs and graffiti artists he references, Wimberly draws on his influences and builds a new story from his favorite pieces.  In this case the blend is Shakespearean language, hip hop braggadocio, Kurosawa’s samurai, and street art. With these components Wimberly remixes a new tragedy, not of love, but of the inability to love. Wimberly expertly deepens Shakespeare’s timeless story by exploring Tybalt: the titular Prince of Cats.

Prince of Cats wears its references proudly. Basquiat’s SAMO tags decorate Wimberly’s Brooklyn. Sampson and Gregory get into a bloody sword fight on the subway, and then eat takoyaki in a gentrified Brooklyn sushi restaurant.  At the masquerade ball (a block party) Tybalt and Juliet are a strong presence dressed as Michael Jackson and Wonder Woman.

TandJCostume

Members of both houses fight with katanas (Mercuctio symbolically stands apart with a kopesh), but marking territory through graffiti runs as the strongest theme for the power struggle as Montague yellow, and Capulet red war over wall-space.

Petruchiotag

In an example of how Wimberly expands on Shakespeare’s original, the previously unseen, Petruchio is re-imagined in the guise of “King of Style” Kase 2, complete with a missing right arm, and his death becomes a central motivation. Wimberly also gives voice the Romeo’s first love, Rosalyn, expanding her character and adding depth to the whole.

Throughout, Wimberly combines Shakespeare’s language from Romeo and Juliet with his own Shakespeare-inspired inventions, infused with urban vernacular while maintaining iambic pentameter.  This helps Prince of Cats read as more than just homage, but as a companion to the original. Tybalt’s story runs alongside the main narrative that we all know, dipping in and out through his interactions with Juliet, Romeo, and members of both houses.

While Romeo struggles to find love, Tybalt struggles to make his mark on society. He is desperate in his attempts for recognition, boldly declaring his desire to maintain Capulet honor at all costs. This is, however, a cover for his deeply broken worldview as Rosalyn exposes in Act 4, saying:

     Thou art a man obsessed.
     I’ve thought about the words you said.
     ..It’s not the crest of Capulet…
     The precious thing thy sword protects…
     …it’s vanity
     …I mean, 
     why risk thy life over and over?
     These self-important suicide attempts
     reveal thy lack of self-regard
 
     —and 
     if they heart were truly concerned

     with those for whom you say you risk death

     you would preserve thy life

     and nurture the happiness of those around you

     —Right?

In reading Prince of Cats if found myself falling in love with Romeo and Juliet all over again. I wanted to go back and re-read the play, to watch the film, to find a production to see. Wimberly is a masterful DJ here, sampling from his most loved art forms to create a new work that is simultaneously a love letter to his influences and a wholly new and vibrant work. Prince of Cats is not a replacement, or a retelling. It is an addition to the original mythology, providing context, background, and new perspective.

With regard to teaching, Prince of Cats is extremely rich. It could easily serve as a prelude to Romeo and Juliet or as a lesson in perspective after reading the original play. In terms of character, Tybalt experiences events of the main story in a very different way than Romeo, and in terms of authorship, Wimberly emphasizes themes that are more subtle in Shakespeare’s original. It would be incredible to use both texts and run a comparison of Romeo’s and Tybalt’s abilities to cope with their environments as a look into how at-risk youth either escape, or are entrapped by their surroundings. Alternately one could explore how Shakespeare’s background informed his lens, while Wimberly’s experiences encourage a different focus.

English classes often use Romeo and Juliet to explore themes of love, conflict, and revenge, but students get easily tripped up by language and the difficulty of reading a play without seeing production. To this end, Prince of Cats can serve as a strong hook, allowing students access through hip-hop’s visual imagery, while retaining the Shakespearean linguistic syntax, and vocabulary. Through a willingness to invent and remix, Wimberly’s Prince of Cats is a piece that can stand proudly alongside Shakespeare’s original work.

TybaltFriar

Nancy Jones taught English during my junior and senior years at Interlake High School.  When I had her she’d been teaching since the opening of the school in 1962.  My senior year was her last year at the school.  She was notoriously difficult and had a reputation for being a very tough grader.  She would regularly use words that left students (and often colleagues) scratching their heads.  This woman did not suffer fools.  I’ve been extremely privileged in my education.  I’ve been blessed with powerful educators at all levels of my formal and informal schooling.  Nancy Jones is the single greatest teacher I have ever had and I never told her.

Dear Ms. Jones,

Thank you for dedicating your life to teaching belligerent and uncooperative teenagers.  Thank you for being unwilling to accept mediocrity.  Thank you for your deep commitment to equity and equality of educational opportunity.  Thank you for never surrendering.

In my junior year of high school my motivation for quality was strictly limited to “good enough for a B” because that was the threshold for my parents leaving me alone.  (I discovered this threshold during my freshman year.)  I had a firmly established policy of putting in the absolute minimum amount of work to get a B, and by my junior year I was seriously testing the line.  To this end my pattern was to quickly write up an essay the night before it was due, turn it out without revision, and see where the grade fell.  I generally had no trouble landing in the acceptable range.  Until I hit your class.

In your class I tried this method and was met with words that changed my world: “You need to rewrite this.  I know you can do better.”  This rocked me to my core.  I’d never had a teacher hold me accountable for my best.  Good enough was always good enough and here you were telling me that I would have to work hard, and that through working hard I would improve.

Reworking that essay forced me to examine my understanding of the purpose of writing assignments.  I was firmly rooted in a fixed mindset that linked my writing ability to doing the least work and earning the highest grade.  I thought my work was excellent because I did well with little effort and you were telling me otherwise.  When you handed back the paper and made me revise it, you reminded me that the lowest acceptable level of work is one’s best work.  You also showed me, in no uncertain terms, what it really means to have high standards.

At the time I thought you were being mean.  I thought you were being a hard grader.  I thought you didn’t like me.  I didn’t realize that your insistence on nothing less than my best came from a place of unending compassion and caring.  I know now that you believe each and every human being capable of deep thinking and excellence.  I know it because you never dumbed things down.  You never lowered your standards.  You never gave in to protestation, and you, without fail, always called out students like myself who were disrespecting your class through mediocre effort.

Ms. Jones: I learned how to work hard in your class and I am forever grateful.  I learned the importance of universal respect in your class.  I learned not to suffer fools.  I cannot, at this moment, name all of the books we read in your class, (I do remember that you called me out for not having read Pride and Prejudice when I tried to skate by on another essay.) but I do remember your presence, your compassion, and your never-ending pursuit of the best in everyone.

Since your class I’ve become a social studies and AVID teacher, including three years at Interlake, and I am now mentoring novice teachers as they begin their work.  Your lessons and beliefs stay with me every day, from the continual demand for excellence, down to the specifics of how to write strong analysis.  Your legacy lives in the students’ who, like myself, are forever bettered as a result of your work.  Thank you.

With eternal gratitude,

Gabriel McCormick class of 2001

PS: No, this letter is not a rough draft.

There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work.  Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting.  These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare.  Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact.  Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term.  I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class.  The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.

She says:

Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
 
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck!   Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.

When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen.  She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position.  When she left school I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t reached her.  I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years.  Over time I stopped thinking about her.

When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception.  In a certain way it creates a level of paradox.  Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona.  At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.

I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life.  While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways.  Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.

With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life.  That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path.  I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though.  Education acted as a beacon for Carmen.  No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education.  I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals.  As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve.  Education provides her with hope that change will come.  Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality.  She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:

CarmenGrade

Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant.  Most success is not immediate.  We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to.  Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education.  She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.

Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels.  The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful.  In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor.  In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives.  In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.”  The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value.  Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.

Last day in Kansas!
(And yes, I made a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” joke when we made it to the airport in Missouri.)

Thursday was only a half day (due to flight constraints on our part), and if my lack of notes from Day 2 was an indication of my lack of engagement, my notes from the day represent a high degree of authentic engagement.  I have more notes from three hours of day three than all seven hours of day two.  I attribute this to two major factors: Knight was back on his A game as a presenter and he was delivering content that was very new to me on a philosophical and theoretical level.  All the issues from day two: resolved.

Knight’s focus for the day was quality communication and he busted right out of the gate with theory and research.  Well… not quite right out of the gate.  There was a forty minute question and review time, but compared to the extremely lengthy review from day two I hardly noticed and it felt like he was busting right out of the gate.

Knight began with a potentially controversial claim: we have a communication crisis.  To me this immediately smacked of a generational bias: Knight’s boomer stodginess against my millennial early adoption of new technology.  I wanted him to defend himself.  I wanted justification for such an audacious claim.  I got what I wanted.  Knight (slightly) backed off his initially provocative ledge into a more nuanced position, recognizing that he’d played a part to get people to pay attention.  He does not discount the usefulness of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of communication that do not require people to be face to face, however he did maintain that the ultimate form of communication is face to face, one on one, in person.

It is important that we interact personally in order to catch all of the nuance of nonverbal communication.  Technology has to be seen as an additional tool, not a replacement for quality discussion.  In my work as a coach the vast majority of my interactions are face to face, and so developing my skill in reading non-verbal queues, effective listening, and building trust are extremely helpful.  Communication is also, of course, not limited to my work and as such I was able to build authentic connections and meaning throughout the day as Knight worked through his “9 Strategies for Communication” which are as follows:

  • Take the Partnership Approach (See Day 1)
  • Listen.  Seriously… listen.
  • Create connection between yourself and others.
  • Build Trust (This was the last one we were able to see due to leaving early.)
  • Find Common Ground
  • Control Destructive Emotions
  • Witness the Good
  • Ask Good Questions
  • Empathy

Take the Partnership Approach really boils down to drinking the Kool-Aid from day one, and I’m willing to accept that.  This is primarily because the Partnership Approach was presented as a fundamental set of beliefs governing interactions between people that extends beyond my work as a coach.  (For more on my thoughts on this read my summary of Day 1.)

The segment on listening was unexpectedly powerful for me.  I’m not the best listener ever.  I’m really good at thinking about a response while other people are talking, I’m very good at interrupting, and I’m a highly skilled self-focuser.  None of this helps listening as it turns out.  Knight outlined some very simple steps to quality listening which essentially boil down to “shut up, externally and internally, and pay attention to the other person.”  Then he made us practice, and that was where he got me on board.  Quality listening takes conscious expenditure of energy and Knight had us deliberately listen to a partner for three minutes.  I was immediately aware of how often I interrupt and talk over other people.  This is a huge area of growth for me personally and professionally and a listening goal is going to go right up with the video goal from the first day.

The connection segment was fairly brief and it focused primarily on summarizing Gottman’s work around relationships and marriage.  This was helpful in that it provides a clear language for how people connect, or fail to connected.  Gottman claims that people make a bid for connection in a variety of ways ranging from the ostentatious (Let’s take the credit card and go nuts!) to the more mundane (Would you like a cup of coffee?)  These bids represent a hope of connection from one person to another and how the other person responded to the bid is extraordinarily important component in whether or not those two people will connect.

This concept immediately shifted my entire mindset on what it means to make a connection and I instantly decontextualized a plethora of connections in my life be they deep, superficial, nonexistent, or stillborn.  I imaged how the bid was presented and received and quickly came to terms with many issues that had been presenting difficulty.  Gottman explains that people react to a bid in one of three ways:

  • They turn toward the bid:  This is an acceptance of the bid, and acknowledges that the bid has value and there is a shared interest.  This leads to positive connections very smoothly and efficiently.
  • They turn against the bid:  This is when someone directly opposes the bid.  This acknowledges that a bid has been presented, but makes it clear that the bid was an incorrect method of approach to a connection.  This does not necessarily shut the door to future bids.  Sarcasm can very easily be misinterpreted as turning against a bid.
  • The third option is that a recipient may turn away from a bid, effectively ignoring the bidder.  This is the most damaging for the relationship because the recipient does not even acknowledge that a bid has been made and the bidder is left feeling immediately devalued.  Turning away from a bid is particularly insidious because it can happen inadvertently when a recipient is truly unaware that a bid has been made.

This was just enough of Gottman’s work that I feel equipped to leverage the language in my personal and professional work, and I am still interested in investigating it further to deepen my understanding.  I see this work on connection playing a massive role in my life.

The last piece I was present for was the segment on building trust.  The whole thing can be summarized by Knight’s equation for trust below:
Trust Equation
Essentially the factors on the top of the equation help increase people’s trust in you while self-focus serves to diminish trust.  This section was very straightforward and served to give names to many of the thoughts I already had around trust and building trust in the teachers I work with.

The three days of Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Conference deeply highlighted the importance of maintaining basics of quality education throughout a session.  Day 1 had everything I needed: community building, challenge, relevance, and choice.  When I lost relevancy and challenge in day 2, Knight lost me as a participant.  When he added them back on the third day, I was immediately reenergized and cognitively engaged.  Despite the difficulties of the second day, I have a strong collection of thoughts, methods, and theories to leverage in my work with novice teachers.  I know that I will be a better coach as a result of these last three days, largely, thought not exclusively, because I can now give name and justification to many of the moves I make.  As an added bonus I can take many of these techniques and theories and integrate them positively into my personal life.

Lawrence, KS Indie Rock Local Music Scavenger Hunt Wrap-Up:
I want to begin by giving huge props to Taryn at Love Garden.  She really outdid herself with the recommendations and I’m leaving with a very positive view of the Lawrence music scene.  Instead of linking just a couple more bands, I’ve opted to list everything I left with in no particular order or classification.  Happy hunting.

  • Y(our) Fri(end) – Taryn’s band that I linked on day 1.
  • The Noise FM – garage rock sounds with higher than garage production values.
  • Heartscape Landbreak – intellectual, somewhat meditative, very cerebral art rock.
  • Hospital Ships – some of the same guys as above, much more accessible and straight ahead indie rock
  • Cowboy Indian Bear – Should be named Bear Ninja Cowboy.  Very ethereal, harmonized vocals over a variety of song structures. Mellow.
  • The ACB’s – Extremely accessible indie-pop.  Un-complex and very fun.
  • Fourth of July – Lo Fi mid-tempo indie rock.  They have a good beat and you can dance awkwardly like all the other hipsters.
  • Olassa – Straight ahead, stripped down, country in the spirit of Emmylou Harris or Allison Krauss.  Lovely.
  • Truckstop Honeymoon – Old fashioned bluegrass, most of the time, with contemporary lyrics.  Extremely fun.
  • Quiet Corral – Lawrence’s answer to Mumford and Sons.  Accessible, listenable, excellent.

Holy Bonus Tracks Batman! (Love Garden was sold out of their records but they have bandcamp pages.)

  • Bloodbirds – Punk rock.  What… you want more?  Ok… it’s fast, loud, and really good.  Happy?
  • Müscle Wörship – More punk rock with a better band name.

Lawrence Kansas

The goal for day one of the conference was to lay the philosophical and theoretical groundwork of instructional coaching, therefore day two of a three-day conference should be the big push on the new learning.  I was hoping to be piled with new information that I would have to spend this blog post sorting through as I processed my thoughts from the day.  Alas, that was not the case.  Quite the opposite in fact.

photo (10)Today was a disappointment and I was significantly less engaged in the content. (See the graph)  In a full eight-hour day I left with only five pages of notes in a small moleskin, and one of these pages is a mind map of the previous day (below).   This significant change in my engagement was primarily due to an inappropriately long time spent on review, information that did not meet my needs, and a generally low level of intellectual demand throughout the day.

We spent over ninety minutes superficially reviewing every single component of the previous day.  I am not opposed to reviewing material, and it is an essential component of learning, however balancing to the appropriate amount is essential.  I will own the fact that by writing yesterday’s one thousand word post I did a substantial amount of review independently that a large number of participants likely did not do.  However, my colleagues agreed that the amount of review was highly unnecessary.

After that ninety minutes on review Knight opened the floor to questions without setting any criteria for the questions.  This went on for nearly an additional hour.  As the questions dragged on, I just kept adding to my mind map to create what you see below, complete with Jim the Knight, Immanuel Kant, and Paulo Freire:

Image After the lengthy morning of review and individual questions ended with a break, I was hopeful that we would come back together for a continued focus on how proper coaching technique.  We did that, but to a very limited degree.  As much as yesterday was highly stimulating and steeped in philosophy, today was intensely tactical.  This was the day to drink the “Jim Knight’s Coaching Method” flavor of Kool-Aid.  Step by tedious step, Knight outlined a granular methodology.  Where on day one he presented the grounding research and philosophy before discussing specifics, he only focused on the specifics today, and these specifics took very little intellectual work on my part.  Additionally the specifics were not well aligned with the particulars of my work with novice teachers, leading to further disengagement.

The biggest disconnect seemed to come from Knight’s assumption that coaches work at the building level and are tasked with working with all teachers, whereas I work at the district level, almost entirely with teachers new to the profession.  From a theoretical, strategic, standpoint there are huge similarities and I can then translate well from his assumptions into my work, however, at the tactical level I was left with a pile of methods that do not relate well to the reality of my position.  Also Knight was frankly working at a very foundational level of tactics that I simply do not need.

Overall Day 2 was a significant letdown.  I started the day highly optimistic and looking to find deep meaning in the work.  Knight lost me initially with the excessive amount of superficial review and unfocused question time, and then he failed to regain my attention by presenting new content that was significantly too straightforward or misaligned to my needs.  While the day was disappointing from the standpoint of learning about instructional coaching, I was able to shift my focus in the afternoon to watch how he presented so that I could clearly identify my issues with his choices and delivery in order to inform my own practice.  Most notably I will look to take more formative assessment during workshop sessions, and then have the presence of mind to adjust my workshop based on the information from that assessment to best meet the needs of my audience.  I don’t want anyone in my talks to feel how I felt today.  I’m remaining hopeful for day three.

Lawrence, KS Indie Rock Scavenger Hunt Part 2:

Today’s highlights from heading back to Love Garden and finding Taryn again is definitely Hearscape Landbreak’s Practitioners of Light and Attraction by the Noise FM.  They fulfill my needs for intellectually elitist art rock and straight-ahead, yet well executed, garage rock respectively.  Enjoy.

Heartscape Landbreak

The Noise FM

Lawrence, Kansas

Day one of an education conference usually goes by quickly.  There is significant time spent on norming, getting to know new people, and establishing the work for the remaining days.  Today was no different: there was a protocol for partnering, setting the purpose for instructional coaching, we baselined potential barriers to adults helping adults, and then launched into Jim Knight’s foundational framework for coaching.  A predictably structured, yet well executed, first day.

Jim Knight sees coaching as a moral imperative to help teachers reach more students.  I appreciate this view of coaching as it aligns powerfully with my vision of quality education: namely that all students improve as a result of a teacher’s intervention.  In terms of delivery, Knight struck an effective balance between compelling anecdotes, such as an audio example of a high school freshman who could not read a simple passage, and deep, evidence-based statistics around implementation rates of new learning with and without follow-up by coaches.  He very succinctly made the case for instructional coaching.

After presenting the need for coaching (a fairly easy sell to a room full of coaches) Knight worked through his “5 Simple Truths of Helping,” outlining the potential hurdles of adults providing help to other adults.  This was primarily reaffirming to me as they were topics I had considered, though Knight’s language gives me a much stronger vocabulary for explaining these concepts to others.  The 5 truths can be summarized as such:

  • In order to change we need an awareness of what to change and an authentic need for the change.
  • Teaching is intensely personal and as coaches we need to speak bold truths in a way that respects teachers’ identity.
  • Teachers, as knowledge workers, have a high need for autonomy and need to construct knowledge for themselves.
  • Coaches must respect teachers’ status as highly trained and experienced professionals and avoid a paternalist role.
  • All parties must commit to the goal, ergo it must be a personal and authentic goal.

These truths provide a strong philosophical foundation for adult education as contrasted with educating youth, and while they are not particularly groundbreaking, they are important to stay mindful of.  It is easy, and highly problematic, to slip into habits from teaching youth, and being able to name these basics will allow me to integrate the truths into my practice.

With the groundwork established we moved into Knight’s approach to coaching which he terms “the Partnership Approach.”  This is framed with seven attributes that all serve the goal of philosophically grounding the coach in the role of a collaborator and partner in the teacher’s work of educating youth.  Where the 5 Truths are intended to cover all work with adults helping other adults, the  Partnership Approach is specific to the role of the instructional coach.  The attributes are as follows:

  1. Equality: Simply put, everyone has equal worth by the simple fact of being a human being.  (Think categorical imperative.)
  2. Choice: More specifically this is limited choice.  Choice provides valuable autonomy, however too much choice can be paralyzing and should be avoided.
  3. Voice: Teachers often report feeling like their opinions have no bearing on their work.  Coaching is a time to increase teachers’ impact in their work.
  4. Dialogue: Specifically the double movement of meaning between coach and teacher in a way that is based on humility, hope, faith, and humanity.  (From Paulo Freire!)
  5. Praxis: This is literally the practical application of theory.  Teachers have to be able to implement the issues discussed.
  6. Reflection: This is reflection with the goal of improvement and the consideration of ideas prior to implementation.
  7. Reciprocity: The basic assumption that both parties in a dialogue are capable of making meaningful contribution.

I’m most impressed by Knight’s heavy inclusion of Paulo Freire’s work from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his commitment to instructional coaching as a moral obligation.  Freire establishes teaching as an inherently revolutionary act whose purpose is to establish a new, more humanizing, status quo.  For Freire education, an literacy most importantly, is the path out of poverty, oppression, and it is a universal right founded in Kant’s concepts of universal respect for all humans as beings capable of reason.  From reading Knight’s work I did not expect this level of passion for equity and my attitude toward Knight noticeably shifted when he leveraged Freire.

The room full is of coaches and administrators from middle class and affluent districts as those are the districts that can afford to hire coaches.  There is one woman of color, and zero men of color in the group of participants, and Knight is pushing a strong social justice agenda based on equality of opportunity and education’s ability to humanize the most oppressed.  It is encouraging to know that these ideas are not reserved for abstract academia or urban schools highly impacted by poverty (read: High percentage Black and Latino students) and the ideas are leveraged in service of powerful education across all schools.

I left the first day very hopeful for the remainder of the conference.  Through Knight’s presentation, what was previously based on instinct can now be executed in a more deliberate and repeatable fashion.  My most valuable takeaway, however, is intensely practical: I need to film my teachers and myself.  This is, without question, the easiest and most powerful way to establish an honest picture of what someone’s teaching (or my coaching) looks like from an outside perspective and the barrier to entry is extraordinarily low given available technology.  I am giving myself a personal goal to use video in a teacher observation and debrief next week, after I return from the conference.

PS: A big shout out to Taryn at the Love Garden record shop for hooking me up with some fantastic local indie music. Enjoy some beautiful, contemplative, indie rock.