Teaching Freedom with Limits

The Vietnamese monk and master teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “It is an illusion that we are free…”

Koan: A statement, a saying, an act or gesture that can bring to an understanding of the truth. Also, a tool used to educate a disciple.

In my early morning sleep, I had this dream. I had arrived ten minutes late to my lecture and found two students entwined on a chair. They were in love. One had a shaven head, torn denim jeans and scruff. Their posture didn’t alarm me, but I had to think quickly how to untangle them. I knew that if I mishandled the situation, they would not engage fully in the lesson. With a light but firm voice, I told one to get off, and I gestured to a nearby chair. I said, setting limits defines you, gives you character and identity. It does not mean you do not love or that you are not free; it simply reveals who you are and how you express your individuality. Let me show you, I said.

I walked to the front of the room and found a large, piece of white construction paper and a pair of scissors. By this point, the young man had moved to his own chair and was listening intently. I held the construction paper up for everyone to see. This paper is blank and free of any writing or drawing, I said. It is completely open to possibility. It is beautiful, yes, to look at a blank sheet of paper like this, like a canvas with infinite, creative potential? Now, let us see what happens.

With the scissors, I began to cut into the paper. Slowly and with great care and precision, I carved out a figure of a man, with long arms and legs and broad shoulders. When I was done, I held up the cutout for the whole room to see. He too is beautiful, isn’t he? A unique and curious character has been born, and he is looking for a name to call himself. You see what I have done here? Without the limits I have imposed upon this blank sheet, carving out form with precise snips, this bold, young man would not exist. He would remain invisible and unnoticed.

It is right to experience freedom without limits in meditation. That is why the practice is essential. In the real world, however, in the material world, we define ourselves, and make our mark. In other words, we learn we are ‘cut out’ to give meaning and definition to human existence. Invisibility is good, yes, and so is partaking with others. Setting limits and applying discipline help us share spaces and adapt to social situations. When we do it mindfully, with consciousness, we are not losing freedom, or authenticity. We are still very much beautiful and simple, like that open canvas. We are just sharing it with others. In this way, we can learn from them. In this way, we discover happiness.

In order to explore this concept of Freedom with Limits further, I encourage you to try this activity with a small, professional learning community.

Shared Freedom Activity
Purpose: To explore the notion of freedom with limits; to increase awareness of how we adapt ourselves in group situations
Overview: A group of three people simultaneously cut out an image of themselves onto one piece of paper
  1. You will need a large piece of construction paper, scissors for each person, a timer and a group of three people
    • Sit comfortably in a circle, close enough for each person to hold the paper
  2. Have someone volunteer to be the timekeeper, and go over the instructions
    • Each person will cut out a full-length image of themselves, working at the same time
    • Do not let the cut-outs fall out of the paper. In other words, there should be one whole paper design holding the figures in place at the end
  3. Before starting, take a few minutes to contemplate the intention of the activity: Shared Freedom. Set the timer for 3 min
    • An intention directs your attention and energy to an outcome. The outcome is typically a disposition, virtue or state of being
    • Sometimes, we connect an intention to a particular problem we want to solve, such as how to resolve a conflict with a student, boss or colleague. An intention of this nature would take the form of a statement such as “By contemplating shared freedom, I can learn how to work more effectively with my team.”
  4. Each person picks up the scissors at the same time and starts cutting. Set the timer for 10 min.
  5. After the timer goes off, reflect individually in writing, or discuss with the group the following questions:
    • How did it feel to engage in this activity?
    • What challenges did you encounter?
    • How did you negotiate with each other?
    • How did the end product turn out?
    • What did you learn about the nature of freedom with limits?

*A portion of this post, as well as the format, was adapted from my forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities, Routledge, April, 2019.

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References

Deshimaru, T. (1996) Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru, Hohm Press, p. 317

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Four Layers of Consciousness, The Lions Roar, Dec. 26, 2018 https://www.lionsroar.com/the-four-layers-of-consciousness/

Learning from Immigrant Perspectives

“What preoccupies me is immediate: the separation I endure with my parents in loss. This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story.”

~Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, 1982

 

When my grandmother arrived to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1939, New York was one of the main recipients of immigrants from Puerto Rico. At that time, expectations for Puerto Rican achievement were dismal. In 1935, the New York State Chamber of Commerce’s Special Committee on Immigration and Naturalization commissioned a study on the IQ of 240 Puerto Rican schoolchildren in East Harlem. The poor results stigmatized Puerto Ricans as being intellectually deficient. Puerto Rican advocates argued that the children lacked English skills, but it didn’t matter. Reactions to Puerto Rican immigration became toxic.

We have made great progress since then. Still, contemporary public schools struggle with how to engage and effectively teach Latino students who come to the classroom with a wide range of academic, social and emotional needs—not to mention varying English language proficiency levels. Latinos represent over 27% of the nation’s 50.4 million K-12 public school students (NCES, 2016) and there is a growing number of vulnerable Latinos systematically failing academically.[1] In spite of this data, there are numerous success stories we can learn from. My grandmother, for example, managed to provide four children with access to a good education even though she hardly spoke English and had little money or social currency. What was her secret ingredient?

indigenouswisdom pullout

Her secret ingredient was a mindset or a set of beliefs shared by many successful immigrant parents. I call it indigenous wisdom. Indigenous wisdom is the totality of insight and understanding gleaned from life experience and knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, indigenous wisdom often corroborates with research on how we should approach student engagement, especially for students learning English and academic content.

The following are three insights taken from indigenous wisdom that we can apply to how we build inclusive learning environments:

  • Faith- Faith is about trusting a student’s potential and endless possibilities. Faith is not blind. Rather, it comes from a deep awareness of the power of the human spirit to evolve and learn even in the face of adversity. Faith opens our mind to see past the material world, to transcend dominant narratives, popular opinion or daunting statistics that undermine human agency and spirit. One way effective teachers and school leaders demonstrate faith is by providing students with numerous opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skill with low-stakes, formative assessments. Informal, low-stakes assessments show progress over time and communicate learning is a process with ebb and flow. Detachment from outcome is a common theme in indigenous wisdom. Educators who have faith detach themselves from outcomes and pour themselves fully into the student-teacher experience.
  • Language as Relationship- Language is how we communicate. It connects our private, inner world to the public domain. Language is the tool by which we build trusting, loving relationships. Indigenous wisdom recognizes love as the most powerful force available to human beings (Arrien, 1993). Similarly, research in learning theory, cognitive sciences, collaborative learning, and engagement all agree that people learn best in community.[2] Immigrant students who are learning English are learning to negotiate new relationships and new terms for community engagement. Teachers need to demonstrate that the classroom is safe and that each student belongs. The safety students experience at home in their native language does not have to conflict with school as long as they know that both have equal value. Teachers can create friendly learning spaces by paying attention to norms for group work and supporting strategic partnerships. ELL students often benefit from working with one partner before moving into larger groups. Language stems for interaction goes a long way in supporting oral language development but also, consider providing students with the choice to remain quiet at times to take a breather, observe, listen and communicate in non-verbal ways.
  • School as Civic Engagement- Indigenous wisdom traditions teach that everything has a purpose. In the Hunger of Memory (1982), Richard Rodriguez recalled how his Mexican born parents taught him that schooling was key to job advancement and a way to ‘ease the path.’ In the school setting, this means explicitly making connections between learning and real world application. Ask, how is this content relevant to the lives of my students? or What life skills are embedded in the activity? The best teachers and school leaders find clever ways to help students and families see how school is a preparation for civic engagement and a pathway to becoming an influential citizen. One way to do this is to teach language and content within a broader, real world context, anchoring units and lessons to universal themes, life situations or social issues. Science and biology, for example, live in a unit on medicine and what to expect when you visit the hospital. Mathematics is taught within a unit on banking and how to open an account.

As we continue to evolve and innovate our school practices to be more responsive to the academic, social and emotional needs of ELL students, it makes perfect sense to tap into the indigenous wisdom of immigrant parents.  By doing so, we not only create inclusive classrooms but we also legitimize the insights of generations immigrants who continue to enrich our lives.

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References 

[1] Issues in Latino Education: Race, School Culture, and the Politics of Academic Success, by Mariella Espinoza-Herold, Ricardo González-Carriedo,

[2] Classroom Community, The Ecology for Learning, Research. Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Missouri State, https://www.missouristate.edu/fctl/193962.htm

#TeacherSpring

In 2010 when I lived in the Middle East, I witnessed the Arab Spring. People filled the streets with renewed spirit protesting unfair policies. I remember coming back from visiting the pyramids and getting trapped in a cab in the middle of a perfect storm—hundreds of men, women and children filled the streets that were one by one being blocked off by the police. It was scary and invigorating.

teacherspringNow, less than ten years later, I am witnessing a Teacher Spring. Teachers in several states filling the streets, protesting and standing up for what they believe in. Education organizations are experiencing the squeeze as uncertainty sets in, educators rise up, students exercise voice, families pulling out, some leaning in. There is optimism and hope in the air. Emboldened and confident. Fed up with complacency. This year has been the perfect storm of social, political and cultural events. I anticipate more. More energy, more teacher voice, more coalition building as we seriously think about how we want to transform schooling and how we organize society in America. It is all at once nerve-wracking and exhilarating. Where do you fit in and what do you believe in? What thoughts, actions and feelings are defining your Teacher Spring?

For me, I’m doing a lot of observing and reflecting. Asking questions like, what do educators really want? Is there one, united voice across the country? What about our internal divisions and distrust of reform? What kind of schools do we want for our children? Are contemporary public schools democratic platforms?

As a former classroom teacher who transitioned into the dynamic world of professional development, I have lamented how our system devalues teachers. First there is salary and working conditions, but there is also this issue of access to important decision making; decisions related to policy, curriculum, instruction and funding. I understand real teacher limitations. Teachers work tirelessly managing day-to-day demands and they don’t have the time or the state of mind to contemplate big picture conversations, let alone attend all the meetings. Still, without teacher voice we will never have excellent schools. Without the recognition of the skill, knowledge and time required of the teaching profession, we will never have excellent and equitable public schools.

In the last decade I have witnessed attacks on teachers, unions and public schools. I see schools relying on young, inexperienced teachers and scripted programs leading to teacher burnout and apathy. Veteran teachers are often depicted as being difficult and unwilling to change in spite of the fact that teachers have to be master change agents. Yes, there is a wide range of teacher talent but we know from research that all new teachers need help and support and all experienced teachers are simply better, from experience. After that, after experience, we are a mixed bag, just like every other profession. Some struggle and hop along. Others are authentic magicians and fly high.

I think we need to be honest and accept this time of ambiguity. A Teacher Spring can only be good. It is healthy to stand up for ourselves and for our profession. It is healthy to talk about what is going on in our profession publicly and in quiet corners. I want us to feel like it’s okay to ask for more, when we know there is so much more and why aren’t we prioritizing teachers and public education?

I also don’t want to lose any more amazing educators who are leaving.