Moving from Mindfulness to Advocacy

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“In its position on The Gates of Hell, The Thinker occupies the center of the lintel and presides over the figures of the damned that populate the doors below. Behind him a chaotic dance of death takes place. He sits apart, stripped of clothing, and no symbol remains to assist us in his identification. He is perhaps the poet, the creator, the judge, the sculptor – all of these or none.” The Thinker, Rodin, The MET, NYC

Yesterday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I meandered into a long, rectangular room until I was face to face with Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker. It was a smallish sculpture that hovered over three others, each triple in size. To the left, there was Adam who seemed to be emerging. To the right Eve who hid her face in shame. Between them, a group of male bodies called The Three Shades. When I approached the tiny inscription on the wall, I learned that The Thinker belongs to a greater, albeit unfinished masterpiece called The Gates of Hell.

I was stunned. All these years, I never knew. The Thinker is the central figure of a bigger vision! A chaotic dance of death and multiple figures of the damned. What is the purpose of this Thinker? I ask myself.  I had arrived at the museum fixated on another question which I realized was sort of the same: How do we move from mindfulness to transforming our world through education?

According to Dr. Chris Goto-Jones in a course he designed called, Politics of Mindfulness, the mindfulness revolution which is led primarily by white, middle class Americans, does not require any particular change in values or economic systems, but simply involves our becoming able to relate to them differently—with more patience, gentleness and compassion. Further he adds, for a ‘revolution,’ this movement seems to show remarkable conservatism.

In the field of education, I have often observed how the mindfulness movement for teachers and schools is about coping with stress. It can be interpreted as an individual therapeutic device or a way to accept (albeit with compassion and awareness) the way things are.

In my view, there is something missing in this perception of mindfulness. For me mindfulness is a spiritual act, one that leads to reciprocal transformation. It is an act of Conscientious Engagement that engenders courage, advocacy, seeking out and defending truth. As intended by ancient wisdom and tradition of Buddhism—mindfulness is about freedom from suffering for the self and for all living beings. That is because mindfulness leads to enlightenment which is the full destruction of any illusion of duality—in other words, there is no “other.” Freedom, in my mind, can never be an individual state , but rather only exists in community.

What is the value of The Thinker in society? A poet, a writer, a teacher, for example—a person who makes a life out of reflecting on knowledge, on interrogating our purpose as human beings, engaging with extremely complex topics in such a way that we can evolve and grow. This is at the heart of education, isn’t it, the passing on knowledge, skills, values, and beliefs from one generation to the next? What is the value we place on education?

I am asking these questions not just because of the recent proposed 9.2 billion dollar cut to the education budget, but because we are living in a world that is increasingly driven by dramatic, public displays of Actions that beg us to reflect on what we value—

Politicians grandstanding, television cameras taping, Twitter feeds feeding, soldiers fighting, angry people protesting, police arresting, bombs bursting, madmen hating, guns killing, teenagers drinking, escape pills popping, campaigns circulating, business deals signing, stocks investing, prison guards guarding, retirees redecorating, shoppers consuming, birthdays at Disney…

After a long time of feeling lost in chaotic thoughts, I step back from The Thinker and I accidentally crash into a mother wearing a hijab. She is holding the hand of her young daughter who looks about six. My sandal almost pops off so I bend down to fix it. When I stand up to regain my balance, the mother apologizes several times and she scurries away, her beautiful daughter looking back at me with luminous eyes. In that instant, I remember who and where I am. My mind flashes back to that time when I was waiting to meet a principal in a small Bronx elementary school. At the center of her office there was a small round table surrounded by books. One book was propped up in the center so I grabbed it and read it. It was called, What Do You Do With An Idea?

I was transformed. By the time the principal arrived, I was soft-hearted, open and clear minded. Any school leader with this book at the center of her office, on a child sized table matters deeply to our society. Without knowing anything more about her, I loved her and her role in the world instantly.

This year I published a book. And even though my writing miraculously found its way out into the world thanks to my editor at Routledge, I still sometimes get a little lost. It’s so easy to forget one’s whole journey, one’s purpose. Who am I and do my words and actions matter?

My goal for writing the book was to provide a guide for others like me to move from thinking and mindfulness to action, to develop every day practices that matter in the real world of schools and institutions, always keeping equity in mind. I believe that we can build an egalitarian society if we can envision it but I am not sure if everybody believes this is possible and if they do, they may not know how to be proactive. Sometimes, I feel we are fragmented…those who sit in meditation and do yoga and believe in small acts of kindness and those who are riled up, rightly angry and speak out passionately against injustice. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

How do we pull these worlds together? Do we share the same language, the same dream?

I also believe we are each equipped with a divine intelligence to move us in the direction of unity. Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost, to forget our power, to know what we do and say matters very much in the world, be we are very equipped for greatness. We will move beyond this.

In my book I discuss six principles that I envision will help us move from mindfulness to transforming our institutions in society, starting with education organizations and schools. I outline in detail the rationale for these principles and provide real world examples of the practice. It is just a beginning. Moving forward, I will rely on each and every one of you, those of you in the field, to share back, to respond, to help keep building this new language and an understanding for this important work.

Take a look first.

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In the End the True Nature of Teaching Will Prevail

Teaching and learning is art. The role of the artist is to reveal the essence of reality so that we are moved into compassion for ourselves and the world. So we can respond with kindness and humanity, to grow and flourish, to love each other and experience the effortlessness of unbound beauty, the type of effortless beauty found in a Spring bloom.

This has been a socially, emotionally and spiritually tumultuous year for all of us. Not too long ago I remember thinking and hearing that if this president or that, became president—“I am leaving the country!” Alas, this president, or that became president and most of us are still here. For some, this “morning after” is marked by an effervescent glow while for others, we find ourselves stripped naked and bare, each of our flaws and imperfections magnified by a blinding fluorescent light.

How will these social and political changes impact our teaching and learning craftsmanship? How long will it take for our eyes to adjust before we begin to see things more objectively, more clearly— not seeped in a morning after glow or stark naked shame?

I have felt sadness for the many losses and disappointments experienced over the course of this year. Yet, on some days, I am filled with gratitude. Especially during this month of June that marks the end of a year for teachers. Put the past to rest and the anticipation of starting again. I suspect that you are experiencing similar emotions because even though we are all unique individuals, we are together in this shared-reality, these months of social upheaval. Together we have witnessed a grand clearing out, the removal of clutter and garbage that has allowed us to scratch past the fine lens of complacency and superficiality. We are feeling the aftereffects of what happens when toxins are released into our blood stream, similar to what you might feel after a deep tissue massage: the pain and the soreness and all you want is Ibuprofen and green tea.

Donald Pfaff tells us that we are naturally good, that we are biologically wired for altruism. I want to believe him. Especially now when I encounter more news about war than peace and I find people filled with rage rather than gentle kindness. He writes:

“For too long it has become common wisdom that human nature is essentially selfish. We are taught that our instincts are somehow designed by nature to promote ourselves, and that these ‘animal’ selves must be tamed to fit into civilization…. The human brain is actually programmed to make us care for others. Many of our basic drives, reactions and skills are more products of nature than nurture. The innate biology of the human brain [in fact] compels us to be kind. That is, we are wired for good will.” [1]

If you decide to read Pfaff’s book, you will discover his very intriguing “Altruistic Brain Theory” which can be summed up this way:

For a person to act altruistically, they must picture the person who will be the target of this altruistic act in such a way that the image of the person blurs with that of one’s self, which provides the basis for treating the other like oneself.

A brilliant and critical theory for teachers to consider right now, as we engage in the last stage of cleaning out cubbies, saying goodbye, letting go of the past and anticipating a new beginning. Why? Because now is the time, when we are no longer gripped by the fear of unfamiliar shadows and are ready to find peace and acceptance for who we really are. Now, we can narrow in on what we need to do to move into alignment with our magnificent, altruistic nature.

I for one, make a commitment to engage in a mindful inquiry this summer about altruism. I will reflect on this question every time I interact with another human being:

Does the image of the person in front of me blur with the image of myself?  

Then I will ask, why or why not?

What are the barriers, filters and/or mindsets that prevent us from being able to picture or visualize a person, as being like oneself?

Recently, I was invited to contribute to a column on race and implicit bias and I thought deeply about how personally responsible we should feel for the injustices we witness in schools and in society when there are so many complex factors at play such as widening income inequality, segregated schools and communities, a national narrative that breeds intolerance for immigrants, Muslims, poor people and so on. Implicit bias exists, however we need to understand that our minds are so fragile and conditioned by the prevailing narratives of our time. Our nature may be altruistic, but how often do we act in alignment with our true nature? What gets in the way of truth?

Teaching is an act of love. It is revelation. It is the total nurture of the mind, body and spirit of humanity. It is a craft to be taken on with compassion. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, the majority of teachers go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. It is a calling for most.

This June, I hope that as you make sense of this socially, emotionally and spiritually challenging year, that you do not stray too far from your purpose. Rest up. Then visualize yet another iteration of yourself; a self that is One and in the same image as all other human beings, because tomorrow we will come together again.

We are still here and there is much work to be done.

____________________

[1] Pfaff, Donald W. (2015) The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford University Press, 2015

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?

 

Rules of Authentic Engagement

All change, innovation, and progress depends on the engagement of ordinary people. Ordinary people like you and me make things real by our commitment and every day practice. This is what academics refer to when they use the word Praxis. Praxis is the act of engaging people in every day practice in order to realize a big idea. Without praxis, big ideas die.

The engagement of ordinary people in education policy and decision-making is important because education is about human survival and all decisions in education, public or private, impact the future of our children. We are all born with the instinct to protect the future of our children and preserve humanity. That is why the topic of authentic engagement and praxis in education is so important—and especially now when it is so hard to stay conscientiously engaged.

Challenge

In my experience, engagement in discussions that may lead to important decisions in education has become increasingly strained and artificial. Especially when it pertains to issues of equity. I think we are all feeling the pull of that downward spiral towards apathy and lack of motivation. I think this trend has to do with two things. One is our leadership and the second is lack of responsiveness.

Leadership

Many of our leaders starting with the President are problematic and their ascension to positions of power have surfaced great angst, confusion, and mistrust about how people rise up to leadership in our society; not to mention the qualities and characteristics required of a leader. In view of the current debate around our nation’s leaders, it is right to question the process and whether the hearings, for example, are simply formalities rather than opportunities for us to exercise our due diligence and make corrective action. Do the individuals being appointed to the cabinet by the President, such as DeVos, for example, truly reflect the heart and minds of the people they would be charged with serving? Is she in touch with the type of impact her decisions would have on districts, schools, teachers and whole communities? The DeVos situation makes us wonder what knowledge and experience matters when it comes to leadership. There is so much to consider when a leader takes ownership of a position, especially the impact this leader will have on authentic engagement.

We see this in organizations as well that experience similar dilemmas in leadership. Hiring practices, promotions or appointments are often rooted in political agendas, bias, funding, and nepotism. A person may be put in charge of an education program or diversity initiative that has a background in finance, for example. How might this flagrant lack of value for knowledge and experience deter people from engaging authentically in the organization? Even more importantly, what happens if flawed decisions in leadership result in the total breakdown of authentic engagement?

I wonder if it is possible to have authentic engagement when we question the knowledge, experience and overall commitment to our collective well-being of our leaders.

Lack of Responsiveness

Everyone knows the promise and pitfalls of the “feedback” or “suggestion” box. The idea is brilliant. It communicates a respect and openness to input from everybody. And yet, what happens when the feedback or suggestions don’t ever get implemented? What message does that send about the authenticity of the process?

In a recent conversation with my husband, he shared how at first the suggestion box in his office contained seemingly trivial requests, such as asking for better lighting in the bathroom or a new microwave for the kitchen. However, once the management took those small demands seriously, over time the suggestion box filled up regularly with feedback on deeper issues such as flexible time to promote work life balance or how the company should provide a private space in the office for mothers who breast-feed. The power of responsiveness and the attention to detail, especially at the beginning was priceless in ensuring authentic engagement.

Unfortunately, I have often found that we ask people to engage in a conversation about decisions only to find out later that the decision would be made behind closed doors. I have also recognized patterns of which voices systematically get silenced such as people of color, women or members of the community who are deemed as less educated.

There are two main reasons for a lack of responsiveness. One is political structure, like in my first example. Important decisions that matter are really made at the top, often by one, two or three individuals who have power and the collaborative protocols in between are really just artificial exercises to give the appearance of being flat and inclusive. The second reason is conscious or unconscious bias, dominant ideologies and/or notions about whose voice we should value. Some might argue the latter is particularly pernicious because it reeks of subtle bigotry but I believe they are equally problematic because they both end up breaking down authentic engagement and the much needed participation of people. I have often wondered just how aware an organization is of their lack of responsiveness, survey after survey, meeting after meeting.

Agency and Mindful Inquiry

I want to believe that authentic engagement can happen regardless of flaws in leadership or a history of lack of responsiveness. I have spent a life putting my faith in the power of ordinary people like myself to make a difference by expressing voice in the face of adversity and somehow convincing others to act conscientiously for the common good. Sadly, I am not sure anymore. I question if large-scale innovation or change can happen without authentic engagement and if authentic engagement is possible without authentic leaders. That leads me to my mindful inquiry for this week:

  • How can we develop authentic leadership for equity?
  • How can we get the attention of our leaders to become our allies in our work for equity?
  • How can we develop alliances within flawed structures and leadership in ways that can challenge the status quo, without ousting our allies in the process?

The Language of Agency for Equity

“Industrious and conscientiousness are often at odds with one another because industriousness wants to pluck the fruit from the tree while it is sour, whereas conscientiousness lets it hang too long until it falls and smashes itself to pieces.”

~Frederick Neitzsche, Human, All Too Human, A Book for Free Spirits

This week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, the inauguration and the Women’s March. On all occasions, the power of language and words came front and center and I am reminded again and again of how much our use of language can either obfuscate an audience or inspire people to speak truth even in the face of power.

President Trump, for example, tweeted John Lewis is a man of no action and only talk, talk, talk. But just a few days later, these were the words that characterized his first talk to the Nation:

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In a recent article in the National by Joseph Dana, he describes the power of language and words to manipulate:

Mr Trump, a thin-skinned political novice who has lied so consistently in his political career that he has rendered his words meaningless, is such a person. Through his rejection of facts and aggression towards the mainstream press, Mr Trump is inculcating the American people with the idea that belief systems outweigh rational thoughts and discourse.

How are we supposed to trust our leaders and hold fast to moral clarity if we are constantly being manipulated by words and language? Further how can we combat irrational thought when we are told in some cases that words are meaningless and that there is this thing called “alternative facts,” while in other cases, words hold us accountable such as in our legal documents, however old and outdated they might be?

I did find solace for a moment watching Amy Goodman who played one of Dr. King’s old speeches. It was from 1964. I was amazed to find that Dr. King spoke about how we can twist words to mask our intentions or act for our convenience:

“I would like to mention one or two ideas that circulate in our society—and they probably circulate in your society and all over the world—that keep us from developing the kind of action programs necessary to get rid of discrimination and segregation. One is what I refer to as the myth of time. There are those individuals who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice in the United States, in South Africa or anywhere else; you’ve got to wait on time. And I know they’ve said to us so often in the States and to our allies in the white community, “Just be nice and be patient and continue to pray, and in 100 or 200 years the problem will work itself out.” We have heard and we have lived with the myth of time. The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, “Wait on time.”

And somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right. This is so vital, and this is so necessary.”

What does this word mean, Time?  What do you or I attach to this notion of Time and even, the word Patience? An examination of our words is so critical to our collective consciousness and understanding of what we stand for, especially if we want to take this notion of Time and translate it to real Action. At the Women’s March with my daughter, we were surrounded by words on placards and we were simultaneously immersed in the flow of an enormous movement. Both words and actions matter.

Teachers use and teach words every day. We use words to learn, to inspire, to share, to communicate.  We also want our Actions to be aligned to the words that we say. In my forthcoming book, Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge, 2017), I talk about this notion of language and words as being a reflection of our inner thoughts or streams of consciousness as educators. I argue that we have to be aware of how we communicate with each other and how through our language we can often confuse or misdirect our agency for equity. In my book, I ask teachers to consider the type of language that is required of a teacher who is committed to fighting for equity, who sees herself as a change agent and to consider her audience when she speaks. What type of words should teachers use when talking to their colleagues about ruly students and what types of words should she use when speaking to students directly?  Do our words and language change when addressing a parent, or when we are in offices with school leaders during an evaluation? Or even—what language characterizes who we are in our personal and private space on the weekends with our friends and families, our churches, temple or the mosque–and how does this impact who we are in the school building on Monday?

In my career, I have come in contact with many teachers, school leaders and education consultants who acknowledge the strange intersection of separate worlds in schools and in our communities but may not be aware of how our every day language and words may communicate mixed messages about what it means to advocate for equity in education and are we expressing the same value for all perspectives, and all human beings?

There is a great challenge that we face in education and it has to do with Martin Luther King’s notion of Time. I want us to be clear that there is a time when its good to sit still in Mindful Inquiry and Reflection but there is also a time when we must take Decisive Action and radically change a Practice or Policy. I want us to be clear about how easy it is for us to channel our energy in ways that stifle agency and progress for equity. I want us to be clear about when is the right time to say, “Now!” And dig in our heals until we see an immediate shift in priorities. I want us to practice saying “No,” and saying, “This is not okay.”

In my writing and instructional design, I am preoccupied with how we can be the architect of bridges across worlds with our words, language and interactive activities that when done well and with care, have the power and potential to pull us together for a common good in education. I often worry that we still project to others a subtle expectation that for some people in society, they should be patient and wait, even though we are in the midst of this fast wave towards a very ominous future, a future that is quickly defining our social, cultural and political landscape.

I do believe it is important to examine how we got here and I believe in our collective Spirit to move us in the right direction. But, still—I worry. I worry that we sometimes get confused about the power of words and language on our thinking and we forget how much power we have as teachers to make a difference in the streams of consciousness of the children we teach. I don’t want teachers and school leaders to stay transfixed and silent, but I also want them to choose their words and language very carefully.

Words and language matter. Pay attention to what you say, how you say it and to whom you are speaking. Words and language are a real reflection of your inner world, your beliefs and your emotional landscape. Check in with yourself and see to it that you manifest through words and language what you truly envision for our future.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Obama’s Safe Space

Aisha Harris of Slate wrote President Obama was in the zone when he delivered the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney on Friday in Charleston, South Carolina. She also said the speech gave her hope in seeing real, actual progress. Obama’s eulogy had an equally profound impact on me. His preacher style cadence transported me to the sixties and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. When he spoke about how God works in mysterious ways, I flashed back to that first time I heard Obama speak in 2004. It was the year I read Jonathan Kozol’s book, The Shame of the Nation flying home from Seattle to New York after a long week coaching. Whatever zone Obama was in, it must have had a quantum effect because while I listened to him speak, I was time traveling. I have no doubt Obama’s speech resonated in the same way with thousands across the globe, possibly hitting a level of intensity that can only be a quantum leap in our collective consciousness.  Is it possible for anyone to tap into that kind of zone that will translate into the change we want to see when it comes to equity?

Poor people, people of color and human beings who have been targets of hate and oppression live off this kind of hope. One of the reasons Obama was voted into presidency was because he threaded hope into his campaigning. Everyday hope is deciding to engage with the world in spite of the odds or the daunting statistics. It means keep moving forward in the face of failure or the humiliation of ignorance or discrimination inflicted upon us daily. Hope has the power to get us through it. It is predicated on faith and faith is about the power of the spirit to manifest dreams into reality. It is no coincidence that Obama’s speech resonated hope. And it was not just because he spoke about grace, forgiveness and healing. It was because he also dared to speak about our dark truth without shaming.
There is indeed a zone that Obama tapped into and we need more of it. He found himself there because of the unique ‘safe’ space he was in. And I’m not referring to the church, either because we know churches are not necessarily safe spaces. I’m referring to the space that is created when several factors converge. It is like a pathway for authenticity and engagement and we watched it happen not only to his audience but it happened to himself, in front of us. As an educator who facilitates and observes tons of presentations, I’ve always been fascinated by how some people have a profound impact on others while others seem to miss the mark entirely. Over the twenty years presenting to children and adults, I’ve come to learn that there are three essential factors that are guaranteed to move an experience into the zone, that is—to have a conscientious, authentically engaged learning experience that has real potential to ignite change.
Factor  #1. Reference our common knowledge or a collective truth. The fact is, even in a diverse world, we are all connected and together we have access to knowledge and universal understandings that we hold as truth. Sometimes this can be unmistakable moments in history but other times it’s about acknowledging the enduring universal truths that underlie all human experience such as raising a family, forgiveness, grace or love.
Factor  #2. Acknowledge how we are entangled with some people more than others and therefore understand what it means to identify with or share a common purpose. While we are all connected, we are also bound together to some by a set of circumstances, whether it is family, work, a neighborhood, a school, religious affiliation or identity. These are the groups we engage with more intimately and we are charged with the group to move ahead a shared purpose. How we manage relationships in these groups determine the outcomes.  
Factor  #3. Overtly acknowledge power and power relationships and how power shapes our society. Power relationships played out through status, racial hierarchies, class or other shape how we behave in the world and how others see us. By overtly recognizing power, people are more likely to heal from oppressive conditions and take a step towards meliorism.
Dr. Jeff Duncun-Andrade, critical educator and professor of education goes around the country saying he is a hope dealer. He knows of that great moment in teaching when we transmit hope to people. But hope alone is not enough to have the long lasting impact on our collective consciousness. If we look back over Obama’s presidency with impact on social change in mind we see how selling hope alone did not do it. It was his ability to harness our universal truths, demonstrate compassion and understanding for entangled groups and finally, for acknowledging the role power and oppression plays in society. How can we teach people to engage with each other in this way? Is there a way to develop more safe spaces that open each and every one of us to the potential of the zone?

Schools ought to be safe spaces. Education is our pathway to knowledge and innovation. As a teacher educator, I want to know how can I get teachers to live in that critical zone?  They need to know the entire purpose of their job is to inspire students to speak, write and create art that vibrates at a quantum energetic level with the power to impact the world. Teachers need safe spaces with which to dismantle false notions of teaching and learning, false notions of the purpose of education. They need to ask themselves: how can we cultivate the freedom of the mind and spirit so that we can create equitable and sustainable societies?
In my experience, there are few safe spaces in education today. Conscientious educators are persecuted daily. There is always a Dylan Roof amongst us. Knowing this, we have to ask ourselves how are we creating schools that are in the service of truth?  Is it not the true function of education to cultivate in you intelligence? And what is intelligence but the capacity to think freely, without fear, without formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true?[1]

Our witnessing of Obama’s light shine out from this safe space was a historical moment. It was a demonstration of what we can do when we are in the zone. Now, each of us has to consider how to build safe spaces all around us, so that we can take hope one step further than just hope.



[1]Krishnamurti (1964) Think on These Things. Harper Perennial