Tag Archives: motivation

Mindfulness in 2018: A Reflection

My meditation stats were stunning in 2018, comparatively, that is. Here’s the snapshot: one hundred and seventy-one consecutive days on the cushion as compared to one hundred and twenty four days the previous year. That’s an improvement of almost an entire two month’s worth of meditation on a cushion. However, I must confess that my daily practice has severely fallen off since the day I reached the 171 day record, way back in June–for reasons I might be able to get into here. Welcome to my fourth annual year-end reflection, wherein I try publicly to figure some stuff out about the previous 12 months and set some new goals for the new year.

I’d like to say 2018 ended well, but truth be told, the end of the year finds me in the midst of several upsetting little quandaries. Let me list them.

  • My meditation practice has fallen off considerably.
  • My writing practice has fallen off considerably. I have not been writing nearly as regularly as I would like–and that’s a common writer complaint–we’re never as productive as we’d like to be. But sometimes it’s a real anxiety machine–not being able to give yourself a little slack, worrying that the last thing you finished might be the last good idea you will ever have. The stuff of nightmares. Similarly, the last time I wrote a song was a year ago. Also not good.
  • The current state of American politics infuriates and depresses me, literally.
  • I’ve got a cold, damn it, one that’s been tenaciously holding on for dear life for the better part of two weeks now. Merry Christmas to me.
  • Apparently, I have a torn meniscus.
  • Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with what appears to be my first serious health challenge of my “middle” age: I have hypertension, high blood pressure. Most of the time I feel pretty great, but blood pressure issues are sneaky and scary, my numbers waffle wildly, sometimes venturing into some horrifying territory, and since a colleague of mine recently had a triple by-pass surgery after a heart attack, I have been of late filled with dread and trepidation about my imminent demise. Truly, I do not think my demise is imminent. I am prone to hyperbole on this first day of 2019. But, I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t a little worried. So my doctor keeps prescribing increasing doses of a blood pressure med called Lisinopril. We haven’t arrived yet at a dosage that works for me, and he just prescribed the largest possible dose of this stuff. Okay. I am supposed to check back with him in a month. My condition may require a cocktail of pills. Yippee. Better than the alternative, I must admit.
  • I have felt over the last year somewhat disconnected from my family. My wife, son, and I seem to be ships passing. Very busy, all of us, doing our own thing.
  • Motivationally, regarding almost anything, I have felt rather sluggish of late. I have spent too much time over the last year when I could be reading, writing, making music, or exercising, falling into the internet rabbit hole, habitually checking the national bad news, reflexively perusing the social media, and drinking too much. I have concluded that I think I drink too much. I’m noticing my choice of words there. None of this seems very mindful.

And it all seems like bad news.

We make our own realities, the wise ones tell us. Our behaviors have consequences, and sometimes our realities are shaped by the way we choose to look at them. So perhaps it might be helpful to simply try on another lens, to look at the above “issues” in a more positive light, or to think about the positive things that moved through 2018 instead of just the shitty ones. Okay. Let us try this experiment, addressing a different perspective on the above yuck in the same order.

  • I think I am learning to let go of the idea that meditation is something that one must keep track of faithfully like an athlete keeps track of their accomplishments and stats. I have meditated and will continue to meditate when I feel like it, when I am able, when the spirit moves me, when my meditation group meets every other Sunday, even, perhaps, when I am driving (remembering, of course, to keep my eyes open). There are opportunities to meditate outside the confines of the cushion, and I don’t need my Insight Timer app to be with me on a walk, or in silent moments in the classroom, or when I’m cuddling with my dogs. Is it important that I even know how many consecutive days I’ve meditated? Or how many total hours? Probably not.
  • I have written less this year, yes, but I have come super close to finishing two manuscripts. I revised the novella I’ve been working on for several years now, and I have a book of poems essentially ready to go. And yes, I haven’t written a song in a year, but I played the drums more this year than I have in the previous eight combined. I have found myself a gig in an 80s cover band that has kept me very busy and refreshed my drum set chops in a big way–AND–I’ve made new friends in the process.
  • The infuriating state of affairs in American politics was seriously shaken up in the midterm elections, especially in the House of Representatives, where democrats now have the majority, and the make-up of these elected officials actually comes somewhat close to representing the people it serves by gender, ethnicity, faith, orientation. There is hope. We are self correcting. More of that, please.
  • The cold is on the mend.
  • I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for the knee, and she is kind and lovely and an appointment with her comes with an hour of massage therapy.
  • The blood pressure, after a hair-raisingly high rating Sunday night, seems to be coming down. What was it that Twain said so famously: reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated? I have only died a little bit–rather, I have reached a sobering conclusion that as I get older I cannot ignore my body and its inner workings. My blood is telling me something and I need to shut up and listen. I’m all ears.
  • The fact of the matter is that my wife René has been working very hard and very successfully at building her own business; she is doing, most importantly, what she WANTS to be doing–and she’s making a living. This requires from both of us a bit of negotiating–a difficult balancing act–but one that we have been for the most part successful at for 33 years. We are not deterred by these challenges and have begun to acknowledge to each other that certain aspects of our lives together may require some care in 2019. My son, on the other hand, is 13. That explains most of it right there. I’m coming to that sad state in the parenting life when we begin to realize that our babies no longer need us. I mean, they do, of course, but they are eking out their independences from us, no longer see us as the center of their universes, and consequentially, are often making us feel rather superfluous. I can make this a celebration of his growth rather than a personal loss. He is significantly less needy, that’s for sure. Bonus.
  • Last night, I had my first dry New Year’s Eve celebration in memory. No alcohol. I was in a venue to play music for the big celebration and I was surrounded by alcohol. Not a single drink did I take. I am now four days clean and sober. I say that only somewhat jokingly. It has been two years since I last went a significant stretch without alcohol. Last month, once, I think I may have gone 6 or 7 days, but seriously, my modus operandi has been to drink nearly every single day. I conjecture that if there is one thing that’s messing with my motivation to do the things I really want to do (write, read, make original music, be more connected to family, feel generally more energetic and alive in my work), it is likely alcohol. That, and the stupid internet. And maybe the combination of the two. I know, I feel it in my bones, that I read and write less because of the million and one distractions on the web. And I know, not in my bones but in my brain, that it is next to impossible to pick up a good book when I’m tipsy. But I can be tipsy and easily drop in and out of these tiny little reading experiences on the web, where it feels like I might be learning something, but in reality I am like a pebble skipping across the surface of the river only to land on the other side in the dead and dry sand. It’s just not nourishing and it’s not deep. There’s writing to be done, books to read, love to make, a retreat to plan, music to hear and play–all of these things need to come closer to the forefront of my life in 2019.

Well, that’s my reflection, my act of mindfulness about 2018. The second half up there seems to be serving as a very wordy and elaborate kind of New Year’s Resolution. I could probably narrow it down, tighten it up, create some pithy and memorable slogan, something suitable for faceplant or tweeter. Something like this:

2019: More life, more love, better health, more books, less booze.

I can live with that for now.

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Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom

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This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.

 

 

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#37: On Failure

I-am-a-failure

I wrote these short little pieces from various failure perspectives.  There’s such an intriguing and wide variety of ways to fail.  Maybe we gain a little bit of insight by reaching into these mindsets–even for a moment–provided we’re not cynical or simply poking fun.  There’s nothing funny about it.  Each represents an underlying problem that needs solving–if there was ever the will and/or the means for a solution.

On Failure

I
I can’t read
and I can barely
write a sentence.
but I’ve been passed
along from grade to grade
and here I am
in high school failing
every single class.

II
This is just stupid
and I can’t be bothered.
Yeah, my skills may be low
but perhaps not nearly as low
as my interest in everything
except gaming.
Not to mention my family
life is shit and I hate my parents
and I stay up every night until 3 a.m.
playing world of warcraft.

III
I like good grades
but I don’t care much for learning.
Just tell me what I have to do
and I’ll do it, expending
the very least amount of energy
it takes to get the A.
Potential schmential.
If it doesn’t show up
on a transcript somewhere,
I’m not interested.

IV
I don’t know what these tests
are measuring but it must not be
what my teachers are teaching.
How can I do so poorly
on a standardized test
and pass my classes, and
why does my friend do so
well on these stupid tests
and fail his? Somebody has
it all wrong; that’s all I know.

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Reading With My Boy On Easter Eve

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It was a first, a first on this Easter Eve afternoon.  Sure, we’ve read to our son at bedtime almost every night of the week since birth, but this was the first time ever, on this warmest and sunniest day of the year thus far, that my son and I were to sit down together, both independently reading, side by side, because it was a good thing to do.  He was reading Beatrix Potter.  I was reading the new memoir by Jay Ponteri.  And it was a kind of magical moment, magical, because the reading was not foisted on my son in any way, and it wasn’t part of a nightly routine or a homework regimen;  instead, the boy saw his father reading in the warm spring air, and the boy decided that this must be a pretty cool thing to do with one’s time.  After Dad had read solo for awhile, continuing even after the boy had brought him a freshly baked cookie from the kitchen into the yard where Dad was settled into the camping chair in the shade, the boy said, “I’m going to go inside and pick out a book.”  I said all right to that.  Minutes later he came out with a whole stack of Beatrix Potter, from which he chose The Tale of Pigling Bland, the longest of the books in the stack at 80 some Beatrix Potter pages. We were moving our chairs around, negotiating between sun and shade. I found a good spot, and the boy ended up leaning up against the mossy trunk of a gigantic and ancient oak.  And there we read.  He devised a reward system whereby a little badminton or frisbee with Dad followed every 20 pages he read.  But the play served only as a brief respite; after about 5 minutes he’d say, “Shall we get back to reading?”  Then we’d read some  more.

It was heavenly.

This reading with my son gave me hope for him unlike almost any other experience we’d had together in his seven years.  One of my most vital dreams for my son, beyond what sport or what instrument he will choose, beyond which girl (or boy) he will love, beyond which school, vocation, or career he falls into, is that he learns to love to read.  I know in my English teacher soul (bolstered by recent research about what literature actually does to the brain) that the benefits that come with a love of reading will be profound and lasting. I don’t want to jump to conclusions with a premature celebration; one afternoon with a book under a tree is no guarantee he will be a lover of books any more than he will be a lover of trees.  But it’s a start.  It’s a good start, and I’ll take it.

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Of Resolutions

The only new year’s resolution I’ve ever made and then kept was the one I made last year to publish my novel Monster Talk in 2012. But I think I was cheating because the decision to do the thing was made before the close of 2011 by a couple of days–so the ball was in motion and there was very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to. I mean, I could have dropped the ball at any point in the process, but I didn’t, and there was lots of work to do around revision and editing and proofreading and arranging art that kept me busy all the way into spring of 2012.  That was an impressive resolution to make, though, the results of which were public and out there in the open for all to see, unlike most resolutions people make to drink less or eat less or lose weight or be nice–things that are very difficult for anyone other than the person making the resolution to see or keep track of.

So, I’m having some difficulty this year thinking of a suitable resolution.  Maybe I will resolve this year to make no resolutions.  Isn’t it true that people, on the whole, do things they really want to do, achieve the things they really want to achieve, and those things they don’t want to do or achieve, even if they’re really good for them, don’t get done–whether a resolution is made or not?  Maybe deep down I don’t want to drink less, eat less, lose weight, or be nice.  And most of the things I might resolve to do in 2013 (write more, finish the draft of the new novel, read more, record more, stress less, meditate)–these things just might happen anyway. But perhaps, even when a resolution is not kept, in part or in full, there is still some value in resolving to do something in the new year.  Just saying the words–especially in earshot of someone who might notice or care–might be worth doing.

It’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it, if resolutions could be more transformational and radical.  If resolutions could really shake things up, present real significant challenges, create profound  and lasting changes.  I imagine that some people accomplish these things with their resolutions, but I bet it’s more likely that these people are transforming their lives or the lives of others through a daily process of working toward some goal, some dream or another–it’s a part of their daily living and their way of being in the world and likely has nothing to do with a promise they made on New Year’s Eve.  This is just leading me down a kind of sad path as I realize how little agency I sometimes feel to make radical changes in my life–whether it is about some significant change professionally, creatively, personally, in my relationship to people and things, in how my values reflect or don’t reflect the way I actually live or work.  It’s an interesting, profound, and difficult question–if there were no limitations on things you could decide to do or try in the new year, what would you do? What would you try? What’s holding you back?  Would it help to make a resolution?

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The Imaginary Commencement Address

Greetings, class of 2012! You’ve worked hard and you’ve finally arrived at this momentous day, which, just like yesterday was, and the day before yesterday, and just like tomorrow will be and the day after tomorrow will be again, the first day of the rest of your life.  But yesterday you weren’t graduating from high school, and tomorrow you will have already graduated, so this day is in fact set apart, appropriately, as a special day, a day on which you participate in a singular right of passage away from childhood and into adulthood, whatever that means. It sounds kind of scary, actually.

I’d like to begin by thanking you all for not inviting me to speak at graduation.  I appreciate that.  It really takes the pressure off. But even though I have not been invited to speak, I will speak anyway, at least in imagination and spirit, because I CAN, and because I have a few things to say.

I greeted many of you four years ago in English 9. You were silly.  You were nutty.  Some of you were interested in learning.  Some of you were not.  Some of you worked hard.  Some of you didn’t.  Most of you are here today, but others of you could not join us this evening.  That should give us some pause.  (Pause). But you were a sweet group.  I mean to say, even though as freshmen, and even more so as sophomores, you were sometimes frustrating to work with (remember that time I got so angry I walked out of the classroom,  and that other time I slammed my open hand on a desk to get your attention and hurt myself?), you were, on the whole, nice, kind, caring. I really appreciate that.  To me, being a decent human being weighs on the scale much more significantly than good grades and academic prowess.  So I will remember you for being decent human beings.  We had fun together. Thank you.

Others of you I did not meet until your junior year.  You came into American Literature or IB Junior English knowing nothing about me–and we got on pretty well.  We studied witches, the Declaration of Independence, the roaring 20s, Coyote, poetry, monster-making, alcoholism, Chile’s dark past, America’s dark past, and love during the Mexican Revolution–and through the Exhibition Project (which you all loved) and the Individual Oral Presentation (which you all loved), you made your voices and your learning heard above the roof tops of the world.  Good work, people.

And I was fortunate enough to have about 37 of you in my IB Senior English class and my good buddy and Evil Twin Mr. Hawking had another 25 to 30 of you.  I think we studied some things in the context of that particular curriculum that might be appropriate to highlight here, on this occasion–in case you missed it the first time, or, in case you were not in those classrooms.  Let’s think of the next few minutes as a “review for the test,” so to speak.  The test we’re talking about is a long one.  It begins right this second.  And it ends–well, it ends–at the end–hopefully a really long time from now. I want you to do well on the test, so listen up.

We studied literature about the Vietnam war and we learned this:

Wars suck.  If you can help it, don’t fight them.  Instead, fight to prevent them. How do you do that?  Live peacefully in your families and in your neighborhoods.  I believe in the ripple effect that good living can have on everything and everyone that surrounds us.  I don’t mean pure living.  I mean good–good in that no one gets hurt, physically or emotionally; that everything and everyone that comes into direct contact with you is left in a better shape, condition, or state than it or he or she was before your paths crossed.  Live peacefully in and with your own mind.  You have to believe in the possibility of a world without war.  You have to start there.  And know this: that you can believe all of this and fall short of the mark over and over.  You will fail.  As I have.  And then what? We do what we can to make things better, to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven, to avoid past mistakes and destructive patterns.  In a 2011 joint venture between Vietnam and the U.S., 32 million dollars was invested for an Agent Orange clean up in Central Vietnam, nearly forty years after the end of the war. It’s never too late, people. And for those of you who serve: thank you, first of all.  And secondly, help us imagine collectively and then realize an armed forces whose primary job is to help relieve suffering and not to inflict it.

We studied literature about American slavery and the Troubles in Ireland, and we learned that history matters. It teaches us primarily not about the way things were, but WHY things are the way they are.  And if you don’t understand that, you’re living in the dark. History also teaches us this one abiding truth that, if we allow it to, can guide our lives:  nothing worth achieving comes easily.

And we studied post World War II existentialist drama and we came away with this: Live your own dream, not someone else’s.  Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your cell phones and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself.  Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology.  Don’t be a tool.  There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts.  Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

And from Beckett we learned that it’s okay to wait, but we have to be careful, because all of what we believe we are waiting for might already be here. And this is the trap, right, that Beckett was describing: in grade school we wait for junior high (which is absolutely crazy when you think about it), in junior high we  wait for high school, and in high school we  wait for college and the concurrent and/or subsequent unemployment.  And once we’re in college or unemployed we wait for a job, a family, a kid, and then we wait for the kid to go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, job, marriage, grandkids, and . . .  Good grief. Stop waiting for life to begin.  Your life has already begun.  You’re in it.  Live it. Be here now.  Tomorrow will come, I guarantee it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about writing a great essay or analyzing text. Don’t get me wrong, here.  It’s not that I don’t think these things are important–but they are not the end–they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it.  Learning to use your mind well–and I think that has been or should have been the goal of the last 13 years of your school experience–will help you create a more peaceful world, will help you understand and make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own dreams, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you.

With love, deep appreciation for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2012.

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No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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No More Carrots, No More Sticks: A Classroom Without Grades

You might think I’m crazy. After all, things (and people) must be measured. And they must be measured against other things and other people. Only this morning in a staff meeting our school’s principal talked about how the only way to improve a thing is to be able to measure said thing.  And while my principal was talking about system goals and not individual humans, we’ve been acting (forever) as if the same thing might be the case for our students.  We must score them, grade them, award points, measure them up.  Otherwise, how can we ever distinguish the good from the bad, the exceptional from the mediocre, the mastery from the failure, the outcome from the starting point? Without a system of measurement, how would colleges know who to admit? How would companies and businesses know who to hire? How would men and women know who to date? You’d have pure chaos, that’s what you’d have!

I’ve written in earlier blog entries about the distasteful nature of how our public schools tend to sort human beings–through activities, through classes, through tracks, through grades, through standardized tests, through a series of hoops to be jumped into or at or through towards a diploma and towards the next step, be it college, a job, or prison.  And I’ve talked about my discomfort with all of that while working in a system that seems to require it of me. I must give grades.  I must have some “meaningful” way of determining grades.  Thus, I measure.  Is it wise? Is it, in fact, meaningful? Is it humane?

My colleagues complain all the time about incoming freshmen from middle school not having been fully measured, not having been accountable to grades, having been socially promoted regardless of skill or knowledge level.  It is true that students come to us unprepared for high school, but I am not so sure that social promotion is to blame.  I don’t have a ton of knowledge about how middle schools operate; I know little about even the one that feeds my high school, which is sad, I think.  But I do know that what happens inside the school day for any particular student is only a tiny factor in a multitude of variables that shape their intellectual, interpersonal, motivational, and emotional health.  The fact that we grade them or not I believe is a minuscule factor in the equation.  If social promotion were to stop forever at the lower levels, the reality is that no program exists for remediation and services for recalcitrant 8th graders–and they would come to us anyway, as unprepared as ever.  If you could throw gobs and gobs of money at the lower levels for interventions, then maybe we’d be in a better place–but still, in the end the grades kids get would have little to do with how well they would do later.  What would matter is whether or not they have the knowledge or skill and the proper motivational mindset for academic success.

I guess my beef is not with measurement itself, but in the way we measure, ultimately, by letter grades. And grades are bad, as I’ve said before, because they are often arbitrary, inconsistent, unreliable, and never revealing in a specific, meaningful way.  They are extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, that coerce students into compliance.  I have a colleague of mine in my mind’s ear right now, and he’s saying, “What’s wrong with carrots and sticks? They’re everywhere!”  And I would say, sure, they’re everywhere, and most of us have been conditioned to think this way.  But that doesn’t make it good, it just makes it ubiquitous.  Especially in the realm of education, the life of the mind, and in relationships with other humans, wouldn’t it be infinitely better if people acted a certain way for its own sake, because they understood its worth and value and inherent goodness, and NOT because they were going to get a cookie?!

So I’ve started a little thought experiment that I’d like to share in this blog (which might become a series) about what a carrot-less and stick-less classroom might look like. And I’m realizing that in this particular entry I’m only about 300 words away from my self-imposed 1000 word limit.  So even before I say the next thing, whatever that might be, I would extend the invitation to whoever is listening out there to chime in on the subject.  Whether you are a teacher or not, I’d invite you to imagine with me how a class without grades could possibly work.  Any takers?

Okay, let me begin.  It has to start with the premise that the learning is the thing at the center, and that WHAT we are doing and WHY we are doing it is infinitely more important than HOW WELL we are doing it.  And so, in the spirit of moving forward with this, the WHAT and the WHY are from the beginning ever-present, super-explicit, never fuzzy, so that no student at any time could possibly be confused about what they’re doing and why.  So, simply enough, it begins with a shift in focus.  And then, secondly, to eliminate the distraction, and because, ultimately, there does have to be some kind of performance benchmark, we eliminate grades altogether and replace them with two marks: Pass and In Progress. In the one-hundred and eleven words I have left I will, rather than continue with this initial description, instead anticipate some questions: Wouldn’t a system like this just encourage kids to do the bare minimum to “pass”? If we’re not supposed to obsess about how well students are doing, how will students ever improve? How would one determine what level of skill or knowledge earns a “pass”? How would the really motivated or highly skilled individuals distinguish themselves? Isn’t it important to have a hierarchy of a certain number of marks, let’s say 5, to effectively sort our humans? Is the writer of this blog some kind of communist?  More on this stuff later.

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Are Grades The Devil?

Here’s a provocative thesis for you: grades are the devil. They’re evil. They’re evil because they’re oppressive and overvalued. And they’re dumb, not stupid-dumb (although, that’s kind of true), but rather mute-dumb. They don’t tell us anything. They don’t tell us what we need to know about what’s been taught or how, what’s been learned, the qualitative nature of that learning, or the progress the learning represents. They’re arbitrary and unreliable. And they don’t motivate—and if they do motivate, they do so for the wrong reasons.

Are you fired up? Here’s a true confession: I grade students. In part, because I have to, because parents, students, and administrators expect me to, and because it’s part of the job description, I give grades—although I’m fond of the adage, and I use it hypocritically from time to time on my students, that teachers don’t give grades—students earn them. I give grades in the guise of points for things done or accomplished. These points add up over time. And then, at the end of each quarter, and then again at the end of a semester when the thing sticks like stink on something stinky forever, I translate these points into a letter grade. You earned 90% of the possible points possible in this semester. You have earned the letter A. A is for awesome. A is for axcellent. A is for advanced. A is for abracadabra. A is mostly nonsense. And if you earned anywhere between 0% and 59.999%, you’ve earned the letter F. F is for failure. F is for f***k-up. And, in part, because there is no distinction made between 0% and 59.999%, F is also mostly nonsense, pure foolishness.

Do I believe what I’m saying, actually? Let’s try it out. This is what I believe about students who earn an A in one of my English classes: They completed all of their work thoroughly, thoughtfully, punctually. They followed instructions. They did what they were asked to do in good faith. They were leaders in the classroom. They demonstrated mastery over the skills and core knowledge represented by the curriculum, I hope. And, they worked hard, I think. What’s wrong with ANY of that, you might ask. Aren’t these admirable qualities, all of them? Certainly, they are. But perhaps you’re reading a tone of uncertainty about some of these things. I hope they mastered all of the objectives? I think they worked hard? Don’t I have foolproof assessments that tell me they’ve mastered this stuff and worked hard toward that goal? Does it matter? Is it just, more than anything else, that an A student is a very compliant student and an F student is not? And what’s wrong with that?  Well, to begin with, I don’t want compliant students.  I want students who are engaged.

Here’s another confession: I wish I did not have to give grades. I think the world of education and the world at large would be a better place without them. Let me back up first, and try to clarify some of the accusations I have leveled at the grading process in that opening paragraph.

Oppressive? I sometimes fear that the chief purpose behind the time-honored grading process is simply to sort human beings. It’s a kind of sorting that is distasteful and oppressive, because it essentially mirrors and possibly promotes a social and class structure prevalent in our society at large. It gives kids labels and then sorts them by these labels. It separates the smart from the dumb, the successes from the failures, the beautiful from the ugly, mostly, the rich from the poor. It determines, in large part (but not completely), who’s going to college, who’s finishing a degree, who’s going to be gainfully employed, whose earning potential will reach 70,000 dollars a year, which is, I’ve recently read, how much money a person needs to be “happy.” I find this sorting process to be oppressive. It’s ugly. It seems to me somehow that schools might be, or could be, a sanctuary from such sorting—that, in a perfect world, if we really want the same thing for all kids, and that is, to bring them to their fullest potential while we have them, grades seem counter to this. Let adulthood sort people. Let the job market sort people. Let advertising and corporate interests do that—but if I have done my job creating a classroom that represents the dignity of the individual and the principles of democracy and a place to learn and grow without fear—let adulthood, the job market, advertising, and corporate interests try to sort my students. Maybe they will fail.

Overvalued? Yes, because there are actually colleges out there in the world that don’t care about them. Yes, because they don’t necessarily speak to potential success at anything in the future. Yes, because they are dumb—mute-dumb—as mentioned above. Do you want to know what the student studied? Grades don’t tell you that. Do you want to know what the student learned, grappled with, explored, discovered, loved, hated, found useful or relevant? Grades are silent on that point. Do you want to know if the student made leaps and/or bounds over a period of time? Grades can’t say. All grades can say is that a student accomplished 90%, 80%, 70%, 60% or a lower % of some mysterious thing about equally mysterious subject matter. But A’s are inherently good, aren’t they? They give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. We want them on our transcripts and on our children’s transcripts.

Arbitrary and unreliable? Sure. A student may get a C from one teacher and an A from another in the same subject. A student may earn an F in a class for which he or she has already mastered the core knowledge and skills. A student might earn an A in class for working really hard but not mastering the objectives of the course. In one class a teacher grades participation and it’s worth a certain % of a total grade. Another teacher believes you shouldn’t grade behavior at all, and while participation is important to this teacher, it’s a behavior, and a student could have her hand raised for 18 weeks to chime in to the discussion and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference in her overall performance.

Grades don’t motivate? Listen to Dan Pink. Read or listen to (but try not to watch) Alfie Kohn talk about the studies that have been done on motivation. The jury is in: the higher the reward in terms of money or grades, the less a person is motivated. And this is borne out in my experience as a classroom teacher in almost every conceivable way. The students who fail are not worried. They’re not afraid. The threat, and that is exactly what it is, of an F, forever on their report card and transcripts, does absolutely NADA to motivate them. And most of my A students do what they do because they find value in doing it and would do the same thing if all they got at the end of the semester was a polished stone—or maybe even a lump of coal. Now, with the latter category, the A student category, there are students who ask me about  what they’re “getting” on a regular basis, (but now they don’t have to ask me because they can go on the interwebs and check their own progress, in which case they don’t have to ask me what they’re “getting”, but instead, how they can “get” something better), who are motivated by the actual LETTER “A”, or who are fearful of unrealistic parent expectations, or who are working hard for some other external goody, like a driver’s license, insurance money, extra-curricular activities, an x-box, an iPod—but what we know from the research is that these motivators are short-lived—they do not result in lasting, intrinsic motivation toward life-long learning or toward quality work. So for some people, money and grades work in the short-term. No one who is serious about the education of a child wants any of their efforts toward this end to be short-term.

In conclusion, then, grades are the devil and I wish I did not have to give them.

So, you might be asking, what’s in place of grades, Mr. Smarty-Pants? Another day, another blog.

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Difficult Work: It’s A Good Thing They Like Me

Teachers who say that it doesn’t matter whether or not students like them have something wrong with their brains. It seems to me that one of a teacher’s greatest tools, an ace in the hole, so to speak, or, conversely, his greatest deficit, is whether or not his students like, love, or hate him. Here’s the bottom line—Can I relate to young people? Because if I could not, I know that they would have eaten me alive years ago and I would have gone down as one of those statistics: most new teachers drop out of the profession in three years’ time. It didn’t use to be this way. In the 70’s and early 80’s, when I was a lad, there were teachers that students hated that remained in the profession until they retired. Today, students still hate some of their teachers, don’t get me wrong, but unless the professional in question has incredible skill at commanding some kind of respect or attention not simply based on her authority, this person is probably history.

Authority just does not mean the same thing it used to mean. I’m not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing so I will say that it’s both. We used to respect authority because it was authority and because if you did not you were in all kinds of shit. Today, at least in schools, we respect authority because that authority demonstrates a respect for us. That’s a good thing. But here’s the flip side of the coin. Students today will repeatedly and openly bring iPods and cell phones and game boys into the classroom, they will openly defy a teacher, or call him a name to his face, or tug on his pony tail, or slap him on the back in the hallway for fun. They are comfortable doing these things. They’re not always trying to be mean; they just do not see these behaviors as inappropriate in any way. Teachers are their equals. More broad generalizations, I know, but I think it is true from my own anecdotal experience that students do things today in classrooms and in schools that my peers or I would never have dreamed of doing in our teenage school days. Let’s flip the coin over again, however, and we find that today teaching is more about building relationships and less about exercising power over our minions. Now, I have to earn the power over my minions. And I have these four tools at my disposal: my intellect, my passion about the craft of teaching and the process of learning, my general good will toward my students, and for the most part, because of the music or the hair or the shoes or just because they think I’m a pretty good guy, they like me. And it’s a good thing. So, it’s safe to say, and I think the research bears me out on this one, that one thing that motivates a student is a teacher that she likes. But I’ve got lots of students who like me just fine, or even, like me a whole lot, who are, nevertheless, failing my classes. There’s another difficulty.

It’s Not Enough That They Like Me

There is another tool at my disposal; it’s only a question of putting it into good practice—another notch in the list of difficulties around teaching. And perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all, because, while most studies prove it to be the most effective way to motivate, it is perhaps the less intuitive and the more rigorous way to go. All I have to do is CHANGE MY BRAIN, and thus, by an almost supernatural imposition of will, I can change the brains of my students. Carol Dweck, Ph. D., in her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success, says we must work to change our own minds, and then the minds of our students, from what she calls a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” And voila!—all will be well and right with the world. I’m not being facetious. I believe this. It’s just really hard to do. Quickly, let me see if I can unpack this: A fixed mindset sees things as predetermined; skills, talents, special proclivities are meted out at birth and can never change. You are either smart or you’re not. You’re either talented or not. It’s a recipe for stagnation and mediocrity. Fixed mindset people are often encouraged by parents, teachers, and coaches (who may have also been fixed mindset kinds of folk), with the message that they are smart and talented—and maybe they actually are, but because the message that they are already a particular way is pounded into their little brains, whenever they are faced with evidence to the contrary, i.e., a difficult task, they get easily frustrated and end up thinking the opposite about themselves. I am not smart or talented after all. In fact, I am stupid and without skill. And then, rather than risk further failure, they give up, or worse, they don’t try, avoiding any revelation of their lack of intelligence or skill. On the contrary, a “growth mindset” person comes at every difficulty as a learning experience and every challenge as valuable in and of itself. Every setback is an opportunity, and only when these folks are being stretched, not victorious, do they feel successful. And they work really hard at stuff. They were not successful because their performance was flawless and they “got it” right away, but because they labored intensely toward a goal they found meaningful and rewarding. And, in short, Dweck says that a combination of a nurturing environment and high challenge are the key to fostering a “growth mindset” and instilling a desire for success within students and other humans. And she, right alongside my hero Alfie Kohn (Punished By Rewards), says that praise and blame, the carrot and the stick, are ineffective motivators.

Jessica, a friend of mine, recently sent, and attached to a posting on an earlier one of my blog entries, a lecture by Dan Pink which beautifully summarizes the most recent findings about motivation in the workplace. Three elements, Pink says, maximize productivity from workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I’m already beyond a thousand words in this particular blog entry, so I will try to bring this to closure quickly. Can we apply the conclusions of Dweck and Pink to the field of education and the question of what motivates students? Hell yeah. And isn’t this good news? Hell yeah. Because now we know what will motivate students! Let’s see what we’ve got: given a nurturing environment (a teacher who cares for students and in turn is cared for or “liked” by students), high expectations, teacher/student autonomy, and a strong sense of purpose, we ought to be simply cooking with fire. Let’s get rid of unnecessary punishments and rewards. There will be no stopping us then. I’m getting really excited.

Wait a minute. Houston, we have a problem. I feel some air inexplicably escaping from a hole the size of a pin in my big-ass hot air balloon. Do students experience a nurturing environment? Well, as much as you could expect from a 1 to 160+ teacher/student ratio. Are students given high expectations? We do the best that we can, but inconsistently, and some students graduate from high school who are barely or only functionally literate. How much autonomy do teachers and students have? No Child Left Behind and the nation’s obsession with standardized testing has swept a lot of teacher creativity and student choice right under the carpet. What about the punitive aspects of schooling, the punishments and rewards that are part and parcel of the daily, monthly, yearly routine: praise and blame, gold stars and frowny faces, A’s and F’s? Surely, these are receding from their traditional dominance in the motivational strategies of teachers, parents and students—aren’t they? Holy cow. One thing at a time. One thing at a time. Please stay tuned.

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