Autumn Wind

“How you doin’?”

“Not bad, could be worse.”

Lordy, there’s a lot to unpack there.

For many, a passing “hello,” has been replaced by “how you doin’?” They don’t really want to know as they pass you in the grocery store. We’re too busy, we’re too self-absorbed. Yes, I’m looking squarely in the mirror here.

My parents will tell you that as a kid, when asked how I was doing, I’d always say, “Fine.” And that was it, the entirety of my answer. Honestly, that’s still my answer much of the time. But I’m working on being more open and honest—about sadness and joy.

The truth is I’m fine, but I’m not. Not bad, could be worse. I’m financially secure, have a secure job, have a loving and supportive family, have the space and resources to do many of the things that are important and meaningful to me. I haven’t experienced great personal trauma of faced much personal grief. I’m blessed.

Yet, I’m also not fine. We live in a world we have made in which the majority of people struggle daily just to survive—they struggle financially, with physical and mental health, a secure home, or lacking a loving and supportive family. So many struggle with unfocused anger and rage which is like a death ray from some alien robot vaporizing everything in its path as it sweeps across the landscape and people in its path. They deal with trauma. We all do. Maybe trauma is most devastating when it then leads to disconnection. Disconnection from one other, from family, from friends, but also disconnection from other life and the natural world. We can collectively see this disconnection, the crises resulting from it, and the trauma it causes, and yet, collectively, we seem unable to act to address it.

How do we reconnect, build empathy, and process trauma together? Singer, songwriter Mary Gauthier talks about this in a TED Talk titled the Joy of Sad Songs. She describes her guitar as an empathy machine and that songs can help heal a wounded soul and heart. A song can bring us into the experience of someone else so we know it and understand. When we change a heart, that can lead to a mind being changed, which can change a person, and doesn’t that change the world?

At times I feel guilty writing a sad song. And as I’ve been told, I write a lot of them. Who am I to write such things. “I’m fine.”

Recently, the power of Facebook reminded me of a birthday of a long-lost friend who died a few years ago. Even though I’d lost touch, reconnected a couple of times, and lost touch again, seeing news of her death was like a punch to the gut. Part of the gut punch was that in my casual reconnecting, I had no idea that she wasn’t “fine.” Maybe those close to her, in those years after we were friends, did know and did offer gobs of support. Maybe not.

“How you doin’?”

“Not bad, could be worse.”

Processing that led to this largely fictionalized story. I hadn’t really considered sharing this one publicly, though Mary’s TED Talk reminds me the power of a sad song—the importance of empathy for what others are experiencing in this world we share. Also, a friend of mine, upon listening to many of the songs I’m working on right now, said this was his favorite as it resonated with him personally. Though I’ve set this one aside for now in the current recording project I’m in the midst of, I wanted to share it here, recognizing the potential power of a sad song.

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We Need To Talk About The Monarch Butterfly

We need to talk about butterflies. Specifically, the monarch, Danaus plexipus. Do you realize the miraculous nature of the life of a monarch? I don’t use that term lightly. The wonder of the monarch goes beyond the familiar nature of insect’s ability to undergo metamorphosis, which in and of itself, pretty cool. We’re all familiar with the transition from caterpillar to butterfly.

An adult monarch butterfly in Northern Mexico or Southern U.S. lays eggs on a milkweed plant in the spring. It only lays eggs on milkweed plants. Ingesting the milkweed toxins is what makes the monarch so distasteful to predators. What a wonder of evolution that behavior is. Toxic enough to make the predator ill, but not kill it so that it learns to avoid orange and black insects. Doesn’t do much for the monarch eaten but does for the population of the species. The life of the monarch from this trait to its reproduction, to its migration are all lessons in communal good.

The egg takes 4 – 6 days to hatch. Then the caterpillar (larva) lives 2 – 3 weeks on the milkweed. The very hungry caterpillar munches away and grows from the emerged small larva to the familiar caterpillar, going through multiple molts as it increases in size. The caterpillar picks a spot, hooks on, and forms the familiar chrysalis, hanging from the underside of the leaf. This is the pupa. Honestly, what a disgusting sounding word, no? Say it a few times. Just sounds wrong, but this is where the true “magic” occurs. Once this creature has cocooned itself, enzymes are released and the creature begins digesting itself the caterpillar’s organized body is converted into a goo, which then organizes into collections of embryonic “imaginal” cells and eventually into the butterfly.

For a time, then this living thing goes from a self-sustaining, complex system of cells, tissues, and body systems to a bag of cellular goo, which then reorganizes itself into a new, different complex living system; yet, it is still the same life form, the same individual with the same genetic code. Through it all there is this essence of life that persists, or could cease to exist, if conditions are not favorable, with emergent properties—more than just a collection of cellular parts, to goo, to parts again. The butterfly emerges, hangs there for a bit pumping fluid into its wings, inflating them and then flying off (usually northward) as an adult.

But wait, there is more to this story!

This first generation of butterfly only lives for 2 – 5 weeks, slowing working its way further north before it finds a mate and lays eggs for the cycle to repeat itself again. This happens again and the 3rd generation moves further north still during its 2 – 5-week life, mating and producing more eggs. Finally, the 4th generation monarch emerges on a milkweed, maybe 1500 miles north of the Mexican mountains where its great-great grandparents spent the previous winter. This has all occurred in a few months.

But wait, there’s even more to this story?

The final amazing feat of the monarch begins here in North America as the 4th generation it starts migrating (not in 3 generations like those that brought it there) but in its one lifetime back to the mountains of Mexico. Keep in mind that individual, nor its parents, or even grandparents have ever seen those mountains before. Still, it finds its way “home.” Four generations to complete a migratory life cycle. Amazing. There’s complexity of organization that I find absolutely astounding. Life. What a fucking miracle.

I Sense Many of us are on Edge

I sense we’re all a little tense. A little worn thin. Maybe feeling tired, no? I know, I know. I feel it too. I have work to do today as well. But, geez, I’m having trouble focusing as I suspect many of you are too.

Let me share this song from a friend of mine with you.

It’s Fine
© 2022 Ted Hajnasiewicz

I don’t have a jagged edge
Nor a ragged head
Wont find me on the ledge
Maybe I’ve never left the bed
And I’m fine. It’s fine.

It’s been a time or two
Maybe three since I’ve seen you
Doing nothing’s my thing to do
And I don’t want no trouble from here
And I’m fine. It’s fine,

I’m always late for the party
Better never than late
This mystery that we started
Makes me hesitate
I’m fine

I must confess I had no drive
Dank memes about a happy life
Seem easier than going outside
Where I might actually wear a smile
And I’m fine. It’s fine.

I’m always waiting for something
The other shoe to drop
This little war that we started
Makes me wanna stop

There must be something to talk about
‘cause the weather hasn’t changed much
I’m glad we don’t all think out loud
‘cause sometimes I think a little rough
I’m fine

Here’s an exercise I want you to consider trying. Find a spot outside where you can go and sit, observe, journal, sketch, meditate, pray, or whatever. Maybe a spot you can go regularly. It doesn’t have to be pristine, isolated, or all naturey. The first time there open yourself up to feeling the gift of the sun’s energy, to the life around you and your part in it.

Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air, water from the ground and use sunlight to make the sugars that fuel all life on the planet. We are a part of these equations and should approach them fully, accepting our role in them. Nature knows this. We breathe out and the plants breathe in—back and forth we exchange this basic necessity for life. Rocks are born from the fire of the earth and then slowly returned to rest at the bottom of the oceans, only to be recycled and reborn again from the earth. These are gifts from nature to us.

Imagine photons from the sun striking your skin. Imagine them striking the leaves of the plants around you and visualize the movement of the molecules and chain reaction of converting light energy into stored chemical energy. Now, write or draw something inspired by this imagery.

Or, think of Ted’s song and someone you know who is struggling and reach out to them. Write them a note, maybe even a hand-written one and put it in the mail, or stick it in their door. Say “Hey.” (that only makes sense if you watched the video all the way to the end.)

It’s Simple Right? No. It’s Not.

We want the world to be simple. But it’s not. Yet, we still fall into the same trap trying to make things simple for our own comfort and ease. But it’s not. It seems the more access we get to information, the more access to news, the more access to the complexities of the world, the more we seek simple answers.

Maybe this is a failing of education, of parenting, or maybe it’s a failing of imagination.

Let’s consider gender. It’s binary right? No. It’s not. It is typically binary, but that simple word, typically, exposes the complexity. Gender dysphoria is when what a person feels inside doesn’t match what they see in the mirror. A problem of psychosis then, right. No. It’s not. There’s complexities of genetics, endocrinology, hormones, even genitalia.

During Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, the gotcha question was asking her to define a woman. The questioner was seeking a simple answer. It seems there should be. It’s an either/or proposition right? No. It’s not. We just need to look at the biology–use the science to prove it’s binary. Yet, when we do, we find complexity, not simplicity. Typically it is simple, but then we find there’s gonadal dysgenesis. Okay, look at the chromosomes. Nope that doesn’t work either. It isn’t always XX or XY.

Here’s something simple we have learned. When individuals experiencing gender dysphoria begin receiving gender affirming care, even just affirmation of who they feel they are from their family, many begin climbing out of depths of depression as who they feel they are inside is acknowledged by those who love them, or should love them.

Yet, many panic at the prospect of accepting the complexity that science provides and seek a simple answer. So we are seeing laws proposed and passed to prevent individuals accessing the medical community for resolving gender dysphoria, even prohibitions for teachers to address students by their preferred name and gender. It’s an attempt to disappear these individuals and the “problem” they present to those in society needing things to be simple. But, it’s not. When we oversimplify, individuals can be harmed.

Jon Stewart just aired an interview with the Arkansas Attorney General about an Arkansas law prohibiting any gender affirming care for minors. The interview shows the conflict between acknowledging complexities in a situation vs. seeking a simple answer for a complex issue.

Let’s shift gears for another example. Twenty years ago, September 24, 2002, Steve Earle released a song called John Walker’s Blues. It told the story of John Walker Lindh, an American teenager who went to Yemen to study Arabic. He stayed ten months and returned in 2000, when he was 19. He then went to Afghanistan to aid the Taliban. He was captured. The end result was accepting a twenty-year sentence for one of the charges brought against him with the others dropped if he stopped claiming he’d been mistreated and tortured by U.S. military personnel when captured.

When the story broke and video of him was released on the news, Steve Earle’s first response was that of a parent and empathizing with the parents. He wrote the song, John Walker’s Blues telling his story. You can imagine the response among the press and politicians. Many headlines were of the sort claiming Earle was honoring the “American Taliban.” A song about our enemy soon after 9/11 attacks is treasonous right? Or at least distasteful. Simple right? No. It’s not. The reality is it’s an attempt by a songwriter to have empathy by understanding what occurred for an American teenager to be pulled in by such religious extremism. The reality is complex and messy, and understanding can actually be beneficial.

Life is messy. Life is complex. We’re complex living systems embedded within complex living systems, trying to order our interactions with each other with complex social systems. Embrace it.

Context is Everything

I’ve had two insignificant moments this week that have reminded me of this monumentally significant fact in teaching and learning. Context matters. It’s everything when it comes to learning difficult concepts in a way that leads to enduring understanding.

The first was listening to, and then joining in a conversation between a retired science education professor and a school superintendent. As I joined the conversation they were talking about choosing and prioritizing content. The professor was giving an example of teaching different acid-base reactions, or something of that nature. His point was it didn’t do any good to just briefly mention multiple of them and move on, but better to really cover one if you want enduring understanding. I added, that instead of, or in addition to the teacher covering, the students need to explore it. Yes, the retired professor agreed. Doing anything else will soon be forgotten.

Yet, this is what we often do as educators. We have a long list of content, either from a set of standards, a textbook, or our own understanding, and fall prey to the idea that we have to at least cover this concept. The thing is, just covering it to check it off is a complete waste of time for almost every student listening to you tell them about that topic. Many will remember it for a week or so for the test. Some might remember it a few months later if prompted with the right question or clue, and a few might remember it for longer, if and only if, when they were listening, it clicked in some way in their brain that connected it to a prior experience, knowledge, emotion, or other meaningful context. Context is the key for enduring memory and understanding.

The second example comes from a student of mine taking my Elementary Science Methods course. In addition to teaching methods, this course also contains considerable science content knowledge. The students explore the biology content in the context of “ecological identity” which I’ve written about before. The student’s comment was that the science content and concept of ecological identity was pretty “heavy.” The thing is, the biology they are reviewing in this course is no more than (maybe even less intense) than what they would have done in high school biology.

Here’s the difference. The biology concepts now are in the context of ecological identity–of understanding their place and connection to the natural world. And, every day we are seeing more and more examples of the homeostasis of the natural world being upended by human action. So yes, in that context, now the biology seems like heavy lifting. The difference is always context. Context gives what you are teaching meaning. Without it, it’s just stuff. Or as I’ve said before–random crap. Maybe even it was a fantastic lesson, so then I guess I’d call it random-craptastic. Still meaningless in the long run to most student to be forgotten after the test. Don’t teach random crap. Provide context.

My Friend, Bob McPeek

I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to Bob McPeek. One might consider it a stretch to call Bob a friend, as we’ve never been in a room together. But I do. Bob lives in Florida and I in Minnesota. In the summer of 2019 Bob and I attended the last two in-person Casa de Musica songwriting workshops in Taos New Mexico put on by Eliza Gilkyson–me in June and he in August. The connection we share is both co-writing a song with Eliza for her album “2020” released in the spring of 2020. While have not gotten to meet in person, participating in this workshop brought us together into a larger community of songwriters that has continued to meet monthly to share songs and provide mutual assistance in songwriting and also participation in the now virtual Casa de Musica songwriting workshops which occur two to three times a year.

While our interaction is limited to this sphere, there’s something that happens in those interactions that is special. Sharing rough drafts of song ideas, new songs, incomplete thoughts and the like, requires a degree of vulnerability and mutual trust that fosters a special bond between individuals. Bob is one of those individuals I’ve come to trust with such vulnerabilities. He’s a gifted musician, music producer and engineer. He’s a very kind man who has shown kindness and support to all of us fellow songwriters who’ve had the pleasure of getting to know him in this setting and benefited from his wisdom, both musical and beyond. He’s a gifted human.

Bob recently shared publicly that he is not in good health, diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma and his treatment options are limited. I was deeply saddened by this announcement. In response to questions as to what others can do for him, his first request was for his community of friends to support his wife Nancye. His request for himself was simply, “you can do nothing more meaningful to me than to take time to listen to and connect to the songs I’ve written. I hope they outlive me.”

This morning I’m listening to his recent album, “Mixed Metaphors.” At this moment I’m listening to “Still Lookin’ for America” which is a tour de force of music production and songwriting. I encourage you to honor Bob by listening to his music.

Here’s a link to stream his music, and links where to purchase if you like: https://bobmcpeek.hearnow.com/

And a link to Bob’s music website: https://bobmcpeekmusic.squarespace.com/about-bob

First, Do No Harm

The major thrust and most utilized aspect of the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors is “primum non nocere” or “first, do no harm.” Really, it seems this should apply to everyone. At this moment I’m looking at you Virginia (the state, not the little girl asking about Santa Claus). Under governor Glenn Youngkin, new rules were announced for schools reversing policies protecting the rights of transgender students enacted by the previous administration.

Virginia students are no longer allowed to use facilities marked for the gender they identify with and also mandates they file (I’m assuming their parents) legal documents if they wish to be called by different pronouns. As I read about these new rules it certainly appears that the administration is more concerned about the well-being, or should I say comfort level, of the adults in the room, not the kids. Schools must “keep parents fully informed about all matters” related to their child’s health and development (ok, so far I think) and may not “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.” This appears reasonable until you actually have experience working with children in a school. There are times when reporting this information to parents would result in harm done to the kids. Here’s the kicker for me. School personnel are not required to address or refer to a student “in any manner” that would run counter to an employee’s personal or religious beliefs. With that rule we have stripped away any autonomy and power from the students and given it all to the teachers. With this the rights, safety, and comfort of only the adults are considered. First, do no harm.

Let’s consider a group of 13 year olds. Shudder, right? Actually I found teaching middle school enjoyable and energizing, though at times infuriating and exhausting too. More than any other age they are in peak self-identification mode and their emotions are often bubbling just under the surface. Because of this they are highly susceptible to impression, and also more likely to make poor or rash decisions and also more likely to engage in bullying, shaming, and identity grouping. And now you give the one adult in the room the legal authority to address a student most likely struggling with self-identification to assign an publicly assign or contradict that child’s identity as they are figuring it out and I tell you nothing good can come from this for that child. First, do no harm.

I also can tell you this. A teenager who is identifying as anything that puts them at risk for being ostracizing, bullying, shaming, is not doing so lightly. This is the time in development when humans need to belong more so than any other time. To, at that time in development, engage in actions as an adult that make that development more difficult, potentially more painful, or even dangerous or deadly is unethical. Honestly, if “Julie” is working through identity, in what possible way does it harm the teacher to address that child as “Jim” if that is what they ask you to do? Are the teachers so fragile in their own comfort or religion (which incidentally should not come into play in a public school classroom) that they could not accommodate this request? My full name is Timothy. No one calls me that. When I was little, I was Timmy. Then I declared at some point I’m told by my parents, “I’m Tim, not Timmy.” Would it have been appropriate for one of my teachers to only call me by my full, given, name and not my preference of Tim? If that made them uncomfortable, then I guess I’d have to accept Timothy? What if that teacher was uncomfortable calling me anything but Shithead? I’m mean honestly, that might have been most appropriate some days. Why strip away power of identity from children when they are in the throes of developing that identity and give that authority to a teacher? First, do no harm.

Humans learn best when they have a sense of autonomy in their learning, what they are learning is connected to authentic purpose, and most importantly, when they trust those they are learning from and with, and feel safe. The great challenge for teachers is to facilitate this culture in a classroom while also guiding students through mandated curriculum content. That’s a significant challenge. Why add a culture war to their agenda? First, do no harm.

I don’t know that being a teenager has ever been particularly easy in the modern world, but it certainly is not getting easier as our society evolves. Shouldn’t that be a significant warning sign that more and more of our youth are struggling to get through the maturation process without mental health issues. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in older adolescents. Shouldn’t this be declining if we were doing it right? First, do no harm.

A Reason to be Kind

This past weekend Tracy and I went up to Grand Rapids, MN. Saturday we attended the Grand Rapids/KAXE Riverfest music festival. We heard some great music from Wild Horses (new MN band), Chastity Brown, Shovels & Rope, and Wilco. It was a beautiful day with good friends in Northern MN. All around lovely.

Sunday we got up and rode our bikes (ebikes, so don’t worry, we didn’t wear ourselves out) on the Mesabi Trail. Again, beautiful and lovely Northern MN day. We are certainly fortunate and blessed to be able to do such things.

We then had lunch at the ubiquitous small town micro brewery. As we had to drive four hours home we passed on the local brew, but did enjoy a fresh made pizza. And then we got on the road to home.

It was an uneventful drive home until there was a bit of slowdown on I-494 as we approached I-35W. If you live in the Twin Cities, you know this spot always slows down no matter the time of day. And WHAM! our 2021 Kia Niro lurched forward and small pieces of glass filled the car. I was able to veer right onto the shoulder before being pushed into the car in front of us. No obvious injuries, though certainly stiffness and soreness that hopefully doesn’t linger or lead to something else.

The first order of business was to clear the busy freeway of the remains of our two ebikes and the bike rack. Tracy then checked on the other driver and I called 911. She was fine, though very distraught. It’s just stuff we reassured her. Stuff can be replaced. But dammit, it’s a pain in the rear now to deal with replacing that stuff. See reference to our good fortune above. We have stuff to replace and it will be. (This might be the most Minnesota, “it could be worse” thing I’ve ever written).

Here’s the real lesson. On Monday I told Tracy I was having trouble concentrating and at times during the day I noticed my hands shaking. She wisely pointed out that’s the thing with trauma, you don’t control how your body responds. In the grand scheme of things this as definitely a case of ptsd, not PTSD. More inconvenience to my daily routine than trauma.

This experience has given me new, deeper empathy for those who experience sustained and/or more significant trauma. It can mess a person up in ways you may not predict, or maybe even avoid. And it reminds me that you don’t know what trauma a person may be dealing with when you are interacting with them. So be kind, forgive, and offer grace. Anything else may just add more trauma.

Here’s a link to a useful resource about PTSD

Hey You! Step Up!

Last week I stood up for teachers, calling out the rest of us who are making their job untenable. Okay, now, teachers, in return it’s also time for us to step up. Yes, the past few years have been unimaginably difficult, and yes many are working in environments that are at best dysfunctional, and at worst toxic. So, I’m not questioning dedication and commitment to our children. That doesn’t negate our responsibility. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for as many of our students as possible to learn as much as possible to their maximum potential.

Doing things how we’ve always done them, or how we were taught as part of a need to get back to normal isn’t going to cut it. As a profession we haven’t done an acceptable job of utilizing what we know about how the human brain acquires, stores, recalls, and applies information. Telling students exactly what they are going to learn, then showing it to them, and then asking them to repeat it back to you might be the historical norm, but it is not effective. Breaking their world into siloed subjects and worse yet, now spending a majority of our instruction on simple decoding language skills of reading comprehension and math computation (without a meaningful context) is also not going to cut it.

Students need to learn as mammals learn—by playing. Playing involves examining, questioning, and experimenting. And what they are “playing” with needs to be relevant, authentic, and meaningful in context for them as they are right now—not some abstract future. This becomes less so as students get older, but not entirely.

Of course, we know this. We know this because we all have experience with schooling that resulted in temporary learning in which we rented the knowledge and skills long enough to pass a test, but then it soon faded away and we never really got to “own” it. You own it when you assimilate that knowledge/skill into prior experiences and knowledge, and/or connect it to an emotional or meaningful experience. And we all know this, because those are the things we became passionate about, the things that stuck, the schooling that worked.

Many of us teachers seem to forget this when we get in the classroom. We forget how we truly learned something and think that all we must do is just tell it to students. The result is most students only learn something as an approximation of the teacher’s constructed, meaningful understanding of the concept, but don’t get to really make their own meaning. A few do for the topics they find fascinating and so they internally do more than simply memorize and rent it.

We can no longer expect students to be engaged in school if their experience is primarily listening to a teacher tell them about things, practicing basic skills, but never applying them, and never getting opportunities to playfully explore, ask questions, and discover. Yes, this is difficult. But it is imperative. It’s imperative for our students, but it’s also imperative for public education. If public education is going to survive the current onslaught of criticism, some justified, much not and a trojan horse used by the farthest extreme of the libertarian philosophy hoping to do away with as much government-run activity as possible.

Resources exist to do this, despite our addiction to simplified standardized testing data driving much or our instructional practices and curriculum content decision-making. Our job is to build (or rebuild) our understanding of constructivist learning theory and how the human brain learns and then choose and use curriculum that adheres to that research. Most (not all) current standards align to this. Most recent curricula (again not all) as well.

The resources are available to make this shift in your teaching from teacher centered and teacher directed, and thus promoting passivity among students to student-centered, learner-directed teaching that promotes students’ active engagement with meaningful learning.

I can help you with this, either directly, or directing you to useful resources. Send me a message or leave a comment for other teachers below with resources you’ve found that increase student engagement, inquiry, and playful learning.

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