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

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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.

Hey You! Back Off!

I teach a general methods and science methods course to prospective elementary. I’d like to share an anecdote from a recent class. During this session I was leading students through an activity in which we compare how many drops of water vs. rubbing alcohol we can fit on a penny. It’s a surprisingly large number and a nice activity to teach properties of water such as surface tension, cohesion, adhesion and so on.

I also stress the importance of thematic, inquiry-based lessons that are part of a larger interdisciplinary curriculum. See, learning random facts in isolation is usually ephemeral. As Paul Simon sang, “I think back on all the crap I learned in high school.” Actually, that’s hard to do, because we’ve forgotten most of what was taught in isolated silos with no connection to meaningful lived experiences. Learning within a meaningful context, allowing students to connect it to authentic prior experience, knowledge or emotions, has a much higher rate of retention. We teach a lot of (from the students’ perspective) random crap. They might be fantastic lessons, like fitting 50 drops of water on a penny, but if disconnected from anything meaningful, then it is “random-craptastic.” I’ve copyrighted that and proud that is my contribution to education literature.

As I completed this penny activity with my students, we began discussing how this activity could fit into, or be a springboard for broader connections and explorations of topics of interest to students. What questions might they ask while doing this that could lead to further inquiry?

One student suggested they might ask about why it says “In God we trust” on money. Before we could talk any further about how that would look, what aspects of social studies might that bring in, and so on, another student spoke up and said, “we can’t talk about that right? We can’t even mention God.”

This is what we’ve done. We’ve got teachers so fearful of doing something wrong and facing the wrath of angry parents and community they believe they cannot even discuss the existence of the word “God” on a penny. You people need to back off and let teachers do their jobs with some humanity and some creativity. We’re getting them so scared that eventually education will become a dry recitation of facts by the teacher with no time for students to ask questions, conduct inquiry, explore, for fear of what they might ask or do. This will lead to students that are completely disengaged from school and retain next to nothing.

By the way, it is absolutely acceptable to talk about why U.S. money says “In God We Trust” on it and explore why this was added to our money, the context of that decision, the impact of that decision, and even the constitutionality of that decision*. It isn’t okay for a public-school teacher to promote a particular religion or any religion. All teachers know this and those that do not follow this shouldn’t be in the classroom. We’ve got them so scared now that many fear the questions students may ask. We all know that when you are operating from a place of fear of failure you will not take any risks, try new ideas, and let your creativity flow. Teachers that do that however are exactly the kinds of teachers most parents say they want their children to have. So again, back off.

*July 11, 1955 H.R. 619 was signed into law by President Eisenhower. The first dollar bills bearing this inscription entered circulation in 1957. Shortly thereafter, “In God We Trust” was made the official national motto by an act of Congress.

My Kitchen Appliances Think I’m an Idiot

My kitchen appliances must have a pretty low opinion of us humans. They insist on beeping to telegraph their every action, no matter how mundane. I recently discovered how to silence my microwave. Hold the “2” button down for a few seconds. You’re welcome. Why is this a secret “hack” and not in the manual. I have not found such a solution for my air fryer (which I love and I’m not getting rid of, so don’t mention it). I even replaced a coffee maker that beeped so loud and so many times that it woke up the entire house. That’s a real problem for the one morning person living amongst a family of Saturday morning bedbadgers. It’s also, I realize, a giant red flag for affluenza. To my defense, I bought it used and donated it, so some other poor soul can torment their family with it.

My air fryer beeps when I plug it in. When I set the temperature, when I set the time, when I open the door, when I close the door, and then when it stops it beeps at least 5 long beeps that alert NORAD. And then just to further rub it in, it beeps when I open the door to get the food and when I close the door after I’ve gotten the food. I watched myself do each and every one of these acts. I know I did them. I don’t need to be told I did them.

That is where we are though isn’t it? It’s nearly impossible to hide from one’s opinions, acts, foibles, screw-ups, bigotry, racism, narcissism…

Did you really think this was about kitchen appliances? Maybe it is. I don’t know really.

We see your inane mouth noises spouting nonsense solutions of trip wires, turning schools into fortresses of doom, praying away the gunmen, armed teachers (please God no–there’s my hope and prayer), and whatever other beeps emanate from a minority of our population drowning out the rest of us who just want to go into public places without fear of being mowed down by a semi-automatic weapon housing seemingly endless rounds of ammunition. In Minnesota, if I hunt ducks, I’m limited to shotguns that can only hold three shells at a time. We’re willing to accept limits on our “arms” for killing waterfowl, but not humans I guess. And no one ever hunts with an AR-15.

We see and hear you. Every move you make, everything you say, no matter how inane, is forever immortalized on social media of some kind. Now, can we muster the political force to silence this beeping? We’re not idiots. Or maybe we are, because here we are.

For Walter

I want to tell you a little about one of my heroes, Walter Enloe. I first met Walter when I was one of the founding teachers for a project-based charter school back in 2003. Walter worked with EdVisions which granted startup money for project-based charter schools and was providing some expertise and support. Boy, did we need it.

I was immediately drawn to Walter. He could take over a room, not with exuberance, magnetism, or charisma (though not saying he didn’t have those qualities), but it was empathy and kindness that took over the room when Walter entered. After meeting Walter in that setting, I then had the good fortune to have Walter as one of my professors in the Hamline University doctoral program.

Much of who I am as a teacher is due to Walter’s influence.

From Walter I learned what it truly means to put the student at the center of teaching and learning. Walter treated every student as a colleague in learning and a friend. From his example, I learned the importance of teaching from a place of empathy. I’m forever grateful for that and I can only hope the teachers I’m training learn Walter’s lessons through me, at least as best I can pass them on to the next generation of teachers.

Walter wasn’t just a teacher, but also a writer and an artist. He brought all of that to his teaching. He shared that aspect of himself with his students which created the space for building meaningful relationships with his students, which is foundational to good teaching. By doing this he modeled, and then created space for his students to take risks, explore their world and learn in creative ways.

He said to me once as we were talking about one of our more artistic ventures (something one of us was writing or working on–I don’t recall what), paraphrasing as best I can, “We’re fartists. We’re fucking artists. We fuck around with it. Play with it.” We use a variety of creative means to explore ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Art wasn’t our profession, it is a tool to living, exploring, and teaching. We teach as we live. We live as we teach.

From Walter’s Obituary in the Star Tribune (which I encourage you to read)

When I die I want to have left something to the world even though it may affect only a few people. I want to have made my life useful and helpful to other people and to society. I want to be a good citizen of my community, state, country and world. I want to grow in respect and understanding of all cultures and peoples beginning with my Japanese friends and neighbors in Hiroshima. I want to help preserve peace and goodwill among all peoples through tolerance and respect, treating all peoples with respect and love.

Seeing (or not)

Monday I wrote about disconnection. Since then I’ve been thinking about disconnected and fractured relationships and in particular within families. A prominant cause of such fracturing and disconnection, and then leading to homelessness in youth in the United States is around issues of sexual and gender identity.

In Northfield, the Northfield Union of Youth (also known as The Key) has created the Wallflower Project to provide safe, temporary housing to young adults (16 and up) who find themselves without a safe place to live. There is shockingly little safe harbor for such individuals facing homelessness where I live. Here’s a link to an article with more about this particular project.

I’ve been wrestling this week with walking in the shoes of a young adult feeling marginalized, disconnected, and not validated or even seen by the community in which they live. I do not accept the argument that this is a choice or a fad. Would you choose to marginilize yourself? And I am appalled at vitriol, hate, and scorn that is piled upon individuals who are wrestling with such issues of identity. This leads to “otherizing” and dismissal of an individual’s personhood–their humanity.

We all want to belong. It’s more than acceptance or tolerance. We want to be safe and loved within a community. Just loved.

That brings me to another U2 song. Ordinary Love. This is a song originally written in honor of Nelson Mandela for the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. That’s a very specific purpose/meaning. I find something much broader about connection to others. Just love. Ordinary love.

In the Chorus, Bono sings:

We can’t fall any further if
We can’t feel ordinary love
And we can’t reach any higher,
If we can’t deal with ordinary love

One(ness)

This is the week of the term when my science education students listen to a Radiolab podcast titled “From Tree to Shining Tree.” I tell them it’s utterly fascinating and they always unanimously agree after giving it the hour it takes to listen to it. It’s about how the trees in a forest are interconnected, communicate, and share resources through the “wood-wide web” made up of fungus acting as the conduit between the trees in a forest. Seriously it will blow your mind and get you thinking differently about interconnectedness, not just about trees but other connections. Which leads me to…

I’m thinking about this from the other direction—disconnection. When I am deep in my thinking about this topic from the ecological perspective, I think interconnectedness. When I think about it from the human perspective I think “disconnection.”

We have a need to belong, not only to social groups, spiritual groups, families, partners, but also to our place, our geography. Toko-Pa Turner (2017) eloquently states early in her book Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home with this statement:

To this world we belong. To this moment, in this place where you already stand, something greater has ushered you. To the momentum of a long line of survivors you are bound. From their good deaths, succeeded by new lives, and to the incidents of love that seeded them, your story has been woven. With the wild jubilation of nature, you are in correspondence. By every season’s conditions, and by the invisible holy inclination, your life has been shown. And yet you may feel as so many of us do, the ache of a life orphaned from belonging. (p. 14)

I see our interconnection as rooted in our ecology, not only in the place where we live, but in the place where we (and our “people” however you might define that) comes from. Our place and ecosystems impact our genetics, so yes, it’s deep in our “bones” and part of our biological inheritance. And let’s be honest, most of us are profoundly disconnected from those ecological systems and cycles.

Out of this, then, where does disconnection impact us in our “human” world? Of course, I can see the impact of disconnection in domestic politics, geopolitical events (i.e. Ukraine) and so on. Those things are important and while they may seem distant, do affect us in our daily lives, and it seems the past few years those have had a greater impact then on our daily lives and how we interact and relate with one another on personal levels—at work, with friends and acquaintances, and with family. How are you doing on those fronts?

I freely admit I don’t have an answer for you here, except to say that I think it requires reflection—reflection on our own actions and interactions with those around us, but it also then requires working to have empathy. Imagine how we might approach personal relationships with children if we had better empathy for a child’s struggle with sexual or gender identity. Whether you as a parent “get it” or not is irrelevant if it causes a disconnection with someone who deserves your unconditional love and grace. Imagine how it might help political conversations if you could empathize with the marginalization and disconnection from economic and political power many feel. How about empathy for political refugees simply trying to survive?

What’s your means of reflection and building empathy? No surprise here, for me it’s through writing—both this kind of writing, but also music. So, I read a lot of non-fiction and listen to a lot of music. One (pun intended) of my favorites is U2 because I appreciate the melody writing of the band and the lyric writing of Bono. Arguably their best song is “One.” I was drawn back to this song this week as it’s about disconnection and fractured relationships (I think).

He begins with questions:

Is it getting better
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you, now
You got someone to blame?

Do you find yourself doing this? Does it help?

He continues:

You say one love, one life,
When it’s one need in the night.
One love, we get to share it
Leaves you baby, if you don’t care for it

What relationships have you not cared for of late?

Later in the song, he sings:

We’re one, but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
One

Who carries you? Who have you carried at times during the past few years?

And then he sings about betrayal and pain:

You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt

Let’s flip this. Who have you asked to crawl back to you and then only offered hurt, pain, scorn, instead of redemption and grace?

And then he concludes with hope:

One love, one blood
One life, you got to do what you should
One life with each other
Sisters, brothers
One life, but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other
One

You didn’t think I’d let you out of here without sharing my humble attempt at this song. Being a baritone, I obviously have to bring it down bring it down almost an entire octave, but generally I think I captured the spirit of the song.

The Truths We Hold

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Do we?

I get why the framers had to include a Creator in the first sentence. “Many philosophers and theologians have accepted a view that construes every statement or belief about objects and events—past, present, and future—as prerecorded in the mind of God. Hence, there are truths independent of the human mind, and people must discover them. When people do discover these truths and can justify their beliefs, the may properly lay claim to knowledge. Knowledge is that subset of truth that has been acquired by human investigators” (Noddings, 2007, p. 113).

This aligns to an essentialist philosophy in education. This philosophy has given us content standards, mandated curriculum, and standardized tests. I’m not really a fan. I accept that there are common cognitive structures we humans (and all mammals) share, so that’s cognitivism, and I accept that there are facts. I’m not an adherent of alternative facts.

What I have come to understand is that it is of more consequence for our daily existence and the actions we take, how one takes in, incorporates, understands, and makes sense of the “truths” or facts that then establishes the knowledge that one possesses. This probably puts me in line with John Dewey and elements of constructivism philosophy. “In [Dewey’s] framework, a statement p may appropriately be called knowledge if it is useful in inquiry. This view, too, fits our commonsense attitudes toward both science and everyday investigations. We are quite sure, for example, that much of what scientists “know” today will some day be overturned, but we still refer to what is currently used as knowledge. The more p has been tested and used successfully, Dewey said, the greater our warrant for asserting it” (Noddings, 2007, p. 118).

Where am I gong with this? I’m not really sure yet, but, something connects here.

Alfie Kohn tweeted this today. “Learning should be seen as qualitative change in a person’s way of seeing, experiencing, understanding, conceptualizing something in the real world – rather than as quantitative change in the amount of knowledge someone possesses.” – Paul Ramsden.

I’m a fan of Kohn’s work, which is why I follow him on Twitter. This tracks in our shift in what we have learned about how the human brain is structured, takes in new sensory information and makes sense of it in the context of pre-existing memories, emotions, and experiences. This is why much of education pedagogy has shifted toward methods of teaching based on research rooted in a mixture of constructivism and cognitivism (with constructivism the label that is more commonly used to describe not only learning theory but also education philosophy and even a whole branch of philosophy).

There are of course observable facts. However, how one makes sense of those facts, incorporates them into their own worldview and schema and then uses those facts to spur on more inquiry and enact their daily lives is dependent on the individual and a result of their construction of knowledge based on those facts. Blue light has a specific wavelength, but how I respond to blue color might be unique based on my experiences.

Yet, our education policy is firmly rooted in essentialism. There is a set base of information all individuals need to be productive in society, though often it seems that only that basic rote-learned information is all we are concerned about. For the most part education policy is determined by lawmakers not educators or education researchers. There’s a reason what we teach is so contentious. And it gets more contentious when those without power begin to push back against the established norms.

Again, from Nel Noddings (2007):
“If we argue that knowledge is both a source and tool of power, it is reasonable to recommend that all students have access to the knowledge once reserved for a few…[I]f the knowledge is associated with privilege is just that—knowledge with an elitists stamp of approval on it—then members of the dominant group are likely to shift the locus of their power to something else…Distributing elite knowledge more justly will not in itself effect the redistribution of a society’s material goods, and the effort may well act against redistribution by causing (1) a redefinition of elite knowledge, (2) deprivation of knowledge that could be  genuinely useful to oppressed groups, and (3) a widespread sense that society has ‘tried’ and that the failure of groups who must do the ill-paid work of society is their own fault” (p. 126).

I think this helps explain the current kerfuffle over critical race theory, which fits under the larger umbrella of critical theory. Any kind of critical theory is an approach critiquing society and culture for the purpose of understanding power structures and endemic qualities of society and culture held in place by those power structures. As researchers view history through the lens and from the perspective of those subject to oppression in a society, society responds as any system disturbed and pushed off balance will respond—it digs in and resists that perturbation.  

So, how does this connect to the Declaration of Independence? If our truths and knowledge are dependent on circumstances and experiences, we don’t hold these truths as self-evident. Some individuals do not have the same rights as I enjoy. Not because of a Creator (or lack of) and not because of choices they’ve made (or not), but simply because of the circumstances of their birth—the country’s borders in which they were born, the parents’ wealth and power to which they were born, the color of their skin which evolved in their ancestors, and then laws and societal norms under which they now live.

We have chosen to make these things the truth that really matters by what we do and what we don’t do.

Interconnectednessness

I added the extra “ness” because understanding the interconnected nature of, well, nature is becoming increasingly crucial. Sort of like our lives depend on it. Because they do. But it isn’t just the interconnected nature of nature that matters. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Try this. Close your eyes. Well, not quite yet. Read this first. When you are stressed, scared, and needing a momentary break and respite, where do you go when you close your eyes and imagine yourself in your “happy place?” Where do you imagine yourself walking, sitting, pausing as life accelerates around you? Okay now, close your eyes and do that for a moment.

For me, I’m in a canoe on north woods lake. Most individuals picture themselves in a serene setting of some kind. So then, why is it that while most of us recognize the absolute necessity of such natural spaces, when it comes to choosing who represents us, policies we support, actions we take, we first choose expansion of gross domestic product, economic expansion, and convenience before we choose preservation of such spaces? Because we’ve been told we have to and we’ve been taught to deny the reality of the interconnectedness.

Actually, it doesn’t matter if you choose such spaces as your preferred place of respite or if you prefer a crowded metropolis where the only other life you readily see is other humans. You are still equally interconnected within the biological and geological systems that support life on the planet. I could write a book describing the depth of those interconnections. In fact, I have, so I’m not going to dig deeper into that here. Most of us know this, even if you don’t know the proper scientific names, theories, and systems, you know it. We just are good at denying it. Because that’s easier.

But, we’re heading in a dangerous direction. And this is getting back to interconnectednessness (connectedness beyond nature). It builds on what I wrote about last week in Now is Not the Time for Safe Mode. There is an intersection between climate change as well as other environmental issues and equity, racism, economics, politics, and education. Every environmental issue that impacts us here in the “developed” world has a greater impact on those in the “developing” or “third” world. Every issue that impacts those in the upper class and caste in this country impacts those in the lower caste and living in poverty first, more so, and for longer in the foreseeable future when and if remedies for such issues are actually implemented. They’re the first harmed and the last helped.

This connects then to education in two direct ways. First, we do not provide equal education throughout this country. Those with more means get an education that is more enriching, is more creative, more interdisciplinary, more authentic, and well more progressive (even if that label isn’t used) and therefore leads to individuals with stronger skills of critical thinking and in understanding interconnectedness. And those that are not so fortunate get back-to-the-basic drill and practice of reading and math.

This has been our mode the last 30 years in attempts to close the achievement gap. Slow down and teach less to those that are already behind. This means that they will never catch up. This is now what we are shifting to more and more to for all of our students, at least those in public education. To make it worse, we now have individuals (most of whom I suspect are the product of elite private education and send their own children to such schools) are attempting to reduce even further from the curriculum any teaching of history, and I am sure science is next, that makes an honest account and critique of our history and attempts to then develop thinkers able to build on and use scientific thinking to address ecological, societal, and political issues.

The danger is that fewer and fewer will have the education, wealth, and access to natural resources, and more and more will be subject to those with power that comes with all that privilege.

Are you familiar with the adage that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it jumps out, but if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly heat it, it will stay in the water even when it gets too hot and so will eventually die? I’ve never tried it, but I doubt it’s actually true. The frog’s lower brain (pretty much all it has) will sense the danger and put it into flight or fight mode. It will flee the pot.

Humans have this same lower brain. In fact, as I wrote last week, this lower brain takes over and interrupts any learning when it detects danger. We’re the frog in the pot. And our lower brain is telling us that we’re in danger and we need to focus on getting to safety first. But in this case, our upper brain is telling us no, to not trust our lower brain. In this metaphor the upper brain is the segment of our population with a vested interest in continuing the status quo, and so invested in their own short-term wealth and power acquisition they are denying the reality of our interconnectednessness.

I want to leave you with a song by Eliza Gilkyson titled Runaway Train. This is a song from 2008. We’ve known for a long time the issues we face. The water is nearing a boil, and we can continue our denial, or we can dig in, face it, which includes beginning early in teaching our children to see connections between systems and not just decode language and do arithmetic.

Runaway Train © 2008 Eliza Gilkyson

Everyone knew she was gonna be fast
Everyone said they could build her to last
10, 000 tons of hurtlin’ steel
Screamin’ round the curves nobody at the wheel

Everyone said don’t pay it any mind
There’s a pot of gold waitin’ at the end of the line
Just move with the eye of the hurricane
You’ll never get off this runaway train

Nobody cared when they piled on board
And the doors snapped shut and the engines roared
They pushed to the front
Some fell to the back
Buyin’ and sellin’ every inch of the track
Deep in the engines fire in the hole
Dark skinned workers shovelin’ coal
All singin’ their sad refrain
We’ll never get off this runaway train

Up in the diner everybody decked out in their finery
Can’t see the wreck comin’ up ahead
With their bellies full of wine
It’s the last thing going through their minds
So proud of the engine proud of the speed
Call for the porter give them everything they need
Stare through the glass feel no pain
Don’t even know they’re on a runaway train

Long after midnight a pitiful few sound the alarm
Don’t know what else to do
Bangin’ on the doors of the cabin and crew
Hey we gotta slow down or we won’t make it through
Sleepy riders don’t want to wake
Or suffer the shock when they put on the brake
Don’t want to question , don’t want to complain
Rather keep ridin’ on this runaway train

Now is Not the Time for Safe Mode

Is it a stretch to say that the pandemic is pushing education to a crisis? There were struggles prior to the pandemic and the pandemic has both put a spotlight on the cracks and weaknesses in the system and exacerbated them. I think it is absolutely crucial we don’t lose sight of those cracks and weaknesses as much of education has shifted into “safe mode.” I get the desire to just get through and therefore just focus on the “essentials,” especially as we approach spring math and reading testing season. But let’s be careful here. Already, in elementary classrooms, science, social studies, and the arts had been relegated to second priority over basic decoding skills of doing math calculations and decoding language. Now, as a response to get caught up, many schools are focused even more on basic reading and math instruction and have pushed the other subjects even further to the side.

Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy. Teaching to the upper reaches of Bloom’s is like pushing a boulder up a hill. The higher you go the harder it gets and if you stop pushing and rest, it just might roll back down and squish you and settle at the bottom. In many cases that’s what has happened as a result of the pandemic.

Humans retain what they are taught when learning about things relevant to them and the world they live in right now, not just practicing skills for future use. Take a look at this graphic of a curriculum continuum.

The more the curriculum we teach would be plotted in the upper right quadrant, the higher up on Bloom’s our students will reach as well. First and foremost, conceptual themes have the possibility of being more authentic, and therefore more engaging and meaningful to students, which according to research on the brain means they will connect what is learned in those lessons to their own emotions, experiences, and prior knowledge and experiences and then retain more of it. Practicing math calculations and decoding written language outside of any context primarily results in short-term knowledge and skill retention. These disconnected lessons and skills, while might be fantastically designed individual lessons, to the student, without that meaningful context, it’s just random crap. I call this random-craptastic. If they are about an interesting thing (thingatic instead of thematic) they might be of more interest to some, but still may not require conceptual thinking and connection of disparate ideas and subjects via critical thinking. This approach hasn’t and won’t close the achievement gap. In fact, I think it might make it worse.

I dare say that we are seeing a crisis in lack of these critical thinking skills in our population. If we respond to the crisis of the pandemic by leaning harder into just teaching these basic decoding skills and less understanding of the world around students (science, social studies, the arts) then this will only be worse with the next generation.

There’s another factor working against educators here. Let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think it’s safe to say that many students (and teachers) are coming to school each day with a deficit in the needs lower on the pyramid.

The brain is designed to prioritize survival first. Therefore, when the needs lower on Maslow’s hierarchy are not met, the brain interrupts any sensory inputs coming in (so any lessons being taught) and focuses just on survival and sends only necessary inputs to the lower brain to decide to fight, flee or freeze. All other inputs are discarded.

Because so many students are stuck right now in safe mode of mere survival (and the lower brain is doing the majority cognition), they are not going to learn what we want—even the basic skills. Even if we adults don’t think the student’s situation or trauma doesn’t warrant fight, flight, or freeze mode, telling them to get through it or toughen up a bit, is irrelevant. I’m not talking about struggling with a difficult concept or achieving difficult goals, which is necessary to learn, I’m talking about the brain perceiving it is in danger. If that’s where they are (whether you think they should be or not), they will most likely not learn from the lesson taught that day. Then, teaching focused more and more on drilling these basic skills without and meaningful context for that learning, results in further disconnection from the learning, leads to further conflict with the teacher and disengagement in school, and pretty soon we’re in a downward spiral with that student.

Therefore, it’s more important now than ever to use curriculum that allows students to authentically explore and understand the world in which they live. This allows them to make connections between subjects, and most importantly apply that to relevant aspects of their life as they are living it right now, not just because they will need it in the future. If you aren’t able to see a future, there’s not meaningful engagement to learn skills and information for that future.

Yes of course we need specific, effective instruction on language decoding skills (math calculation and reading and writing), but why not teach those skills in the context of and as part of exploring the world around students in meaningful ways and requiring higher-order thinking, problem solving, and creation of new ideas. This can be done concurrently. It doesn’t have to be consecutively done. If we continue with that model, especially with students struggling to get out of safe mode, then they never develop the higher order thinking, or even learn about anything (like basic science and civics) because we never get to it. We must as a society address these physiological and safety needs of our students and not do anything to further push them (or the system) into “safe mode.”

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