Are We The Average of the Five People We Spend The Most Time With?

No Stone Unturned

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”

 -Jim Rohn

Photographer:  David P. Brown

Photographer: David P. Brown

Being a teacher, I spend most of my work hours with young people, but not any few in particular, so it was pretty easy to come up with the five adults I spend the most time with.

Between my fiance and four friends and coworkers–all of whom I admire and respect for different reasons–I can see myself as an embodiment of their collective values, interests, and personalities.  Of course, there is some give and take–I’m not simply a sponge, soaking up influence.

My fiance challenges me to become a better listener, among other things, as my mind tends to move on to the next idea before hearing people out.  I’ve improved in this regard since knowing her.  One colleague is an innovative urban farmer and local food guru.  He has inspired me to keep my own chickens and be more mindful of sourcing my food.  Another colleague is the most empathic teacher I’ve ever met, and also maniacally conscientious when it comes to thoughtful classroom instruction.  And another friend and colleague I spend hours with is light-hearted and goofy, and I certainly embrace those qualities.

The idea of the five people relates to the law of averages, which is the theory that the result of any given situation will be the average of all outcomes.  It’s basic probability.  So with blogging, I can expect this post to receive an average number of hits if its characteristics are similar to my previous posts.  How about catastrophe?  Apparently I have a 1 in 340,733 chance of dying an accidental death by fireworks during my lifetime.

Many of us frequently think about averages and probability, but I hadn’t thought about the concept as it relates to my being–how I could represent the average “person” depending on who I spend time with.

This Business Insider article by Aimee Groth emphasizes the effect relationships have on us:  “When it comes to relationships, we are greatly influenced — whether we like it or not — by those closest to us. It affects our way of thinking, our self-esteem, and our decisions. Of course, everyone is their own person, but research has shown that we’re more affected by our environment than we think.”

This might seem obvious to some, but the idea of whittling down your interactions to five people shed light for me about the power of the idea.

It’s something we should talk to students about.  After all, how many of you know young people who hang out with an unruly or disinterested crowd, and have a tough time breaking free of their influence?  I have little doubt that challenging students to reflect on this idea would provide some insight, and perhaps some discomfort.  Especially for those students who want to do well, but realize that the people they spend time with–willingly or unwillingly–do not share their same goals and desires.

What do you think of this idea?  Does this quote apply to you?  Who do you spend the most time with?  

Student Guest Blogger: Career and Future Uncertainty

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I’ve shared this blog with some of my students, an attempt to showcase how writing is “real” for me.  As far as blogging goes, many students use Tumblr.  I’ll admit I’ve never explored Tumblr, but they describe it as a platform to share images and thoughts.  Sounds like a blog to me.  How sustained those thoughts are…I’m not sure.  Unfortunately, it’s fairly rare to find kids who use technology to compose what I consider to be more meaningful writing such as essays, commentary, and reviews.

So, here goes.  I collaborated with one of my digital storytelling students, a junior, via Google Docs, and this is what she had to say about dealing with her own and others’ expectations for her future and career prospects.  She’ll be the first one to check the comments section, so please give her some feedback!

“It’s being here now that’s important. There’s no past and there’s no future. Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

– George Harrison.

Can you ever be certain of the road ahead?

Young people shouldn’t be so dead set on long term goals, as your decisions aren’t carved in a stone tablet.  You’re not able to be certain of anything in your future.  Certain questions just loom over you like a storm cloud.  What will you be when you grow up?  Where do you see yourself after high school?

When you’re young you think, what do I enjoy? What do I like to do?

These questions still bounce around my mind like I’m dead center in a dodgeball game.  I now find myself introduced to a feeling of ambition, a feeling I have yet to fully understand.  I’ve dreamt about being an astronaut, a doctor, maybe even a lawyer.  I have dreamt for the stars, developed a certain level of hope that things might work out if I believed they would, but is it realistic?

I’ve had everyone from my first grade English teacher to my middle school Math teacher press me to answer the question about what I’d do as an adult, but the only thing I could do was fabricate a response.  All I kept thinking when they would settle those straining eyes on me was that I couldn’t possibly give them a completely honest answer.  I’ve never settled on one thing and stuck with it for such a long time.  I’d never put all my eggs in one basket because life can’t really be so black and white, so cut and dry.

The question about my future continued to follow me into my prepubescent stages of my teenage years as well, as my once ambitious hopeful dreams became “within reach.” I wanted to be a doctor as a child but decided that being a nurse would be good enough. Being a nurse does mean less time studying in college, but it means settling for a career path that wouldn’t give me the same satisfaction or happiness.

The hopeful dream of becoming a doctor still lingers in the shadows of reality but it seems like too big of a challenge, too overwhelming.   I don’t think anyone truly has an idea what they’ll be doing with their career path at five, twelve or even seventeen.

What do we do about college?  How can we make this dream a reality?  Can I trust that I know what my passion really is?

Granted, some of my classmates will fulfill their own childhood dreams. Some will actually go on to be doctors and lawyers. The lucky few find what they enjoy as a child, learn the basics and stay with it until they become the best. It’s odd how that works but sometimes people just know what they love to do. It’s almost like destiny picks and chooses who gets lucky opposed to who gets the short end of the stick.

Personally, I can’t answer these questions at this point in my life. I could try to think these through and make all the right, logical moves, but regardless of my attempts, life will lead me down a certain path.

Expect the unexpected. Personally, this means life will bring you surprises and throw you curve balls. You as an individual learn to adapt–things in life will teach you to be resilient because time is a very misleading thing.  There’s no past and there’s no future.  We can learn from the past but we cannot relive it; we can plan for the future but we can never be sure that there is one.

As readers, what advice can you give me?  How has your career path unfolded?  Did you experience the same hounding that I have, regarding what I should do down the road?  Thanks for reading!

Striving for Balance–Enforcing Work Boundaries

No Stone Unturned

I’m sitting on my front porch in a refinished Adirondack chair, enjoying a warm afternoon breeze and a glass of ice water.  I’d rather post to Mindful Stew than grade papers or check my work e-mail.  Or call parents.  Or attempt to get ahead on my lesson plans.  Or log on to Edmodo to respond to some student posts.

Grading these essays will have to wait.
Image from

Teaching never ends during the school year, but I’ve found that I’m most effective and energized during the school day by limiting the time I work, despite the fact that the “To-Do” list will never end.  I want to and have to turn off my job.

I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but not so much that it will drastically interfere with other endeavors that keep me sane, fulfilled, and content.  During the fall, I bow-hunt.  This is a demanding hobby, requiring hours practicing shooting the bow, scouting deer in fields and forests, and spending hours sitting idly but alert in a tree.  Combine hunting with spending quality time with my fiance, cooking, blogging, brewing beer, and watching football, and there’s not many hours left in the day.  But I’m fortunate to have enough time to do all of these things, only because I choose to stop working.

In this Ted Talk, Nigel Mark provides a pointed take on work/life balance. 

He states, “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet screaming desperation where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate, to enable them to buy things that they need to impress people they don’t like.”  A bleak assessment, and I feel fortunate that I don’t fall into that boat.  Unlike many people, I’m able to make decisions about how much I work outside of school hours without worrying about providing food, shelter, and care for any dependents.  That said, I wonder how much our society’s expectations relating to work, child rearing, and lifestyle affect how much time we feel we need to work, in addition to how much money we must accumulate to pursue satisfying lives.

Marks also contends that “we have to be responsible for setting and enforcing the boundaries we want in our lives.”  Last year, a coworker had the audacity to tell me that I needed to have less work/life balance in order to do more curriculum work.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was teaching my ass off.  At that moment I realized I needed to set more boundaries, not be afraid to say no to coaching or other committees, and to guard my own time in an attempt to create my own vision of work/life balance.

Mark continues, “…commercial companies are inherently designed to get as much out of you as they can get away with.”  I think about–and feel sorry for–those who are attached to their cell phones due to the need to compose and respond to work e-mail.  I will never sign up for a job with this requirement.  How can one reasonably expect a work/life balance in that situation?

The problem for many people seem to believe that career success must solely be measured monetarily.  And in an economic recession, the topic of this post may be irrelevant and even off-putting to some.  Nonetheless, it’s worth discussing.

Do you have a job that’s tough to turn off?   How do you accomplish, or struggle with, a work/life balance?  What’s your idea of a perfect day in the context of work/life balance?  Did you watch Nigel’s Ted Talk?  What do you think?

How much detail is simply too much?

No Stone Unturned

Great commentary on one writer’s take on weaving personal details into your digital footprint.  What information should we share?  What should we withhold?  Why do so many people publish what seem to be personal journals?


Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

— I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

— I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

— My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

— My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

— My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?


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Socks, Sandals, and Tapping into the Archives

No Stone Unturned

Do you have readily accessible writing from years past?  Journals, old MS Word files, e-mail archives? 
How often you do sift through old material that has either gathered cobwebs or digital dust bunnies? 

During my first three to four years of teaching–I’m about to start my ninth–I enjoyed sharing my experiences with friends and family via narrative mass e-mails.  It was my way of journaling, practicing the writing craft, and telling stories.  I’ve never been fond of sharing tiny snippets of my life via social media.  Context matters.  

Below is an unedited mass e-mail to friends and family from 2007.  I taught middle school language arts at the time, and I can see my confidence as a teacher coming to fruition.  I can see a different style and tone than what I usually write for Mindful Stew, but I know I’ve clung on to the belief that weaving personal experience and anecdotes into writing is crucial to me, despite my recent penchant to produce arguments and musings on more intellectual topics.

Letter to Family and Friends, September 2007    

Hope all is well wherever this message finds you.  My interactions with students this year have been uber-positive, to the extent that I haven’t had a single student talk back or written a single discipline referral.  Knock on wood.  There are plenty of things I can improve on as a teacher, but positive classroom management/student engagement is a strong suit. While during my horrific fist year I might have engaged the students in learning for 25% of a class period (on a good day), I can run close to 100% this year if I so desire.  I’ll offer up the following nuggets in an attempt to explain the wonderful start to the year…

  1. On any given day, I might challenge them to a Spicy Cheetos Eating contest, lead Simon Says games (if they seem to be lacking energy), or play funk anthems and threaten to break dance.  The power of humor cannot be overstated when creating a vibrant, positive learning climate.

  2. I’ve looped up to 8th grade this year, meaning I have many of the same students I taught as 7th graders.  The advantage of having prior interaction with about half my students is paying dividends.  It shocks me that many coworkers are opposed to this idea of looping. 

  3. We’ve got access to wireless laptops at Shelby East Middle School.  Bringing the laptops into the classroom is instant student engagement. I have to ask them to be off-task when you pop that fancy piece of plastic in front of them.

  4. Instead of telling the kids what I don’t want them to do, I’ve made my most concerted to date in teaching them what I want them to do.  For instance, when a certain song plays at the end of class—right now it’s “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones—the students know it’s time to clean up, pass in papers, and stand behind their assigned seats. As I write this, I realize I have no posted rules in the classroom. 

  5. I deemphasize the heck out of grades, and emphasize the heck out of effort, cooperation, engagement, and self-reflection.  It is sad that grades remain a primary motivational tool for most teachers, because grades and authentic learning are, unfortunately, not necessarily correlated in a good way.

  6. I’ve been consistent in treatment/discipline of students.  As teachers we hear, time and time again, how crucial consistency is, but sometimes it’s hard to treat the apathetic skater-punk the same as the Talented and Gifted, straight-A-receiving daughter of a coworker.  But I began to get pretty good at the consistency game last year.  Students appreciate this and find no reason to talk back or get frustrated if they don’t see their teacher playing favorites.

So there it is, the Paul Barnwell Guide to Teaching…what’s not on the list is mention of the inherent danger of having irrational interactions with middle grades students.  Please read below.

          A couple weeks ago, I found myself at our middle school football game.  Our school is not known as an academic powerhouse, but neither are we renowned for being an athletic juggernaut.  Nonetheless, I wanted to make an appearance, knowing that students usually get a kick out of seeing their teachers out of the classroom setting. 

            I arrived and moved towards the bleachers but was promptly cut off by one of my students and her friend Julie.  Before I could take a breath …”Hi, I’m Julie I had Mr. Franzen last year he probably told you about me taping a cheeseburger to his globe that was so funny would you think that would be like so funny if you were the teacher did you know that he only has one shirt?  It’s a blue one with a big collar oh my god are you wearing socks with your sandals you need help with fashion too!”

            “I choose to spend my money on things besides clothes,” I replied.

            “Mr. Barnwell wears Hawaiian shirts all the time,” Katie added.  I noticed Julie take a deep breath before unleashing more verbal diarrhea.

            “Well that’s nice but I still think you should do something about those socks oh my gosh don’t you have any fashion sense plus it’s hot out so there’s no reason to wear socks aren’t you going to say anything?  Hannah is my best friend is she doing well in your class?  I bet she is we go back a long long long way and oh my gosh did you see that play? You’re boring I’m leaving now Nice to meet you Mr. Barnwell don’t get Hannah in trouble this year ok?

            “Enjoy the rest of the game Julie.”

            I moved up to a vacant spot in the East bleachers—right on the 50-yard line— and battled the glare from the setting sun, watching the Missiles lose a 24-14 contest that was much more lopsided than the score indicated.  I took off my socks and put them in my pocket.  Maybe it was too hot to wear socks, but I felt grateful that motormouth wasn’t on any of my class rosters…



Thriving Online with Unclear Guidelines

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

It is only when the routines break down, when the guidelines are unclear, when no one can tell us what to do, that we make real choices and become the creators of our own lives, communities, and futures. Then we become the agents of our own fate. These moments can be as frightening as they are exhilarating.

Marshall Ganz, “What is Public Narrative?”  2008

Every day, I can wake up and turn on my iPhone, check my Twitter feed, update my facebook page, and send an e-mail with the glow of the 3.5 inch screen brighter than the morning light, before even rolling out of bed.  I can choose to spend my day searching for new apps, completely immersed in the world of digital technology in countless ways while I carry on with my daily chores, face-to-face conversations, and lesson planning.  Or, I can take a deep breath, think about my intentions and goals for the day, and monitor myself with mindful use of technology.

Nobody is teaching me how to harness the power of digital and social media in productive ways, but I’m trying to figure it out.  On the other hand, are young people even aware of what their lives could be like with more restrained and effective technology use?   Teaching students how to thrive online, rather than perhaps become addicted, distracted, lonely, and overwhelmed, isn’t part of any curriculum I’m aware of.

But it should be. 

It seems as if we’re at a cultural crossroads where we can help shape our culture and our fate as digital citizens.  We can reclaim the sense that we–and not technology–are the impetus behind evolving culture.  I’ve had a tendency to believe that changes brought about by technology, relating to communication, attention, and screen time, are forces beyond our control, but I’ve got to grasp on to some hope that we aren’t steamrolling towards a less “human” era, where everything we do in some way relates to constant connectivity, gadgets, and multitasking.

Mr. Ganz, a Harvard University professor, wrote about the importance of narrative in forming policy, effectively influencing his audience by telling a story of self, of us, and of now.  I’m going to take a page out of his playbook in making my case.

The Story of Self–I’m thirty years old, grateful to have grown up in an era without a smart phone in my pocket.  During my adult life, I’ve been exhilarated, annoyed, challenged, and hopeful about the way digital technology can shape our lives.  But the guidelines are unclear.  I enthusiastically embraced using cell phones in class as a middle school teacher, but have recently changed my tune.  I’ve noticed my own habits, checking e-mail incessantly at times, waiting for a new “like” on my blog posts, and became anxious after reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  Could I still give my unfettered attention to longer texts, either in print or on the screen, without being tempted by a hyperlink or vibration in my pocket?

The Story of Us–I sometimes can’t believe what I see as a high school teacher.  There are so many possibilities to use digital and social media in productive ways, yet we seem to have a generation of youth who hasn’t been guided in any meaningful way.  The guidelines are unclear.  Teens and preteens default to allowing themselves to be constantly distracted by inane and belligerent banter, instead of seeking out ways to communicate and connect to enrich the self, community, and the greater world.  Few educators seem willing or able to teach ever-evolving technology etiquette and skills.  But we can still make choices as individuals and as a society.  Harnessing the addictive and alluring qualities and functions of technology, it seems, does not come naturally to people.

The Story of Now–I am giddy with excitement every time I read something that provides countless “ah-ha” moments.  Net Smart: How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, is one of those texts.  I’ve finally come across a book that convinces me why I should use Twitter, how I can effectively juggle my various online accounts, and how I might begin to teach students to thoughtfully engage in the digital world, among other tidbits.

According to Rheingold, there are five key new digital literacies:

1.  Attention–do you set goals and intentions, then monitor yourself when your technology habits help or hinder your efforts? 

2.  Crap Detection–do you triangulate at least three sources before passing along “breaking news” or other information on the internet?

3.  Participation–what is your level of digital participation?  Are you a curator?  Creator?  What is your digital footprint and how are you helping to shape it?

4. Collaboration–do you know about cooperation theory and how it has led to an explosion of possibilities online?

5. Network Smarts–have you considered your centrality?  That is, the number of people or networks who go through you in order to connect, versus your sheer number of contacts?

The above is a mere fraction of what Rheingold asks us to consider.  Let’s take an empowered stance, be open to critiquing our own technology use, and push for more digital mindfulness in school.  I’m eager to begin the school year and incorporate some of the above ideas, but I know I won’t find direction in my curriculum guides.  I’m hopeful and ready to act.  According to Ganz, this bodes well:

…if  we are hopeful, our curiosity is more likely to be triggered, leading to exploration that can yield  learning and creative problem solving. So our readiness to consider action, capacity to consider it well, and ability to act on our consideration rests on how we feel.


No Stone Unturned

Is there a formula to bringing big ideas to life?


Most ideas never happen. Fleeting moments of brilliance are neglected in favor of mundane and seemingly necessary obligations. Just think what might be if you had followed through on just one or two of your great ideas…

“Just one great idea can revolutionize your life.”

-Earl Nightengale

Scott Belsky, CEO of Behance and author of Making Ideas Happen, has built a life and an empire around a system of living that melds creativity and organization to create an impactful product, service, or methodology.

He suggests that four different elements contribute to an idea becoming fully realized:

  1. Creativity
  2. Organization and successful execution
  3. Communal forces and teamwork
  4. Leadership capability

To begin, Scott advise everyone to react to your inflow of ideas, rather than proactively work to develop new concepts. Creativity is all around us and does not need to be forced.

In this day and age, we’re continually inundated by external stimuli – phones and emails, social…

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Balloons, Climate Change, and the Future

No Stone Unturned

What would it take for people to see their impact on the environment, in relation to climate change?  After a few moments of deliberation, my friend and mentor Rowan Claypool said Balloons.

Imagine that for all of your activity responsible for CO2 emissions, large ugly balloons filled with CO2 trailed you wherever you traveled. 

If you bought a couple of Big Macs, balloons would appear.  If you went joyriding in your Saab Wagon on a Sunday morning, balloons would appear.  If you flew to New Orleans for a Teaching Conference–which I am actually en route to now–you’d arrive in the Big Easy with hundreds more balloons attached to your carry-on bag.  The more you consumed, traveled, and  purchased, you would see a tangible sign of your impact on the environment.

Image from the Boston Globe online. Biodegradable balloons in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

I don’t understand how the science of climate change is disputable.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, CO2 levels have increased from under 320 ppm in the late 1950’s to over 395 ppm now.  That seems to be an indisputable fact.  It’s also a fact that the number has been on a steady rise.  The more CO2, the more climate variability and extremes we endure.  Have you recently experienced a drought, heat wave, flood, or other event?  If you live in the United States, chances are the answer is a resounding Yes.

Somehow, special interest groups have successfully muddled the information to a great extent. 

Challenging the Altar of Economic Growth and Material Consumption is inextricably linked to acknowledging climate change and human impact on the environment.  For some, acknowledging this connection in our modern world is akin to challenging religious belief systems.  For others, acknowledging this connection means more government regulation and less “freedom.”  God forbid individuals are discouraged or fined for making decisions that impact everybody for the worse (sarcasm).

Unfortunately, I imagine individuals, communities, states, countries, and the world economy continuing the barrel along at a reckless pace.

I imagine a migration of folks out of the Southwestern United States due to a lack of water and ridiculous energy prices to cool homes and cars.  I imaging India, China, and other economies continuing to grow, extracting and using fossil fuels like the United States did to grow during the 20th Century.  I imagine returning to New England some day and having a similar growing season to what I currently experience in Kentucky.  I imagine obscenely rich people, no matter where they live, insulating themselves or using money to continue consuming at unsustainable rates.  I imagine science and technology putting a tiny dent in our environmental problems, but hardly providing long-term fixes.

The bottom line is, I’m not sure  most people on both sides of the debate are currently willing to make lifestyle changes and sacrifices that someday may be mandatory or necessary for more many more generations of humans to thrive.

And unlike many who deny the human impact on climate change, I hope my stance is wrong and that this post is far more gloom and doom than it should be.