Busyness Is Not A Badge Of Honor

No Stone Unturned

After devoting the vast majority of my writing and thinking to education-related issues and other publishing platforms in the past year or two, I’ve decided to revive the ‘Stew!

Out of curiosity, I used Medium to post my latest effort.  Thanks for reading!

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Creating Time and Space for Just Being.

No Stone Unturned

It has taken me nearly 32 years of living, but I’m finally coming to fully appreciate the importance of stillness. Just being. Doing nothing.

When I start class, students are invited to participate in a mindful breathing meditation.  When I drive home from work now, the radio is turned off. I’ve even begun practicing a simple breathing exercise for 15 minutes a day.

 So far, count me in as someone who believes in the power of mindfulness, which is covered in depth in this story from The Atlantic. For fifteen minutes every day, I lie down and pay attention to my breath. There are times when I’ve gotten restless and don’t quite reach 15 minutes. There are times when I have to gently redirect my thoughts to my breath hundreds of times (or so it seems that way). But more often than not, I feel refreshed, calm, and focused after the practice, even after a stressful day mentoring and teaching my 110 students.

The initial results of structuring this simple, but challenging, contemplative quiet in my life has been overwhelmingly positive: I’m sleeping better, generating more ideas, and feel less busy: for many of us, myself included at times, I’ve fallen into the trap of allowing thoughts of busyness manifest themselves as reality.

Think about the last time you felt like you had too much on your plate: to what extent were your emotions and thoughts causing feelings of being overwhelmed? Right now, maybe you’re skimming this blog post, wanting to read it carefully, but automatically triggered impatience or anxiety causes you to think about the e-mail you must compose. Or what happened yesterday in a frustrating meeting. Or what you’re going to cook for dinner.    

While I do have dozens of items on my “to-do” list most days, it doesn’t feel as overwhelming when you’re truly tackling one thing at a time. Some days, I’m tempted to tell myself I don’t have time for this. But the truth is: if I’m able to be calm and focused with whatever I may be going, I’m more efficient. I’m less worried about what isn’t being done and more in tune with what I am engaged in.

It might seem trite, but the idea of being in the moment, aware of what’s going through your mind, is at the heart of being mindful. It’s certainly easier said than done. The practice is cognitive exercise; if I wanted to run a mini-marathon, it’d take weeks of training for me to simply be in a position to finish the race.   

Liz Kulze concludes in The Atlantic: “The practice may have great potential, but its advocates are quick to note that it will only do for people as much as they decide to put into it…Like fitness of any sort, seeing benefit from meditation takes time, discipline, and dedication.”

Readers, do you have any experience with meditation? How’d it go? If not, are you intrigued?

Wealth As Community, Time, and Freedom

No Stone Unturned

I’ll be the first one to admit it: I value financial security and material comfort, I save for retirement, and I sometimes worry about finances.

But after reading Ben Hewitt’s book Saved: How I Quit Worry About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, I’ve been inspired to blog.  Like Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, the text challenged me to ponder just how unsustainable the modern paradigm of constant corporate and economic growth is, urging us to examine what it means to be wealthy.   Let’s consider community, time, and the freedom to think and act outside the realm of money as undervalued measures of wealth.

Community

Valuing wealth based on massive accumulating of material goods and services is a historical anomaly for most of the world’s inhabitants, yet it has become the norm. Hewitt writes:

Of course, the economic and social arrangements we know today have scant historical precedence, and it was not long ago that our investments were not primarily fiscal in nature. We invested in property, to be sure, but also in less tangible assets, like trust and community. We understood that we could not stand separate from others in our communities, nor from the natural world that provided the foundational essentials for day-to-day survival.  

If this doesn’t echo Wendell Berry, I’m not sure what does. Berry writes in The Agrarian Essays, “A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members – among them the need to need one another.”

Community membership offers measures of wealth, of course, that are vastly different than accumulation and six figure bank accounts. If you can trade handmade material goods or services with a neighbor, is that not a form of wealth? If you can strengthen relationships with others by borrowing tools, or counting on someone to feed your pets while away, is that not wealth? Hewitt contends that to be wealthy is to maintain interdependent relationships that allow us to skirt the impersonal transactions of corporate America.

Time

We are all offered 24 hours in a day. No more, no less, no matter our lot. I consider myself wealthy in this regard, despite the fact that I have a demanding job as a high school teacher. I take active steps to ensure I work efficiently and have ample time at home, hours spent bow-hunting in the woods, and time to simply be, to relax, to read, to write. Hewitt writes, “Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend out time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth.”

I thought about this quote the other day, as I sat in the school cafeteria for an extra three paid hours for parent-teacher conferences and department meetings. Most of my colleagues said they’d rather be with their families, pursuing a hobby, or simply choosing how to spend their time. I was in complete agreement.

Thinking/Freedom

Hewitt’s most interesting idea regarding the modern wealth paradigm of material consumption is that it can detract our ability to be more mindful about the world around us, to be critical thinkers, to be artists, to feel unburdened from thinking about bills and acquiring more stuff. Consider this: if you spend all of your time working to earn money, then worrying about how you’ll spend, invest, and save your money, how much time is left over to think about other things?

“We tend to think of freedom in the context of flesh and blood, but of course our thoughts can be shackled too…How often, I wonder, do we deny ourselves the pleasure of offering our gifts to others, be they intellectual, artistic, or of pure toil? I can’t afford that, we say, and we believe it…” Hewitt continues.

This post probably doesn’t do these ideas justice, but I’m hoping to hear from y’all.

Is someone wealthy who has a 4,000 square foot house but is a slave to their mortgage payment, having to work 60-hour weeks to make house payments and fill up every room with furniture and gadgets? Is someone wealthy if they have a huge nest egg, but hasn’t been able to–or chooses not to–pursue hobbies or take vacations? To what extent do you value the aforementioned ideas as wealth? Is the old maxim “time is money” problematic in any way to you?

What Do You Do Without A Screen?

No Stone Unturned

I’m not sure when I realized a determination to continue to learn and do things that do not actively require a digital screen.  

This desire to be present and hands-on could have been fostered at an early age; I remember putting on a plastic hard hat and hammering away on rocks, shards of stone rocketing off into the grass, while my uncle fixed the foundation to our barn.  I remember constructing forts out of plywood and potato guns out of PVC piping (sorry, mom).  My friend Chris once allowed me to borrow his stick-shift Honda Accord for a week so I could learn how to drive a manual.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

With each passing year and new gadget becoming the latest rage, it’s far too easy to let convenience, leisure, and screen time consume all waking hours. I’m victim to bleary eyes from staring at a screen, checking my phone too often, and defaulting to mindless internet browsing.

But I check myself. I don’t feel good if I fail to step away from technology on a fairly regular basis.

While I’m an active Twitter user and blogger, my students don’t understand what I do when I’m not teaching.  “Do you have a life?” they inevitably ask, when I tell them I haven’t seen the latest viral YouTube clip, or TV show, or haven’t heard that a pop star has gone into rehab.  I’ve got hobbies, I tell them.  I like to try and build things, cook, brew beer, hunt deer (although this past season was my first shut out, to my dismay).  They shake their heads.  They are truly perplexed, but they don’t do much questioning when I tell them I’m glad I grew up right before the smartphone revolution. 

Is it becoming a norm in society to not know how to do anything of disengaged from digital connectivity? Is it the norm to pursue as much leisure and convenience as one can?

Sure seems like it. Effort becomes devalued, as does work, in favor of instant gratification, a point Wendell Berry makes in The Art of the Commonplace: “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them.”

With Berry’s quote in mind, I suppose a lot of what I like to do might be considered work or not worth the effort. But here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this. I wonder if, at some point, they’ll have their own epiphanies and start to engage themselves, with others, and the world around them in different ways.

What do you take pride in being able to do without a screen?  What are some pros and cons to the relentless onslaught of technologies that promote leisure and entertainment?  How well would you cope without your phone or internet for 48 hours?

Thailand: Idealism and Reestablishing the Travel Bug

No Stone Unturned

While strolling around a village about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, my wife Rebecca and I got inevitably lost amongst the dry rice fields, the occasional passing motorbike, and dogs popping out of every other driveway to inspect each flourish of activity. The landmarks on our hand drawn, photocopied map–phone booths, wood carvings, fish pond–provided little guidance.

But there was no reason to worry, as our overall experience in Thailand confirmed what many people had told us: the Thai people are almost otherworldly with their hospitable and friendly nature, putting most Americans to shame in this department.

Within minutes of standing at a junction that was supposed to have four turns, instead of three, two cars stopped by, asking in halting English if we needed help. No, we’re fine, I said, determined that my normally sound sense of direction would prevail. It didn’t, and after about ten more minutes pondering where to go under the shade of some banana trees on the side of the road, we flagged down the next person we saw.

The man on the motorbike didn’t stop speaking an incomprehensible blend of Thai and English, but he determination to return us our rustic guest house was clear, so we meandered around the local villages, two unlikely passengers clinging on to each other while balancing on the scooter.

The list of firsts and memorable experiences from our two-week long honeymoon expedition is lengthy, but writing about travel is tough. How can I encapsulate a trip that will provide us with a lifetime of joyous memories? Should I review places  like street food vendors (eat the Khao Soi  noodle dish in Thanin Market, Chiang Mai),  guest houses, and temples? Should I try and convince others to travel to Southeast Asia?

For me, reading The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti provided a spark. In the book, the author embarks on a personal quest to uncover the story behind one of the world’s greatest cheeses, produced in a tiny village in the Castile region of Spain. He meets Ambrosio, the cheesemaker, and becomes entranced by his powerful personality and the village’s ancient way of life. Paterniti eventually moves his family to Guzman, Spain, in order to fully unravel a compelling mystery of the cheese’s rise and fall, but the tale ends up being about more than curds and whey–the writer reflects and finds his place in the world. It’s a delightful read, a tale of idealism, adventure, and local food customs.

More than once in Thailand, Rebecca and I imagined packing up and moving abroad. How could we not choose to live in such a hospitable, enchanting, affordable place? When would be a good time for us to pack up and leave the United States for a stint in Thailand or another place? Rebecca imagined being home with a child (one that doesn’t exist yet) while I worked as an English teacher.

Certain travel experiences undoubtedly unearth a sense of idealism and adventure, providing visitors to new places the sense the grass is greener. I couldn’t help but feel this at certain times in Thailand.

We ate many delicious meals for about 30 Baht, or one dollar, took advantage of public transit that cost between 10 cents! for a train ride to five dollars for a two hour van taxi, and I possibly overdosed on cheap massages. We saw thousands of Thai lanterns lazily rise and dance in the sky over Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve. The only sign of aggression or discord from any native was a man in the village who slapped his dog after it barked at us; everyone else we encountered seemingly smiled or assisted us in some way. Heck, even most of the animals were friendly.

But after we began considering the possibility of living in such a different place, we realized we’d probably never learn much more than how to say hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom? in such a challenging language.  And it’s so far from our home in Kentucky and families in New Hampshire. We even got tired of eating delicious coconut, lemongrass, chili, and lime infused flavors by the end of the trip. (But if I had to only eat one type of food the rest of my life, Thai would be high on the list.)

“What am I doing here?” Paterniti finally writes in The Telling Room after realizing he’d never feel truly at home in Guzman. “It hadn’t occurred to me to try and tame the “madness” of American life rather than tame it, to bring the lessons of Castile back to American life.” I reread those words while sitting on the porch of a hut at the village guest house, and I shared his words with Rebecca.  We wondered aloud about what insights or behaviors we might bring back with us to the United States.

I’m probably continuing to idealize, but being in Thailand provided a great reminder that the American way of life–striving, attempting to make more money to buy more things and bigger homes, to accept 40 hour-plus workweeks as unbending–isn’t the only paradigm out there. Being in a place where Christianity isn’t the dominant religious was eye-opening, too. What affect does Buddism have on a place where, for the most part, people seem so accepting and calm (recent political riots, notwithstanding).

We’re now back in Kentucky, braving the frigid temperatures, readjusting back to our busier lives. But our travel bug is solidly reestablished, as is the possibility that someday, somehow, we could choose to live abroad. It was entirely refreshing to visit a place so different and yet so great in so many ways. The world may be shrinking in some ways due to digital technology, but there are still countless places out there where we’re reminded and challenged–wherever we come from–that there is more than one way to live our lives.

How about you?  How you you write about travel?  What eye-opening moments have you had in domestic or foreign places? When you travel, what do you seek?  Relaxation?  Adventure?  Escape?  Experiencing different cultures?  Thanks for chiming in.

“I like knowledge, but I don’t like school,” says a student.

No Stone Unturned

The following post first appeared on my Bluegrass Dispatches blog for Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) on September 25th, 2013.  The blog focuses on questions, issues, and solutions surrounding the Common Core State Standards and School Redesign.  CTQ has an impressive array of teacher leaders and voices at the site–check it out!

I’ve cringed when I’ve heard students in the past make discouraging remarks about other classes, and if you’ve spent any time in the classroom, you’ve inevitably heard both positive and negative reviews of your colleagues. These informal reviews are often spot-on, a contention Amanda Ripley argues in The Atlantic, as strong evidence exists suggesting students are the best evaluators of teaching effectiveness.

But what about student voice regarding general school reform?  Is it possible student insight should be considered more as we redesign schools, classrooms, curriculums, and policy?  

Obviously, students don’t have master’s degrees in Education Leadership. Students generally don’t study pedagogy, read Education Week, or converse online about education-related debates. But they do know what is most engaging, impactful, and inspiring in schools. After all, they’re the subjects of countless lab experiments, so to speak, all with wildly different results.

I asked some of my students from Fern Creek High School in Louisville to discuss what changes they believe would be beneficial to schools. All of the students have, at some point, been frustrated with a “sit and get” model of education, and they didn’t prepare their responses.  

Listen by clicking here.  

What strikes you most about their words? For me, what’s alarming is their perception of a lack of student choice in course selection, in addition to a dearth of creative opportunities.  

As we plow ahead with implementing the Common Core Standards, it’s imperative that we design instruction to allow for discovery, creation, and action.

At Fern Creek, Brent Peters and Joe Franzen have designed a dynamic English III course centered around food, with students beginning each instructional unit facing a big question leading to critical inquiry, intensive writing, and hands-on learning: What is good food?Is food sacred?, and Is school lunch saving our generation? are among the questions students tackle. The class is a hit with the kids.

As for me, I’ve attempted to exploit the open-ended language of the CCSS to allow for student discovery, creation, and action as well, designing a digital media course titled Unleashing Digital Storytelling.

Can you imagine a school system that listens more to students?  What are some pros and cons to this approach?

Can You Imagine Schools Without Sports?

No Stone Unturned

Americans are known throughout the world for being competitive people. We like to win Olympic medals, build the biggest houses, and maintain a superior military force. We have the most human and natural resources any nation has ever known. But do we have the best schools?  

Perhaps we have the very best at the top, but we also have too many schools that fail to provide and foster academic opportunities.  

Many people, including Amanda Ripley writing in The Atlantic magazine, are out to figure out why our schools and students–on average–lag behind other nations less prosperous than ours. Ripley’s latest argument piqued my interest–could sports be the primary reason many of our schools are mediocre compared to schools in less prosperous nations?

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Sports are a bigger deal here than anywhere else, yet few people seem willing to critique our collective obsession with Friday night lights, homecoming basketball games, and training year round for various activities. Ruth, one of my foreign students who hails from Rwanda, said she couldn’t believe how important sports were to Americans upon arriving in the country.  

Could our focus on sports detract us from better academic options and outcomes? Or are sports so integral to our school communities that we couldn’t function with them?  

Ripley cites a school district in Premont, Texas–perhaps the most crazed football state in the nation–that cancelled its sports programs in 2012 in order to save the school. The cost of funding the teams was simply too high. Some students were outraged, and others transferred to neighboring school districts.  So what happened?

The first fall without a football program, 80% of the students passed their classes, compared to 50% the year before. 160 parents showed up at parent-teacher conferences, compared to 6 the previous fall. The money saved went to raises for teachers. As the district’s budget became balanced, sports are gradually being reintroduced, but the former football coach says the culture shift has been striking–in a good way. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” he said, “compared to 2 percent before.”

Talking with students in my English III class last week, even some athletes admitted that sports may be overemphasized. Yet Cory, a junior on the baseball team, made the astute point that for him and many others, sports motivate many students to do better in school and keep grades up. And then there’s the way sports can bring people together.

Think about how community traditions, support, and participation merge during a typical football game.  Take our homecoming football game, for instance. The band, cheerleading squad, dance team, and alumni all participated in the event. The softball and baseball teams, I believe, manned the concession stand and ticket booth. Our football team played and won the game, of course.  So many people are able to come together, helping create school spirit and culture.  

As for me, I had a wonderful experience playing high school football and baseball, and some of my best friends today were members of the 1998 Crimson Tide gridiron team in Concord, New Hampshire. I had tough coaches who instilled life lessons.  I’m also fortunate to have had well-educated parents who knew that doing well in school–not being a football or baseball star–would be the best ticket to college.

During the past ten years as a teacher, I’ve interacted with far too many students who struggle in the classroom, but spend hours upon hours at practice, instead of going to tutoring, reading, or otherwise being involved in something more academically-oriented.  Many students talk about the importance of doing well in school, but their actions speak louder than their words.  

In many cases, it’s not the students’ fault they value their athletic experiences so highly–they are reflecting our societal values.  Yet I can’t help but wonder how much stronger our schools might be if all the money, time, and energy poured into sports–on all levels– was funneled in other directions.

Are sports overemphasized in your communities?  Can you imagine school without sports?  

Emphasizing the Gift of Attention

Techculture

Like most teachers, I’m a few weeks into the school year.   I’ve dealt with shifting rosters, a classroom change, opening-school paperwork, and trying to establish a positive, productive classroom culture. Though my classroom actions and procedures, I’ve implicitly and explicitly emphasized certain behaviors and values, like collaboration, being on time, and organization.

What’s new this year is an emphasis on attention.

Without teaching ourselves–and students–how to sustain thought and practice concentration, I’m wary all of our innovative technology applications in the classroom can become merely engagement gimmicks, distracting us and students from deeper thought needed to make meaningful connections and compose or read longer texts. I’ve previously written about the phenomenon in the context of digital versus “old-school” reading.

Can students learn effectively–and deeply–without being trained—or practicing—the art of sustained focus and thought?  Do we want classrooms to be places where digital tools and use are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult not to distract one’s self? It seems to be a disappearing skill for our young people, and while they might be clicking on hyperlinks left and right, Tweeting their friends, and completing a math assignment—all at the same time—I wonder how a generation of learners seemingly unable to pay attention will function.

But I’m not about to completely ban cell phones and discourage connectivity. Far from it.

I do allow students to use phones to access Schoology.com for classroom assignments and discussion boards. I do allow them to use the camera to take pictures for notes.  They may use dictionary and thesaurus apps, and they do have ample access to laptops and desktops.

It takes self-discipline–especially for struggling high school students, to avoid the constant pull of social media, music videos on YouTube, Twitter feeds, and other information streams.

However, we’re doing a disservice if we don’t teach students how to use the amazing technology tools out there.  In fact, to my amazement, only 4-5 out of my 80 students use Google Drive during an informal poll today.  Tomorrow’s lesson?  Explain how Google Drive helps my efficiency, productivity, and collaborative ability, then get them signed up, and share a document with a classmate.

Last year, I wrote about mindful use of technology, sharing these tips with the blogosphere.  I’ll do the same with students.

I’ll explain that I can’t write this blog post very well, for example, with 13 windows open while checking my phone for texts every two minutes. I’ll explain that while it’s great to compose 140 character messages in thirty seconds, it’s even better to write a 500-word blog post. I’ll  also admit that I feel the pull of digital distraction too, explaining that 20-25 minute focused bursts without multitasking is my preferred strategy for reading and writing.

It’s all the rage to supply all students with iPads or laptops, unleashing the power of technology tools for learning. We can’t forget what deeper learning entails, however, and whether or not our digital habits benefit academic growth.

So, can students learn effectively without disconnecting for meaningful periods of time?  How do you handle digital distraction in your own life?  Do you struggle staying productive?  If you are a teacher, do you allow cell phone use in the classroom?  Do you have a policy when and where phones are off-limits?  How do you enforce it?

Fake Followers and Follows: Scram!

Techculture

Congratulations!

If you have recently subscribed to Mindful Stew, you might be the site’s 1,500th follower!

Except that you’re probably not, as I know a large percentage of this blog’s followers aren’t real–I’m not sure how many flesh-and-blood folks follow the ‘Stew.  Freakin’ spambots.  fagner1222ds, dhexd, aeryn65, catalinatutu, and eugeniotony: I’d love to hear from you.

According to this official WordPress forum, there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to prevent fake users and bizarre international business blogs from subscribing to our public sites.  Do any of y’all have the same issue?

What concerns me is the industry of online “influence” based on number of hits, subscribers, page views, and other measures, much of it driven by spambots.  And people are profitting from it.   This image below is from tweetangels.com, clearly advertising to a certain demographic.  It’s pretty creep stuff.

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The greater issue at play here is how perceived online popularity and activity may influence our decisions and behaviors.  I’ll admit I’ve been more likely to click on YouTube videos or check out certain Twitter feeds because of a number.  How many of you are likely to check out a link that doesn’t have any views or followers?  

Luckily, having a huge number of Twitter followers often has nothing to do with influence (although that big number might be feeding a big ego).  After all, it’s all about retweets and clicks if you’re trying to spread an idea or product–I don’t think the fake accounts will be rushing to help disseminate information or engage in dialogue.

The presence of SPAM, false influence and popularity, and the veil of the screen should remind us–I hope–to continue having a robust presence in the real-world, in balancing out our online lives and identities with what we do face-to-face and in the flesh.

I’m afraid it will become trickier and trickier to discern what digital material is authentically created by people and what is produced by computers or robots.  In 1950, British computing pioneer Alan Turing was already pondering whether or not machines can think.  The eponymous test, the Turing Test, has essentially been an Artificial Intelligence measuring stick for years now.

A human must figure out if a a computer program or another person is chatting with them on a screen.  Computers are getting mighty close to “thinking,” much closer than your sidekick Siri on your iPhone.

On a parting note, I appreciate all of you real readers and commenters–without you, I wouldn’t blog.