Zen and the Art of Teaching Junior High is going dark.

….or maybe going dim light…

I’m putting this page on sabbatical to work on something else more focused on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. I find I have more to say lately about that than education, that it’s kept me from posting on this blog for a while, and I want to push forward with more ideas on Buddhism. I’ve started a new page: OneUsefulWord.wordpress.com

Thank you all for reading. I’ve appreciated the comments and follows, and I’m looking forward to moving on to something related, but different.

Namaste.

100. Better than a thousand useless words is one useful word, hearing which one attains peace.

101. Better than a thousand useless verses is one useful verse, hearing which one attains peace.

102. Better than reciting a hundred meaningless verses is the reciting of one verse of Dhamma, hearing which one attains peace.

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203. Just as the great ocean slopes away gradually, tends downwards gradually without any abrupt precipice, even so this Dhamma and discipline is a gradual doing, a gradual training, a gradual practice; there is no sudden penetration of knowledge.

Udana 54 

 

In Buddhism, practice, as a term used to discuss meditation and repetition, is a pretty common theme (such as the chanting of mantras in many Buddhist sects, or the repetition of the name Amitabha in Pure Land, and so forth…). I don’t think it’s any surprise, then, that in the education world, repetition is the only way humans learn. You may need different kinds of repetitions for different kinds of learners, and more or fewer based on their age and level, but repetition is the secret to everything.

The AVID program bases their focus on Cornell Note* strategies on this concept. I have used their “Curve of Forgetting” multiple times in class in order to explain the need for homework (not hours of it, mind you, but repetition at home is a good thing).

http://archives.avid.org/dl/Forgetting%20Curve%20Graph.pdf

Basically, the more we do something, the better acquainted we are with it, and the better we do with it. That’s true for everyone, in every activity: dribbling a basketball, doing a math problem, playing a video game. What’s true for meditative practice is also true for schoolwork.

Modern psychology will back me up here. Psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck has done some brilliant research into mindset, which is another Buddhism buzzword. Turns out that having your mind in the proper place does a lot for your ability to learn. She divides people into two mindsets: those who believe that, with practice, they can learn anything over time, and those who believe that they are born with a certain amount of intelligence and therefore can only go so far in certain areas. Her research bears out that students with the growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to learn, whereas those with the fixed mindset see failure as a sign that they aren’t intelligent, or have no ability in that area. They may even cheat or act out when they experience failure.

Thing is, failure is a part of every game and every subject at every level. Sooner or later, we play a team who is better than us, and we must grow if we are to compete. Sooner or later, there’s a math problem we can’t do, and we must try again, reread our notes, and start over.

Which is the point of repetition, and why it is effective. By repeating a task, we are able to learn about our learning, to know our successes, see our failures, and have the opportunity to correct. This is why homework can be valuable.

A teacher must embrace the growth mindset. Instead of “you’re very smart,” (a polite compliment, to be sure, but one that reinforces that the student did well because of some innate ability, rather than a skill they have been developing over time) a teacher should praise with “you did well, you must have worked hard.” Even if the student did not work particularly hard to find their success, associating the success with a developed skill gives them a better chance to believe they can develop more skills. The old addage: “if you believe you can, or believe you can’t, either way you’re right” comes to mind here.

The fixed mindset is hard for students, especially at the junior high level, to overcome. They often excel at dividing themselves into groups by their perceived abilities (athletes, smart kids, so on…) and convincing a kid that to have success they “just have to work harder” can ring hollow.

But a persistent teacher can get results. I once had a kid who simply refused to do homework — would show up with a litany of excuses the next day, ranging from “I forgot,” to “I lost it,” to “we had homework?” Not surprisingly, this student did fairly poorly on tests as well.

Any teacher who has ever taught anything ever as heard those excuses. 

After phone calls home, meetings with the principal, detentions, rewards, and any number of other ideas proved fruitless, I finally decided I wasn’t taking “no” for an answer any more. I called the student’s parents, and arranged for the student to spend every day after school with me working on homework.

It was as fun for me as it was for the student.

The deal was simple — the student could leave as soon as all homework, from every class, was complete. At first it was a battle of wills, but I am at least as obnoxiously stubborn as any junior high student, and eventually we got a lot of good work done. Turns out, if given a quiet environment, with an academic focus, presistent work and a little help, the student was able to do as well as anyone, and got a B on the next test. When I gave the test back, I saw the biggest smile I’d seen from that kid all year. Turns out no awards, no prizes, nothing meant as much as the satisfaction of a job well done, and the praise: “you worked really hard and got some great results.”

 

—————-

*Cornell Notes are the only form of notes acceptable in my class. I’m a big fan of the repetitive techniques that they offer as a format. This way, students aren’t just marking a piece of paper when they’re in class, and then tossing it into a backpack for later — ignoring it. To get credit, they have to interact with it. Since I collect notes again at the end of every unit, they also have to save them. Which means they might as well use them as a study tool.

http://archives.avid.org/lesson_plan_cornell_notes.html

My post from last night was more about getting some things off my chest than my typical positive and constructive posts. I’ve been working on some other ideas.

One would be to post a permanent page of resources (created and found) for teachers teaching students about Buddhism. I have a few things ready to go. I’m going to post a mini unit that works for California’s Social Science content standards and within the context of the common core. A teacher could borrow the unit or pick and choose activities that work for them. I would love some reader input. Post a comment here on what you’re looking for and I’ll try to oblige. My goal is to put that together before the end of summer.

I’m also working on a question and answer type blog. Theme would be questions about education or Buddhism. If I get enough response, I may split it in two by subject. Post questions here. In a week or so, I’ll evaluate whether I have material for multiple posts and what that will look like.

I’ve taught Junior High US, Medieval and Ancient History for six years, coached PE, soccer, basketball, track and softball (at one point I was running all sports programs for my school). I’ve also taught Math and High School History and Geography as part of other teaching assignments. I’ve been a Buddhist for 3 years, though, as I’ve said before, I feel I’ve been one all my life without knowing it.

61. If a genuine seeker, who sets forth in search of a superior friend, does not come in contact with such a one or at least an equal, then he should resolutely choose the solitary course, for there can be no companionship with the ignorant.

Dhammapada 61

I’ve been asked twice in the last several months if I want a letter of recommendation from my prinicpal — which, when you have tenure, is a polite way of asking if you want to quit.

I’ve been very vocal about my displeasure with recent decisions made by our Superintendent — very, very vocal — and that is what led to the question.

I became acquainted about three years ago with a program for High School and Junior High students called AVID. In fact, it was this same superintendent that introduced me to it. I came back from a conference determined to make it work at our little school. A decision that put a lot of pressure and extra work on my colleagues, as we had to jumble schedules and increase workloads to do it, but one that I believe was worth it when it produced results. 

The AVID program has been the best and most important teaching I’ve ever done. It reaches out to students who otherwise would fall through the cracks, introduces them to college level thinking, and points them in a direction of university scholarship. It’s possible to reach out to these students in other ways, but no program in the history of American education has been so successful, and having AVID on your campus gives you the opportunity to have an elective period dedicated to the task.

After two years teaching it, it was clear the way in which we jumbled things to do it was not working out for my fellow teachers. I was fine. If my choice is between burning out to do too much, or not having the things that are important for our kids to be successful, I choose the former, but it was a heavy burden to place on my compatriots.

I joined our union negotiating team with the singular goal of rectifying some of that. If we could get better resources, some prep time, maybe I could convince my fellow teachers to keep the program I loved so much, that had done so much good for so many students. Early in the process, my superintendent agreed with me that the situation at our junior high had become unequal, and he encouraged me to bring my ideas to the negotiating table.

And that’s where the support died. Six months later, the superintendent decided that he and the board were not interested in addressing the issue of prep time or resources for the junior high. He decided to roll back all elective programs at the school, calling them unnecessary and a mistake, and told me that neither I , nor my fellow teachers deserve prep time, as we only work six hours a day. The same man who practically begged me to find a way to make AVID work two years prior, was now calling me worthless and lazy, and all my work a mistake. To add insult to injury, because the basis of the argument was that teachers had too much on their plate and needed help, I was pulled from one of my sports programs. I was told this was to make my load lighter. But it has felt like pure and simple retaliation for not backing down on the issue. To make matters worse, the coach put in charge of the sport this year couldn’t put a team together, meaning that the people who were hurt doubly here were the students I teach. 

My kids.

A teacher should look upon his pupil as a son. A pupil should look upon his teacher as a father. Thus, these two, united by mutual reverence and deference and living in communion together will achieve increase, growth and progress in this Dhamma and discipline.

Vinaya IV.45

 

I really do look at them that way. 

Since the last round of negotiations I have continued to be vocal in my ideas, to the chagrin of my principal, who feels torn between two worlds, some of my colleagues, who, since they did not teach the program, do not understand it’s value completely (some do, but many don’t), and the superintendent (no surprise there).

I’m a self-righteous pain in the ass. I have high standards for myself, and for the things I put my name on. I teach the best kids in the world in one of the most awful places in the world. I refuse to give them anything but the best chance to escape that. But I’m also a generally happy person who’s simply philosophically driven to do what I do. Since I have high standards, I’m going to point out when those standards haven’t been met. It’s not bellyaching, or complaining for the sake of complaining. I am so loyal to those kids and that school, that I will not stand for anything that is not our best. And I will not let one man’s petty agenda, or small town politics get in the way. If that means I’m alone, so be it. Better to be alone on the right path then to travel with a fool for the sake of companionship. I don’t need friends — got plenty of those — what I need are the tools (all the tools, not just some of the tools) to help give my kids some kind of chance to escape the meth den that too many of their parents insist on raising them in.

The Blessed One said, “Now what, monks, is the Noble Eightfold Path? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

-Magga-vibhanga Sutta

(all quotes today are from this Sutta of the Pali Canon)

 

I am blessed to work with a teacher at my school who is Hindu, born in India. Blessed because she is, on the one hand, a great primary source to invite into the classroom when discussing India, and, on the other, a sweet lady, a respected educator, and a friend. On one occasion when we spoke recently, we discovered that we had something in common: we were both philosophically driven educators. Some educators are driven by their intense love of their subject, which is fine, but we were both driven by an intense desire to see students have success, and for us, the subjects we teach are merely a means to an end. We teach the student, not the standard.

Since that discussion, I have thought more deeply about my philosophy as an educator, and how to talk about it and classify it. As a Buddhist, it made sense for me to start with the Eightfold Path: the defining bedrock of Buddhist ethics and philosophy, the Buddha’s guide to the ending of suffering and the path to enlightenment.

I. Right View

And what, monks, is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the stopping of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the stopping of stress: This, monks, is called right view.

 

For the Buddhist, Right View means a grasp of the Four Noble Truths and an understanding of the world. For the teacher, I believe this means seeing the impermanence in your students. I see too often that students are rolled into groups based on what teachers think their natural ability levels are. But students are impermanent — sometimes people go back to college at 50 after living a difficult life, and sometimes the 4.0 student drops out. You can’t predict anything, so all students are deserving of an opportunity to be successful, and are deserving of your time, effort and assistance. They are all eventual Buddhas, if not now, then later, if not in this life, then another. Time is meaningless.

II. Right Resolve

And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.

For Buddhists, this is about intention. The intention to renounce sense desires, to act with good will, to be harmless and act with compassion. For the educator, they must ask themselves what is their intention? Is it just to collect a paycheck, or is there more to what they do? I chose to be an educator based on my compassion for others, and a deep commitment to social justice. That doesn’t have to be everybody’s reason, but each teacher should have a good reason for being one.

III. Right Speech

And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech, abstaining from idle chatter: This, monks, is called right speech.

For the Buddhist, this is about controlling what you say, and understanding the power words can have to harm yourself and others. For the teacher, it’s about understanding the power of the bully-pulpit that you have as an educator. There are thirty humans in your classroom focused on every single word you say. Choose wisely.

Teaching in a small town, I’ve sometimes had to learn this one the hard way.

IV. Right Action

And what, monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastity: This, monks, is called right action.

Again, for the Buddhist, this is cut and dry. Control your body. It is a physical manifestation of your expression. For the educator, we must be what we say. We must be on time if we expect our students to be. We must control our anger and emotions if we ask for that of our students. So on, and so forth. Every action must be a symbol of the lessons you teach. You wanted the job, you asked to be a role model; now do it.

V. Right Livelihood

And what, monks, is right livelihood? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This, monks, is called right livelihood.

For Buddhists, it is accepted that we all must have a livelihood, a job, a way feeding and sheltering ourselves, but it is not acceptable that this livelihood harm others. Because of our interconnectedness, there is no way to do harm to one that does not do harm to all. As an educator, it is a reminder of the great power we have to help or harm. In my first year teaching, I convinced about fifteen students to do the “Night at the Roxbury” dance in a circle together at a dance I was chaperoning when the DJ played a little Haddaway. We were being silly and having fun, and a fellow teacher came up to me afterward and said “wow, they really trust you.”

It was a profound reminder of my power in the classroom, and how that extends out of the classroom. Teaching is the Right Livelihood for many, but would be the Wrong Livelihood should someone become a teacher who doesn’t understand the power that comes with it.

VI. Right Effort

And what, monks, is right effort? (i) There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (ii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen. (iii) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen. (iv) He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This, monks, is called right effort.

For the Buddhist, effort is effort, but it is classified as wholesome or unwholesome based on intent and product. Effort can fuel anger, desire, aggression or it can fuel self-discipline, benevolence and compassion. For the educator, the Right Effort is the effort that fuels compassion. Every act towards a student must be an act of compassion, in both the eyes of the educator and the eyes of the student, to be successful or “right.” Are you holding that student after class because of your own anger, because of your ego in being one-upped during class, or because of your compassionate desire to help the student understand correct behavior? The only correct answer is compassion.

VII. Right Mindfulness

And what, monks, is right mindfulness? (i) There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (ii) He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iii) He remains focused on the mind in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iv) He remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. This, monks, is called right mindfulness.

For Buddhists, Right Mindfulness is the correct view of what is happening around you, to you, and within you. We tend to wrap those all up together, and confuse what really happens with our perception of what happens, often based on pre-conceived notions of “the world” and “how it works.” For the educator, we must correctly interpret the events around us and within us to be fully successful. We must understand our own prejudices and work around them. We must understand what our students bring with them, physically and mentally, when they enter the classroom. And while planning is a central part of being a teacher, we must not be so wrapped up in “the plan” that we forget to observe the classroom in the moment. Sometimes the flow of a lesson is so perfect, that the interaction between student and teacher becomes a state of oneness. This is when “teachable moments” occur — life lessons that go beyond the teaching standards. A teacher without Right Mindfulness will miss all of this. It is the awareness of when and where to do what.

VIII. Right Concentration

And what, monks, is right concentration? (i) There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. (ii) With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. (iii) With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ (iv) With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This, monks, is called right concentration.

For the Buddhist, Right Concentration is joined particularly with Meditation. I meditate regularly — usually daily. All educators should enter the classroom and profession with a singular mind, and I encourage meditation as the path and tool of this. But if that’s too New Age for you, create separation between home and work, between work and hobbies, mentally. Educating students is an intense mental exercise, exceptionally stressful at times. The focus of the mind should be singular when educating, and not hounded by petty distractions. When a distracting thought arises, the teacher should mentally note it, acknowledge it, then shove it aside. Piecemeal concentration leads to scattered thinking and disjointed teaching. 

Breathe, be mindful, breathe, concentrate, breathe, teach.

I’ve been struggling with what to write about the events in Boston since the bombings a few days ago. Struggled, because I knew I wanted to say something, but right away, wasn’t sure what. I’m usually pretty quick to an opinion, so that’s rare for me.

The Buddha was pretty clear about violence; he didn’t like it:

129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

-Dhammapada

 

But he didn’t have a problem with Justice, when Justice was the logical consequence of poor choices:

137. He who inflicts violence on those who are unarmed, and offends those who are inoffensive, will soon come upon one of these ten states:

138-140. Sharp pain, or disaster, bodily injury, serious illness, or derangement of mind, trouble from the government, or grave charges, loss of relatives, or loss of wealth, or houses destroyed by ravaging fire; upon dissolution of the body that ignorant man is born in hell.

-Dhammapada

 

We often equate Justice with Vengeance, making sure people get their comeuppance. We forget that comeuppance is the way of the universe. Things have a way of balancing themselves out. The Buddha did not write of Justice as something we should actively pursue, but as something that would logically happen when injustice was revealed. 

Watching the reactions of the people of Boston, and many of the people across the country, I feel in some ways that Justice has already happened, regardless of what happens at this young terrorist’s trial. I see the crowdfunding sites pouring in millions of dollars to the victims of Boston’s tragedy, I read the stories of those who acted bravely to help and comfort the victims in the moment, I hear the voices of 18000 people at a Bruins game singing the national anthem, and I see the real Justice, the real response to these events: the overflowing compassion that people are capable of. This is why violence, as a tool for change, always bats .000 — most humans will refuse to accept the threat of violence as a reason to abandon a higher ethical calling, sooner or later.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDsY8qCxLHQ (this is a scene from a really cool episode of The West Wing)

I was also inspired to write after reading the response of Ruben Bolling, creator of Tom the Dancing Bug, to the events in Boston a few days ago. He makes the point that the emotions and psychology that drive terror are a part of all of us, that lurks in the darker parts of our minds.

While the outpouring of positive support and hope are signs of the balance swinging toward Justice, there is a second piece of Justice that we cannot ignore: self-reflection. Terrorism is an extension of ego. We think we have a good idea (whether we have one or not is unimportant, our egos are capable of convincing us that a lot of bad ideas are good ideas — insert pop-culture reference here), and we decide that others need that good idea as well, and when there is disagreement, we find anger. Anger is self-destructive; about this, the Buddha was abundantly clear:

221. One should give up anger, renounce pride, and overcome all fetters. Suffering never befalls him who clings not to mind and body and is detached.

223. Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.

-Dhammapada

The ego, anger and hatred of the terrorist is merely the extension of the ego, anger and hatred that must be suppressed in all of us, lest it lead to knocking on people’s doors at inopportune hours to let us know about the “good news,” or voting like sheep to dehumanize a tenth of society in debacles like California’s Prop 8. It’s a thin line between having a conversation about your beliefs, and proselytizing, and between pushing your beliefs on others, and blowing those up who disagree with you. It’s an extension that society rightfully condemns, but misunderstands. Instead of seeing it as a violent and extremist extension of a problem we all must overcome, they tend to use buzzwords like “crazy” and “psycho” to marginalize the problem.

This is the exact criticism of society that Post-Modern philosopher Michel Foucault warned about in I, Pierre Riviere. Society tends to marginalize any new idea. And with ideas we deem as dangerous, we assign a medical affliction, because we do not want to accept that given the same circumstances, we could act out in such a violent or disgusting manner. Such thoughts may comfort us, but they do not address the real problem.

Our anger, our ego . . . these are attachments, society-wide sicknesses that must be cured.  It’s not enough to write off Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev as crazy. We need to ask the deeper, more uncomfortable questions. Where do all these “lone gunmen” types come from? The Jared Loughners, Tomothy McVeighs, Richard Jewells and Dzhokar Tsarnaevs of the world have some kind of origin, and the truth is within us. That need not be scary; when we find our answer, it will be liberating. Enlightenment always is.

Let a man abandon anger, let him renounce pride and let him get beyond all worldly fetters. No suffering befalls him who is passionless and clings neither to mind nor to form

-Dhammapada, 221

Rugers University should fire Mike Rice for his behavior, not send him to sensitivity training. Rice is everything that is wrong with coaching wrapped up in a neat little package. For those who haven’t seen this yet, here:

http://tracking.si.com/2013/04/02/espn-mike-rice-rutgers-video/

Shouting down players, hitting them, throwing things at them . . . when will we realize as a society that the macho-male, testosterone-laden, angry-man sports culture is a) demeaning and b) doesn’t actually work. Rice is 44-51 as coach of Rutgers. It’s not like he’s batting 1.000 here. 

You can raise your voice occasionally to make a point, and it sometimes is beneficial for players to see your emotions, positive or negative, for them to learn the game. But that’s different than being completely out of control. It is far more beneficial for the player to have the basketball court be an oasis and escape from stress than it is to dread coming to the bench. 

Being a disciplined coach, or disciplined teacher, or disciplined parent, and exercising said discipline, is important. And there are numerous techniques out there for reaching players and students (I’m a fan of the Love and Logic approach to teaching: http://www.loveandlogic.com/what-is-for-teachers.html). But discipline is not the same thing as shouting. And passion and intensity are not the same thing as anger. Anger is destructive. Anger tears down teams and destroys relationships. Anger destroys the self.

He who inflicts punishment upon those who do not deserve it, and hurts those who are harmless, such a person will soon come to face one of these ten states:

 He may soon come to terrible pain, great deprivations, physical injury, deep-rooted ailment or mental disorder, the wrath of the monarch or a dreadful accusation, loss of relatives, the complete destruction of wealth, or a sudden fire may break out and burn his houses. After the dissolution of his physical body, he will surely be born in hell.

-Dhammapada 137-140

In this case, I feel the most compassionate thing to do is let Mike Rice go. He’s been coaching like this for two years, allowed to bully kids into a mediocre record, shrinking their opportunities to win with his own hatred. Get the man out of there.

I think the best coach on the sidelines is the one who is emotionless, and teaching. When you come in from the game, it’s like a breath of fresh air. You want so much to do well, and he understands, and gives you the tools to do so. I mentioned before, in Sacred Hoops, that this is not easy, but also not impossible, and is the best path. It’s hard to be positive when you’re down 20, but this is when the kids need it the most. They’re already down on themselves. They don’t need your help for that. What they need is instruction, and a chance to try something different. 

Mike Rice would do well to remember this:

“By doing this (holding onto or using anger) you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.”

-Buddhaghosa, the Visuddhimagga IX, 23.

 

Mike Rice stinks. Let him go.