Friday, February 26, 2016

More Thoughts on Anxious High School Students

School leaders and teachers across the country are seeing rates of teenage anxiety and depression skyrocket. The school where I work is not immune from these trends, and it's something that faculty and administrators alike are wrestling with -- and honestly without great answers. When we approach these problems, sometimes we forget to ask the question from the other side -- why is it that the very same experiences that used to prepare students for life now seem not to be effective anymore? Maybe it's not that we are creating more miseducational experience for students, but that something has happened that has made great education less effective.

In "Flow" by Csikszentmihalyi, he talks about a strange paradox in which people actually report undergoing more optimal experience at work than in leisure, but still do not like or identify with their work. 

He thinks that this is because of pernicious myths about the relationship between the modern worker and his job that undermine and distract people from the actual positive experiences they are having. These myths tell us that work is something that we are forced to do, rather than a positive force in our lives... and actually distract us from the positive experiences that we are having, causing unnecessary resentment and angst. 

I believe that our students are also subject to a lot of mythology that is causing them to see their education as something that "happens to them" or that they "must do" against their will, thus sapping their energies. 

Csikszentmihalyi explains:

"When we feel that we are investing attention in a task against our will, it is as if our psychic energy is being wasted. Instead of reaching our own goals, it is called upon to make someone else's come true. The time channeled into such a task is perceived as time subtracted from the total available for our life. Many people consider their jobs as something they have to do, a burden imposed from the outside, and effort that takes life away from the ledger of their existence."

Administrators, parents, and teachers are always concerned we are not doing enough to teach independence. We tend to be self-critical in this; blaming our intents to help students learn as creating dependency. However, teachers and administrators helping students as individuals is something every great school has done for years and years, long before this current wave of student stress and anxiety. That support attempts to match challenges with actual student skills so that students can experience the positive experience of control and independence. We don't always get it right, but I do think that's the goal of good administrators and teachers, whether we articulate it or do it intuitively. 

Maybe the problem is not the teachers and administrators who work hard alongside students to empower them to do their best, but the persistent and pernicious mythology that school exists for purposes that are not the students' own: their future selves, social prestige, their parents' dreams, or even the school's own sense of prestige. 

In the classroom every day and also after school every day I see students who are engaged, challenged, and interactive with peers and teachers. In the moment, things look good. But I worry that despite all of this positive evidence, students still don't perceive that their education is going well. They are mis-judging their own experience, and don't apprehend the positive moments as crucial to their journey. They understand them as pleasant distraction from the larger task, rather than fundamental to the task. Instead of judging the quality of their education by the quality of the experiences they are undergoing, they are judging it according to a future that they cannot imagine, according to criteria that are not their own.

This false mode of judgment doesn't allow the students themselves to recognize the beauty of what we see every day in schools that work -- students engaged and vivacious, learning at tremendous rates, and being great friends to each other. Although they are succeeding, they feel they are failing because the wider culture (and we ourselves) have failed to direct their judgment of what counts for success in the educational experience to the right place. We depend on 'external markers' such as college admissions, test scores, etc., instead of pointing out the excellence, rich experience, powerful mentorship, and positive friendship that we wiser people see all around us, and which draws us every day back to work.

Is it possible that the answer to student stress is right in front of our faces, if we had the eyes to see it and the values by which to appreciate it? Maybe we need to remind the students in large and small ways that schools exists for them, and that the positive moments when they happen, when challenge and skill align and students solve their own problems, are not distractions from larger goals or means to larger ends, but the very meaning and function itself of an educational community.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Runner's View of the Elliptical

I haven't really told the story of my running over the last couple of years, and that's because there's no running story to tell. The story is of an achilles tendon on my right heel that over the course of 6 years and 15,000 or so miles of running and racing [and generally feeling FREE] through achilles tendonitis/tendinosis/bursitis/haglunds deformity (it felt alright after it warmed up, for the most part!), the achilles decided really that enough was enough. I couldn't run without limping, and when I ran, I got these sharp pains that felt like the tendon was tearing, one strand at a time. Which, turns out, it was.

I got an MRI. The Dx was rupture/necrosis/general death of achilles tendon over about 1.5 inches or so. Kind of like the achilles tendon equivalent of a frayed rope.

I had surgery. They cut out the necrotic inch-and-a-half and then took my flexor hallus longus (which apparently is not all that useful,  or at least much less useful than an achilles tendon, though now I can't flex my big toe) and somehow used it to rebuild an achilles tendon on my right side. This was last June.

The first three months, I was in a cast, then a boot and spent a lot of time on the couch. I watched the Sopranos from Episode 1 all the way through. Spoiler: therapy doesn't do the trick with mobsters, or maybe with anyone.

After three months or so, my wound finally healed up enough and everything was strong enough to start limping around in shoes. Now, finally, after another 3 months and a startling amount of rehab, I can hammer out an hour on the elliptical, which I do more or less daily. This brings me to my point: the elliptical.

It turns out that there are a number of people who are elliptical users. Instead of running or cycling or hiking, their exercise of choice is the elliptical. I must have known this subconsciously because otherwise why would there be so many elliptical machines in the gym? But now that I am one of the daily elliptical users, this fact has slowly worked itself into my mind through experience. As you are a runner, you also may not know this fact, or like me, find it difficult to accept.

I ruminate on this fact while I am on the elliptical. Why are these people here with me? There are definitely benefits to the elliptical, and all of the benefits of the elliptical boil down to one thing. The elliptical is predictable. It does the same thing, every day.  You show up, the elliptical is there, you get on it, set it up, plug in the earphones, turn the channel to what you want to see, grasp the handles, place feet on the foot-thingies and it's like you enter a soft tunnel of exercise that is there waiting for you every day. Nothing is too jarring. Nothing really hurts. The heartrate rises, but not too high. The muscles work, but they don't get sore. The joints bend and flex, but they don't pound. It's sustainable, predictable, always there -- really like nothing else in the world.

It's got to be really freaking healthy. No one ever necrotized their achilles on an elliptical, that's for sure. That's because the elliptical was designed for the body, which is very strange and soul-sucking if you think about it (and especially if you think about it on the elliptical.) It's actually the inverse of activity -- to be active is to move your body over and through terrain. We use our body to play in, with, through, and against our environment. The body is a partner with the environment, and really it only comes into its own through a type of oppositional relationship with the environment. This is why, for example, runners love hills.

Meb, undermining my thesis on the ElliptiGO.
The elliptical is very strange because being built for the body, it undoes the whole notion of the body actually doing something. It takes an object, namely flesh and arms and legs and pulsing heart, and straps it to a machine that imitates movement. Yes, the blood still flows. Yes, the muscles contract and expand. Yes, the heart rate can be monitored and seen to rise to 120, 130, 140, etc., but despite all of that, what happens? Nothing.

The elliptical is exercise purified, or health purified. It's exercise for its own sake. Seems to me, though, that unlike something like Beauty or The Grand Canyon or an April Butterfly, exercise doesn't really justify itself. The elliptical is like the bodily form of narcissism -- it's like a weird body-mirror through which the body relates only to itself, and gets caught up in its own gaze.

I mean, certainly it is better than sitting on the couch. I am so happy that I can do it, and every now and then, I can even conjure up a faded image of how it felt to be running when I was fit. There is part of it though that feels too much like the rest of this strange modern life, where humans have finally figured out how to turn the environment into a thing that exists for them, rather than something they live in and through. Running was one way I escaped that.

All of this is to say that the elliptical people will remain strangers to me. I am all for predictability, but give me the predictable routine of the runner -- the routine that gets me out the door, in the wind, to feel habitually the sting of rain, the jarring of asphalt, the wild whirl of the sky, the horizon that draws the eye outward, so that we feel small and simultaneously real and in the world, and the world also feels a bit like it is inside of us.

Maybe this spring, pending the slow return of life to my heel. In the meantime, the rest of you have to carry the torch of the body's utility, perhaps this weekend on a quiet run as snow falls, and you leave traces that fill in behind you while everyone else stays inside, their warmth not quite of their own making.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

On Trying to Be a Person: some thoughts after reading Knausgaard

A few quick notes after reading the first two volumes of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. 

Why it works: even though My Struggle is personal and autobiographical, it is not confessional. It's personal narrative without guilt or its close brother: aspiration. The other reason it works is that the writing is full of detail, description, not just of inner life, but also of objects and ideas and landscapes. Knausgaard gives us a full picture of experience. His writing is neither subjective nor objective; or maybe better put, Knausgaard's writing makes that distinction irrelevant. While the content of the book is personal: family life, adolescence, work, play, etc., these things are also universal to human experience. 

More than that, Knausgaard's resurrection of the person is also a crushing criticism of the way in which 21st century life has destroyed the personal as a source of meaning. It's done this in two ways: 1) through the culture of sameness, in which we learn to obsessively narrate our lives through cultural memes and tropes, e.g. Facebook. It's not that our lives are really the same, it's that we are limited in our expression of life, even (especially?) as we express it to ourselves. 2) Through liberalism and socialist thinking, which encourages us all to understand ourselves and what it means to be alive in terms of an affectively impoverished and overly analytical set of concepts like class, race, etc. None of these concepts give us a handle on feeling or family or death or work--the personal universals that make up life in its immediate forms. So we end up lacking much sense of immediacy,* empty and out of touch with ourselves, uselessly trying to fill the void with filtered selfies (hollow subjectivity) an equally hollow politics (hollow objectivity).

*followers of the blog will recognize that the main argument linking all of these posts together is that running is valuable and we are drawn to it because it tunes us in to the immediacies of experience [while running, too, is also subject to all the various mediations that alienate us from immediacy (joy, pain, meaning, love) -- social media, $$, shallow, status driven goals and practices, etc.]*

Reading 1000 pages of Knausgaard has led me to this thought: contemporary life only gives us two primary ways of relating to ourselves: through guilt or through self improvement. Neither of these are actual self relation; they both reject the self. Guilt makes this rejection negatively through resentment and self loathing, self improvement positively, through the actions of self-sacrifice. They both substitute relation with an ideal for relation with the actuality of the self -- hence mediation and the lack of immediacy. 

Knausgaard's prose reminds us that we can be with ourselves--our memories, our present--without the impulse to hate ourselves or improve ourselves. In this way, he is a Nietzschean or a stoic. The authorial voice in My Struggle does not struggle to improve or to analyze or to understand the self, but to be a person, to practice selfhood. 

We sort of follow Knausgaard through his life as he learns and re-learns how to be a person. While you'd think that 6 volumes of words about one's life would be narcissistic, it turns out to be quite the opposite. The text bites the bullet we must all bite; which is that we all have a duty to practice self-hood, to become a person. Knausgaard sort of sets himself out into the world, attempting and failing at this task again and again, and thereby succeeding I think, more than most.

By inviting us into the struggle, Knausgaard does the opposite of what social media does: he figures his personhood intimately and honestly and factually. His self is not written as a cultivated object, but almost painted, as an artist would render an object in a natural and social world. Knausgaard teaches us something that we already know, but too often forget: practicing selfhood and self care is the only genuine way to be with the world and with others. 

Nietzsche's concept for this was amor fati, love of who one is, his highest ethical principle. Narcissus neither knew himself, much less practiced himself; his self relation was empty, a mere image--what these days we call a status, a meme, a selfie. 

Who would have thought that what 21st century life needed was more self-examination, not less!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Shallow Optimism, Deep Hope: a quick formula for resilience in education

"I am not an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope." --Cornel West

Three quick points:

1. Apparently only 31% of students nationwide agree that "I can find many lots of ways around any problem."

2. We always ask: why aren't students more invested in their own education? The answer is because they don't own the goals that are set for the educational system. As Jessica Lahey put it in a recent tweet: "we don't wash our rental cars."

3. Hope is another word for resilience. Hope comes to us, and it sends us over and over again into situations where failure is possible. It is grounded in a durable concepts like justice, goodness, truth, and love.

Students are optimistic that they will do well on the next test because they studied over the last few days. [low resilience]

Students hope that their education makes them genuine human beings, capable of carrying out full, just, and independent lives. [high resilience]

Our school system is designed for optimism, which is fleeting, external, and dependent on that minimal thing called the human will.

We need schools and communities that are focused around hope, which draws on deeper, more spiritual resources in the human -- and hopefully exposes students to these resources, teaching them that human strength is founded in our internal capacities. These are designated by concepts like joy, friendship, truth, justice, and freedom.

Looking for resilience in kids? Simple way to find it: ask whether your interactions with them are based around resilient concepts.

Is our pedagogy founded in a shallow optimism which says that "for this kid, in this situation, given these skills, she might find her way in society that is fundamentally hostile to her growth?"

Or are our educational practices and relationships with students founded in a deep hope that says, "together through the work of community, we can make a future that is more just, more free, more true, and more connected?"

Students intuit very quickly the sort of future that our relationships with them predict -- our ways of relating to them can undermine or generate hope in them and through this process either sap them of resilience or open them to the deep stores of strength and possibility that liberal education at its best sustains generation after generation.

What is liberal arts education? Put simply: it is a community practice of deep hope.

Monday, October 26, 2015

How things generally go

Mornings feel best to me. The vagueness of consciousness mirrors the early dawn and portends lucidity. There is a wariness to morning, the small fear that we all feel when at the beginning of something. I like most the mornings that stretch out not quite timelessly before days that have not yet been planned. No one else is up; no one else would be moving; the relaxation that is possible in the morning is the unearned kind and thus most itself, most fully present.

The coffee is finished, the scraps of reading are read, and into our day clothes we step, one leg at a time, like putting on armor. On opening the door, the day makes itself known -- the first breath, autumn smells, leaves scattered and thrown across the driveway.

Day is so much interaction and movement. The people come at you with their faces and their lively eyes. Small requests uttered, and the larger tasks always left unsaid. We walk by each other, holding ourselves somewhat tightly to our chests, not letting too much of ourselves leak out, and then finally losing ourselves to chore, to tedium, to fatigue, and if we are lucky to occasional joy or romance or more. All the beginnings not yet begun become real and resist; this is day.

Afternoon comes, as always, and energies wane. HacĂ­a el sur son inteligentes y duermen la siesta. Even if we work and do not rest, we work slowly and aim primarily to finish up. The daytime has drained the life out, like clear water poured over the ground and soaked up into roots and earthworms and then to the rocks underneath. If you take a moment in the late afternoon, you will notice that after the energy is stripped all away, you can find a sort of bedrock of the soul, the limestone underneath. That can be satisfying.

Evenings, things depend. Some people get the morning feelings again, in anticipation of the night being another beginning. Others -- like me -- see the night time as a chance to throw one's self absolutely into ending. As the light drains out of the world, so do all the daytime things slowly lose their reality.

Night comes, and we lay in our beds. The mind draws loops around itself, constructing imaginary scenes until the loop skips and eventually becomes a dream and then dark.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Teacher Autonomy

"It is ... advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action." -- John Dewey

Teacher autonomy is critical to good education. This (like everything in education) is of course most obvious to teachers, as they are the ones most intimately involved in the educational process. Students (especially adolescents) are suspicious of contrived situations and most open to connection when they sense there is an authentic person on the other end of the line. Autonomy is the path to authenticity, as only the teacher who is free to explore and experiment can find the pedagogy that allows full expression of the self in practice.

However, autonomy is poorly understood by many teachers who advocate for it and also by the administrators who are suspicious of it. The reason for this is that autonomy is really different from being left alone. 

Sure, the first step to developing autonomy is freedom from. Freedom from arbitrary constrictions. Freedom from micromanaging. Freedom from forces and interests that are obviously mis-educational. Administrators have a basic duty to protect teachers from these things so that they can explore and create.

Unfortunately, most conceptions of teaching autonomy stop there, but of course that sort of autonomy for teachers is not enough. Autonomy is more than freedom from constraint. Autonomy is positive freedom -- it is the freedom to act with purpose. Teacher autonomy (like individual autonomy) only finds its full expression within a purposeful community, and it is fuller yet when teachers are able out of their own practice (alongside students) create that purpose and feel responsible for the school community.

What then, is the role of the school administrator? As clear as I can figure it is to identify the ways in which the community is not yet autonomous or lacking purpose -- and also the teachers as individuals who have not yet found the full expression of their autonomous practice (or who have lost it somewhere along the way.) The administrator cannot ex nihilo create this purpose or autonomy, but must instead, through modeling, encouragement, listening, and communicating help teachers into autonomous community, actively and boldly clearing the path for it, and sometimes perhaps tracing the first steps.

If students are to learn to be free, active, bold, joyful, and creative, they must have in front of them on a regular basis adults who possess these qualities. Schooling is difficult work, and many adults lack the stamina or resilience to do this work and manifest these qualities. The best schools quickly identify the impediments to teachers being their full, best selves for their students, and eliminate them without pity.

Friday, October 16, 2015

On Vitality, Schooling, and Training

An acquaintance told me a week ago that there is a deep connection between training for a marathon and good schooling and encouraged me to draw this connection.

The connections at first seem obvious. Perhaps school is like training. You put the work in and then get results out. Effort over the long haul leads to incremental changes in the body, mind, and spirit that allow the runner/student to do something which perhaps seemed impossible. I suppose this is the association my friend had in mind, and it works at a certain level.

Runners recognize, however, that equating training with effort and work takes an external view of the whole thing. From the inside training never feels primarily like a goal-oriented activity. In order for it to work and work well, it must mostly be immediately satisfying.

Sure, there were moments when there was a lack of satisfaction and I could invoke an external goal (running under 2:30 in the marathon was mine) to get myself out the door. But my training at its best was an almost wholly present-oriented activity. The training works when it is integrated and flows and feeds the rest of your life, through friendships, being outside in nature, and the pleasurable feelings of bodily movement. If we have to be inspired to get out the door on a frequent basis, and if it's not the doing itself that is inspiring, then the effort that marathon training requires can't be sustainable. The running must be based in a sort of  joy in movement, one that is pleasant in itself and flows out of experience with the vitality and force of Nature.

Learning is the same in this sense. As living beings, it is as natural for us to learn and grow as it is to breathe and eat. Schooling, like training, has to feed that natural impulse and work in it and through it. The purpose of schooling is to make the human animal most fully what it can become. Too often we think of the work of education as the construction of an artificial self, manufactured through external effort and work. So long as the work of education fails to engage with the natural impulse to grow and learn, it will be absent vital force. If running and training must be based in the joy of movement in order to be fully effective, so education must be based in the natural joy of growth.

One of the great dangers of marathon training (perhaps the single greatest danger for the highly competitive runner) is overtraining. Overtraining happens when instead of working in concert with vitality, training begins sapping it. The consequences to the runner are loss of joy, constant fatigue, depletion, etc. Yet, often the runner ignores these signs, attempting through sheer effort to will the body to follow the despotic trainer. The error of overtraining is a consequence of too much artificial effort and too little listening to the body.

When our schools fail today, they fail in two ways.

1) Focused too entirely on what society needs from its young people, it forgets entirely that the process of education is founded in student growth. The "training plan" -- having been crafted by political interests -- is implemented and executed with complete disregard for the individual undertaking it.

2) Schools, teachers, and parents intentionally trying to maximize student growth, very much like the marathoner in training pushing herself to her absolute limit, disregard the natural ability of the child to grow and the natural source of growth, which is joyful play. They push the child too hard, effectively overtraining them so that they lose touch with their natural capacity for growth. Here schooling becomes based in effort, work, and achievement rather than the internal qualities of curiosity, will, determination, and freedom.

Schools work only when they are founded in and working through the natural impulse to growth and association that are a byproduct of being living beings. Any other approach to education is necessarily artificial and external -- usually founded in ideas or demands that are only weakly attached to the relationships of community out of which the school draws all of its life.
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