Harnessing “the Trance”

In traditional Candomble, a Brazillian religion influenced by the religions of Africa, drums play, practitioners dance, energy (axé) builds and if conditions are auspicious, a dancer is visited by an orixa – an incarnation of divine personality. Anyone can be “mounted” thus, not just the priest or the elite. An old woman, barely dancing, hobbling, suddenly is filled with incredible vigor and the whole dancing crowd receives this blessing and returns it until the moment passes.  I’ve been fortunate enough to witness portions of a ceremony like this, and it is a moving thing to behold.

Recently, the human gene for graying hair was located. Some scientists predict that within the next decade, we will be able to locate the genes for not only for health conditions, but also for personality attributes — some of the most “human” traits we can imagine.

I believe that we will discover another human legacy which connects people to the very foundation of civilization: namely, that the human capacity to enter trance. But I also believe that the selfsame human legacy which allows for the divine to dance among humans also allows us to sit, transfixed, tears streaming down their faces as our deepest sadnesses are dramatized before our eyes. Or as a violin is played, music soaring to the heavens. Or as a tribe huddles around a fire, and one elder retells the old stories, all faces lit by the orange glow.

candombleThis capacity allows individuals not only to hear their origins retold, but also it allows plans to be made, jokes to be told, instructions to be given, and ceremonies to be performed. Just think about it: people grow quiet, maintain eye contact, and give their attention (or at least appear to) to a performer, simply because “that’s what’s happening now.” It’s incredible that it happens at all. On the other hand, at a certain level, the “audience trance” has powered civilization since its earliest days.

Some teachers believe that when students are quiet, they are in “audience trance” – absorbing the message of the instruction. Not necessarily so. That may be simple conformity at work. Audience trance in a classroom is a rare thing, and it’s different from “students being quiet.” You can hear audience-trance descend on a room, even a theater, when something is incredibly fascinating. When genuine emotion (often fear, anger, or sadness) is expressed. When something profound is taking place. You know the sound of “audience-trance.” It sounds like a pin – not dropping.

In my classroom, like any classroom, there is a modicum of shushing that must happen in order for me to give the daily instructions. And no speaker is immune. A student raises her hand to speak, and while talking, the I sometimes need to shush the class.

However, like the dancer visited by the orixa, something amazing happens when students stand up before the group to pitch their ideas: the trance. Students listen, rapt attention, exploring  nuances of the students’ designs. I would claim we are witnessing something sacred – not the visitation of a spirit, per se, but the gathering of inspiration. And this influx of creative breath silences us. Students, like inspired dancers, no longer sound or look or act like students. They sound and look and act like architects. Designers. Artists. Managers. Consultants. Coaches. The are participating in a sacred ritual of transformation.

They are visited by their future selves. And everyone’s jaw hangs open. And you can hear a pin drop.


Differentiated “Extra Credit” for Performance Levels

extra-credit-catExtra credit is a thing of the past.

In my class, there is nothing “extra.” There are opportunities, there are consequences, and admittedly, since we live in a world where grades count, there is credit. But nothing extra.

In my early years of teaching, after an assessment,  students were tempted to see what they got, jubilate or lament, and forget the whole thing. Students who succeeded came to class the next day, buoyant. Students who stumbled were demoralized.

This is not how it should be. With the possible exception of the final exam, every student should have the opportunity to see what they did wrong and learn from it.

The problem is that the same students who get As are often the same students who bother to recover credit. Some would come in to recover a single point. And as their teacher, you know this isn’t a good use of their limited time. Meanwhile, the students who stumble can avoid facing their growth areas.

How do you incentivize students who earn Bs and Cs to spend the time revising, while giving students who earned an A an informal nod to save their time and energy for other things?

Differentiated “Extra” Credit

37707671Students who wish to recover points make an appointment do a series of exercises (or answer questions, or read models of excellence) to get their minds in gear. Then we go over the principles they need to express on the assessment.

Students who earned a C or below on the assessment the first time around can earn up to 15% back. A student who earned a B can earn up to 10% back. A student who earned an A  can earn up to 5%.

The actual amount they learn is a function of how much they actually learn in the session(s) with me, factored by how much of it was their initiative.

Students who show initiative will earn the full amount. A student who wheedles for point might only get half the maximum amount.

Sure, not every student is absolutely thrilled, and not every student can go from a C to an A after a half hour meeting. But every student knows that I see growth as being more important that success, and that mistakes are opportunities for learning.

And more than anything else on an exam, that’s what I want to teach.


#FailForward or #NeverSucceed

This post was first featured on the EVERlab blog for Jewish Community High School of the Bay. EVERlab is our new collaborative, design project for helping students integrate their Jewish and General studies.



People told me I was funny.

I would be at conferences, and the caterer would tell the organizer that dinner was delayed for twenty-five minutes, and the organizer would turn to me: make ’em laugh.

I’d tell stories: how I retired, undefeated, from high school wrestling. How I got lost in Disneyland and showed up, an hour later, covered head to toe, in dried-up, crusty grape-beverage.

People would be howling with laughter.

So, the idea came along: why not stand-up comedy.

I prepared an hour’s worth of jokes, musical numbers, and stories, and with a full house, bombed. Badly.

I never did it again.

Working on EVERlab, we are exposed, frequently, to the concept of #FailForward. It’s a fun name for a basic principle: whatever it is, in the beginning, it won’t work. The wheels will fall off, the circuits will melt, and the app will have more bugs than a foodcourt after dark.

Designers know this, and they know that it’s better to allow for failure, notice the failure, name the failure and fix the failure. Designers know that you don’t flop and quit.

EVERlab has had a few amazing #FailForward moments.

FailForward #1: Palette Design


Prototype 1: Looks good, but…




Our goal was to design a hybrid desk/pinboard/presentation kiosk. We imagined slick panels: students would grab them, scribble ideas on them, pin artifacts from their research, and mount on hooks for pitching their creative projects to teams of students. We called the idea “palette” – a double entendre:  the hand-held platform that holds artists’ paint mashed up with the platform that goods are stacked on for ease of movement.


Reality? The first prototype showed up, and it was a #FailForward festival.

For one, the panel was enormous, taller than most 9th graders (so much for portability). It reminded me of that scene in This Is Spinal Tap, where a giant, imposing Stonehenge is designed for a rock concert, but when the prop shows up, instead of 15 feet tall, the stones are 15 inches tall.

But in reverse.

Secondly, while the cork-board cover looked good, by the time the prototype had been delivered, the cork layer had begun to buckle. It was unusable.

#FailForward 2: Things Fall Down

prototype 2




We wanted students to hang their palettes (now redesigned with a slick, white-board covering, and half the size) on the wall, turning the back of the EVERlab into a collective display gallery.


Students and visitors would get a sense of the creativity unfolding, and both the collective and individual enterprise. We ordered hooks with an adhesive back and mounted them on the wall, and a few hours later (with the help of some industrious and generous colleagues) our panels hung, proudly, ready to receive the sketches and scribbles of our students.

Guess what happened? Chicken-Little would have loved it. Within two days:  the panels are falling, the panels are falling!

We set out to research new hooks. Larger hooks. Hooks with screws and hooks with larger adhesive areas and even giant picture frame hooks that required hammering into the wall.


We still don’t have the answer. We’re working on it. It’s the same thing the start-up company says when I write to them, complaining that the device which helps me locate my lost keys is malfunctioning. “We’re working on it.”



Getting better all the time.

On the one hand, it’s enraging. I want things to work. Now.

On the other hand, I know that nothing ever works right the first time. Or second. Or third.

#FailForward isn’t just a design concept – it’s a life philosophy. It’s within anyone who has ever bombed on stage TWICE, picked up the pieces, rewrote the work, rehearsed it, and got out there and knocked ’em dead.

#FailedForward, badly, twice, at the start of his career.


#FailForwarded, badly, TWICE, at the start of his career.

I didn’t have the gumption to #FailForward as a burgeoning commedian, but without that attitude, that world wouldn’t have Trackrs (which still don’t work), EVERlab, palettes, or the finest comedians in the world.

Next time, I’ll try to #FailForward. Otherwise, I know, I’ll #NeverSucceed.


How Not to Waste Your Time: “Always Be Building”

abcYou’ve got to admire successful salespeople. You don’t need to like them, but you’ve got to admire their tenacity. And I’m not talking about the kind of salespeople who hide behind the counter, waiting for you to bring your Cold-Eeze up to the counter (which do work, by the way). Rather, I’m talking about the kind who, from the moment you walk into the shop, the dealership, the office – are selling you something, even if you don’t realize it.

The salesperson’s motto? Anyone who’s seen Glengarry Glen Ross knows it: Always Be Closing.

Not: Always Be Trying to Sell. Not: Always be concerned that the customer is about to bail.

It’s a mentality. At every moment, you are in the process of “sealing the deal.” Even if the customer doesn’t know it.

lessinsAs a teacher, I’m not so much interested in closing (not in this post, anyway). But I am interested in mindsets that allow. me to reach my goals. Given that there never seems to be enough time to do anything when you’re a teacher, how do you actually grow, year to year? How do you make next year better?

It turns out that building for next year is a mindset that needs to be active at all times to be effective. “What you’re doing now is very good. What you’ll be doing next year is great.”

Here’s how to take steps now for next year.


No such thing as a total waste

Some technology seems to be a wash. I once played with a website that allows students to create and vote on debates. Great idea. Too many problems.

But a tool that you don’t want to use is like an investor who doesn’t want to fund your startup. In your mind, don’t hear “no.” Hear: “Not yet.”

After playing with Blendspace.com, for example, I know much more about what students could do with a platform like this. I know the weak spots and the deal breakers. I’ll come back next year, and I’ll see: maybe it’s time to try it again? In that sense, I’ve grown and carved out space for next year.

The catch: you need, well, to catch the tools. Start a file – a note on Evernote, a file in Pocket, whatever platform you like. Call it “Tools to play with next August.” When August comes around, take a break from chasing your kids through the sprinkler to see if any last years rejects have emerged as potential stars.


Fix Your Resources In Real Time

When I first started teaching, I had many manilla folders full of worksheets. And in the middle of class, a student would find a typo – or I realized that a question was misleading or poorly worded. I would mark my own sheet with red in, you know. To fix later.

There was no later. Year two, it was time for that unit again, and my worksheet had the same typo and the same awful question.

Now, all my worksheets are Google Docs. And when a student sees a typo or a realize a question is unclear – projected on the board, in plain view of all my students, I fix it (or make a note to fix it).

I get an improved resource. Student learn that nobody’s perfect the first time, and that quality materials need to be perfected. And then re-perfected.



Develop Your To-do List Skills

Time management gurus often talk about the benefits that come with a trustworthy “inbox” – the “basket” which catches all the stuff your mind needs to deal with, but which shouldn’t or can’t be dealt with right this second.

You’re handing tests back and students are grumbling about how unclear a part of the test was. Or you’re grading projects and it seems like they’re just missing the mark.

Are you going to stop grading (or stop class) and fix the project? If yes, you may have an impulsivity issue.

You need a to-do list which is readily available, syncs across platforms, and is fun.

Example:  you realize, walking to your desk, that something needed fixing in the class resource. You whip out for smartphone and make a to-do item called, “Retool the dinosaur activity.”

Then, when you have ten minutes, go over all the to-do items, clarify each with a few ideas, and drag and drop them to the approximate month, next year, when you will be ready to improve the resource.

Do not: be so sure you will remember, next year.

The Educational-Scaffolding of Rome Wasn’t Built In a Year

While lesson planning is difficult, building a scaffolded unit (each step leading to the next, developing student skills higher and higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy) is really challenging. It’s astoundingly time-consuming. And sometimes, it’s hard to see all the pieces that could be there if you haven’t taught it yet.

Let go, a little. In the first year, the project will be simple. Each year, add more and more complex tasks. Be looking for areas where you assumed students could leap to the next level, and note when they stumble. Create resources for next year’s students to spend less time lost and stumbling, and more time growing and flying.

A few final tips:

  1. Not all of your materials will be useful next year, not because they can’t be improved, but because you change your goals. Changing goals is growth. Growth is good. Those old worksheets are like snake-skin, sloughed off to allow the snake to grow. And no, I am not saying that you are a snake.
  2. Whatever time you spent last year developing the project, spend this year improving it. Show it to a colleague or supervisor for wise and thoughtful changes. Add links to cool websites. Design a video to accompany it.

    Please comment below and share your own tips for “Always Be Building!”


Why Being Sorry is Better Than Flying

sorrycat.jpegThink about this before you answer.

If you had a choice, would you rather a) never make mistakes, or b) make mistakes frequently, and get really good at saying you’re sorry?

This question (don’t answer, yet. Don’t even decide, yet) is a litmus test of your personality, similar to the awesome This American Life episode where people chose invisibility or flying. The implications of the two options go far beyond wind-chill at high altitude vs. fear of being bumped into as you creep around an amusement park. It’s about desire vs. aspiration: the crouching, secret voyeurism of invisibility vs. the reaching and striving of soaring in plain sight.

A student who I admire and respect emailed me and told me that I’d been a bit of an ass. I read the message and my hands flew to keyboard keys; had every right to take the tone I took. The student hadn’t lived up to expectations.

Then again, I thought, as I deleted the draft – what is that going to accomplish?

I apologized and the next day, in person, we made nicey-nice. But this isn’t about the value of apologizing. That’s level ONE. That’s so last year.

This is about the incredible transformation that takes place when people take off their masks and apologize and show vulnerability and say, “I trust you with my feelings.”After all, there is no apologizing while wearing a mask. Unless it’s Halloween and your “sexy crossing-guard” costume just made a little child cry.

After the sorry-session, there is a period of potential. The bonds of the relationship-as-usual are loosened. Until “regular life” kicks in, you’ve been on a roller-coaster together — you and your sorry-partner; there is no teacher and student. There is humanity. Both of you have ruffled hair, hoarse voices from shrieking, disarray.

And disarray is the harbinger of growth. Disarray is flight without wings.

So, perfection or getting good at saying you’re sorry? I’ll choose the latter, thankyou. I’m a big believer in growing my abilities throughout my life. And what’s at the core of vulnerability? Ability.


Easy Hack For Letters of Recommendation

letterofrecSometimes, students ask you for letters of recommendation. This is great! They are going on to do amazing things in their lives and you get to be part of that process! It shows that they trust you, that they feel seen by you, and they want you to share your thoughts!


There are a few times, however, when this honor presents a tricky challenge.

Scenario 1: The student knows you well enough to hope for a letter from you. But… you don’t know the student very well. You don’t want to say, “I haven’t had Madison in a class since she was a sophomore and I have no idea what she’d bring to your institute of higher learning.”

Scenario 2: Maybe he or she was a fine student, not a great student, and you don’t want to say, in a college recommendation letter, “Maximillian mostly did his homework, rarely raised his hand in class, turned in so-so papers, and squeaked by with a B.”

Scenario 3: Eight students have asked for letters of recommendation, you’ve done most of them throughout the past month, and one night — you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if one of their deadlines is approaching! Back in October, the college recommendation deadline seemed so far away…you didn’t bother recording when it was due!


letter of recThe Solution: A Letter of Recommendation Questionnaire (click here)

I created a survey on Google Docs which asks students their name and the deadline. Then, it asks a series of questions which you might find on an application to college:

  • What are some important things you’ve learned about life in the past two years?
  • What is one accomplishment you’re proud of in the past two years?
  • What is one challenge you’ve overcome in the past two years?

letter of rec 2And so on. With this information, I can craft a letter which gives great insight into who the student is – in the same way that a journalist might interview a subject in order to write a thoughtful, positive, editorial piece. And since I don’t need to scrape my memories for something worth saying, the writing process is quicker and more efficient, while the content is deeper. WIN, WIN!



Put an X next to completed letters.

(Oh, and, since the answers are routed into a spreadsheet, I can put an X next to students whose letter I’ve completed.)


Now, when I student says, “Wolk, can I have a letter of recommendation?” my response is, “Sure! I’m sending you a link to a questionairre. Fill it in, and I’ll get right on it!”

And if you’re wondering what students reactions are – they seem unphased. They aren’t offended that I want them to articulate some of their strengths, and frankly, I think they’re glad to know a little bit about what I’ll be writing!
So basically, the letter of recommendation questionnaire?

I recommend it.


Grading Time: The Wakeup Call


wakeup1Many students can self-correct. That is to say, they receive a bad grade on a test and know they need to “study harder.” Let’s put aside for a minute the fact that many students have no idea how to study. Let’s focus on the fact that somehow, these students seem to improve.

Then, there are students who don’t improve. They don’t turn in work, they score poorly on quizzes, they score poorly on tests. You fill in progress reports, you write home, you give them their semester grade, and there’s no improvement.

Once in a while, you will have a student who truly does not care. But this is rare. Most do care. They care a great deal, but they are paralyzed by their own failure, and by a deficit of hope for anything can change.

You say, “If you try, you will succeed.”

They think, “If I try and fail, then truly I am a loser.”

What tool do you have to work with a student who is going down the drain?wakeup2


The Wakeup Call.

  • Schedule a “check in” at your desk. A “wakeup call” shouldn’t happen in front of the class or in the hallway.
  • Ask the student how she or he is, and how life is. Don’t expect much in response, but give space for a response, anyhow. This is setting the table for showing you care. And you might be surprised by what you learn.
  • Ask questions: “Tell me how class is going for you. At times it seems like it’s a bit rough, based on scores, but I’d love to hear what your experience is.”
  • Ask permission: “Would you be open to hearing some of my thoughts?”
  • “Lock-in” – meaning, let the student know that the relationship is more important than the grade: “I want you to know that I’m not here to judge you. Even when you struggle. Especially when it’s difficult. I’m here to support your learning.”
  • Ask permission to be frank: “Can I tell you what I see happening down the road? If we keep using the strategy you’ve been using, it’s not going to go well in terms of the grade or your learning. It’ll be more of the same type of grades. Or worse. And I’m not sure you’re getting much for all this time you’re spending in class without completing the work necessary to help the skills sink in.”
  • Clarify: “I’m assuming you’re not happy with that. I don’t know, maybe you’re fine with it. I’m not here to judge you, like a said. I’d love to know where you’re at on all this”
  • Make plan: “So, let’s try this. This is the roadmap to success.”
  • Thank in advance and make a deal: “If you stumble on the next quiz, I thank you in advance that you will not disappear – you’ll come to the very next review session. And I will be so happy to see you, I will give you 5 Starburst. I’m not bribing you. It’ll be an expression of how happy I am you’re coming in for help!”