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.

Help Combat Islamophobia With Thoughtful One-Liners.

ToleranceSome young people, following the Paris attacks, may try to make sense of our world via “One Liners” which they have read or heard – and thus perpetuate dangerous stereotypes and spread Islamophobia.

However, mid-class, when a student makes one of these sweeping statements, it may not be possible, appropriate or effective to open history books, launch into a lecture that covers 1000 years of history, or debate the student back and forth.

Sometimes, you need a thoughtful “one liner” to defuse, to reorient, to restore balance, or to move back to the curriculum without the Islamophobic One-Liner hanging unaddressed in the room. 

Below, I have included a sample of “Islamophobic One-Liners” I have seen circulating on the internet.

Your challenge: to compose a measured, calm, focused, and BRIEF response that a teacher may have at the ready. The teacher then has the option to say, “That said, let’s talk more about this another time,” or could use the phrase as the opening for a longer conversation.

After a critical mass of submissions, I will publish some of the most helpful responses and possibly open a second round of “hypothetical student statements.”

Reminder: the goal is not to compose a long, bombastic response or pick apart the students’ statement point-by-point, but to offer helpful, BRIEF, thoughtful responses. Likewise, the response must be appropriate for a classroom, so must avoid: browbeating, undercutting, and accusing the speaker of being an Islamophobe.

Thoughtful One-Liners only…

paris peaceCLICK HERE to participate. (And please share/re-post – the more voices, the better).

Ner-Cited: A hybrid of nervous and excited

rabbitduckYou’ve seen the drawing a million times: a duck. A rabbit. A duck. A rabbit.

The brain is amazing thing: it can take ambiguous signals and interpret them in wildly different ways.

So let’s move past rabbit-ducks for a moment and consider this scenario: a teacher, Sunday evening before the first day of school. He charges his laptop, assembles his clothes. Laundered trousers. Polished shoes. Pressed shirt. Lucky tie. Goes to bed and lays awake.

Butterflies in stomach.

A few miles away, a student lays out rows of fresh, new school supplies. Pens and notebooks, a new syncing cable for her smart-phone to replace the second one she lost (one is still in her bunk and camp, and one is under the sofa cushion). She has some new, purple Chuck Tailor Converse, had her hair done, and has a new sweater for the first day of school.

She, too. Butterflies in stomach.

Are they nervous? Excited? Both?

panicThe amygdala and hippocampus, the parts of the brain that encode threatening events into memories, have done their jobs. The student and the teacher have experienced the threats of new social situations enough times to know that stakes are high. Something could go wrong: a class could be unruly. Friends you haven’t seen in three months could be fickle. Then, the unknowns: who will sit next to you in class? Who will sit in the front row? Who will make your year a living hell?

While there is no way to avoid these anxiety-provoking situations on day one, the brain has a few tricks up its grey-matter.

The rabbit can be a duck, by choice.


The feelings one gets before a big test aren’t very different than the feelings one gets before a first date, a rock concert, even opening a gift.

In all these cases: butterflies. But we call this being “excited.” Nervousness saps your energy, weakens your morale, and can spoil your day. Excitement, on the other hand, can be harnessed to accomplish incredible things. It can turn you into a superstar. Night and day. The difference, really, is just a matter of how you look at it.

As summer comes to a close, I’d like to offer the term: ner-cited. I’m nervous, sure. But I prefer to see it as excitement.

How do I feel about the new school year? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about my new classes? Ner-cited.

How do I feel about the new initiatives I’m launching? Ner-cited.

Next time we’re entering into a strange and unknown experience, lets look that rabbit/duck-thing in the eye and shout it out loud: Get down, you adrenaline-raising ambiguous stimuli! We’re ner-cited!

Connect to Others, Protect Yourself: Develop Your Professional Persona

mepersonav3This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app,Class Dojo.

Teenagers are among the most interesting people on earth, combining paradoxes in fast succession:

  • They are oddly predictable and unusually unpredictable at once.
  • They are idealistic, able to wish for a better world with a zeal many adults cannot fathom – but they’re unbelievably cynical about even the smallest thing.
  • They are passionate and emotional and also can put up emotion-squelching walls that nothing can pass through.
  • Working with them can be exhilarating. Working with them can be devastating.

How can a non-teenager connect to teenagers – visiting their world for inspiring, aiding, supporting and encouraging — for teaching — without being sucked into the chaos and instability?

Create a persona.

Practice it.

Rely on it.

Now, let me begin with what a Persona is not.

  • A persona is not “being fake.”
  • A persona is not “inauthentic.”
  • A persona is not a “mask.”

On the other hand, a persona is:

  • Your best self.
  • A professional identity that can defer your own needs — and focus on children’s needs.
  • Endlessly positive, endlessly patient.

Is this possible?

It is. On the one hand, this isn’t different from what professionals do all over the world, every day. If you’re a barista at a coffeeshop, the fact that you detest the ever-popular triple-double-decaf-halfcaf is irrelevant. You’re there to make drinks to order.

If you’re a zoo keeper, the fact that you prefer pangolins to penguins is irrelevant. It’s feeding time for both.

On the other hand, some careers require a deeper-dive into the persona.

Stand-up comics: the moment they become frustrated or angry with their audience is the moment they’re booed off-stage.

Therapists: the moment they demonstrate their boredom with the client’s complaining is the moment they lose their client – and deservedly so.

Teachers: the moment their frustration with teenager’s admittedly frustrating behavior becomes evident is the moment they lose the respect of the students. It’s the moment they undermine their own potential to teach.

Your persona is your voice-box. Your buffer. Your shield. It’s the point of contact between you and the children. It’s the difference between Evan Wolkenstein and “Mr. Wolk.”

When I enter the school, I am Mr. Wolk. You can find your persona, too. Maybe our personas can have lunch.

Persona Dos and Don’ts:


  • Not a good persona.

    Not a good persona.

    Dress the part. Wear something nice every day. Show that you respect your profession, you respect the students, and you respect yourself. For more on the power of a great outfit, check out my blog, Style For Dorks!

  • Reflect on the kind of traits you’d want for someone teaching a child close to your heart. Write about them, talk about them, and look for them – in other people, in movies, in books, and on the street. Practice and emulate.
  • Do develop phrases and mini speeches to help you communicate potentially frustrating messages in a non-emotional way.

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

For a deeper dive, check out my blog post and animated cartoon, here.


  • Don’t Boast or complain about anything in your life. This is not about you. It’s about the students. That said, disclosure as a way of connecting to students and teaching is acceptable – as long as you never share anything private. Be reflective as you share about the message you are sending. The line is blurry one, so play it safe. If it feels weird to talk about it, it’s probably weird for them to listen to it.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when a student comes to you for a one-on-one on an emotional subject. That’s the time to be your most patient, kind, collected, and professional. Sharing your own pain on any subject isn’t helpful to the student. Being a kind, comforting, professional presence for the student is.
  • Don’t Confuse mock debates for actual debates. Argue about the superiority of the Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. Do not argue about politics, religion, or personal values.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when you think students are not listening. Gossiping in the cafeteria with other teachers, cracking crass jokes – the students will see it. And it will undermine their trust.
  • Don’t Yell. Ever. There has never been a time when I yelled and didn’t regret it afterwards. Speak clearly, speak truly – and be controlled.

The Therapist and the Confidant: Optional / Required for Teachers

therapist cat

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, classdojo

For teachers, therapy isn’t a terrible idea.

Let me back up. Many psychoanalysis programs require new practitioners-in-training to undergo a course of analysis of their own.

The rationale makes sense: journeying with the patient through the muck and mire, the fear and anger and pain, can cause memories to bubble up, complicated feelings, in the analyst. The analyst’s needs and emotions, however, are not relevant in the therapeutic encounter —  they can undermine the therapeutic relationship.

The analyst needs to learn how to keep memory and emotion in check – to deal with them appropriately.

True, also, for parents.

A friend recently confided that when he sees his young children struggle, it brings up memories and feelings from some long-forgotten places.

“Some of the feelings,” he admitted, “are ugly. I need to keep them in check. Process them elsewhere. Shield my children from them.”

So there we are, teachers, in front of a class, day after day. No one can see our flaws better than a room full of adolescents. They see, inevitably, setback, frustration and failure – even in the best of us. They see us wince when someone says that one thing we can’t stand. (Commedian John Mulaney has a hilarious sketch on the uncanny ability of middle school students to zero in on the one thing that we don’t like about us. Check it out).

When the students complete a project and demonstrate that they’ve learned something valuable, we fly.

When the computer network shuts down and erases an entire period worth of work, we fall. We can fall, hard.

And that’s just in the classroom. There are deadlines. Budgets. Parents. Testing. That one colleague we can’t stand. Performance reviews.

There is wiping up glue and glitter and cottage cheese from a desk.

Like many high-stress professions, burn-out is an issue. Compared to doctors’ attrition rate which has hovered around 6.5%, around 50% of teachers quit in their first five years, bringing the overall attrition rate to 17% (and as high as 20% in some areas).

Some research shows that improved induction programs can mitigate some of this attrition rate (mentoring, reduced course loads, etc), but there isn’t much we, the teachers, can do about that. good times

What we can do, however, is powerful.


  • Consider therapy. Consider starting a few weeks before you begin teaching. Consider staying in therapy for the year. Work through the baggage, the emotions, the setback. If you feel any sort of stigma about it, take comfort in this: according to a Harris poll in 2004, 27 percent of Americans were in therapy within the last two years of the poll.
  • Consider meditation.
  • Consider listening to a guided imagery tape like one, by Dr. Belleruth Naparstek, at least once a day for the first several weeks of teaching (Her voice is sort of weird, but it works).


Find a Confidant

You need to find someone who is unequivocally on your side. Someone who you can complain to without fear of judgment. Someone who will learn the names of the thorns in your side, and reflect your best self back to you when you’re done venting. Someone you can IM in the middle of the day: “Guess what (insert name) just did/said/threw at me.”

The effective confidant will help you to find your sense of humor and prop you up a little when you need it – and is ready to assess solutions and interventions. If your rapport is strong, s/he will know when you need a little “tough love,” and when it’s time for that, will offer it like a cool drink from a garden hose. Not a firehose.

The confidant can be a colleague, but does not have to be.

And honestly, the confidant is not optional.

Works Cited:




The Impermanence of Teaching, Art, Life, and Car Windows.


All cartoons are drawn with Micron .1 pens in a Paperblank journal: no corrections, fixes, or second chances. Boldly, onward, I draw.

Life is a Mandala.

Grain by grain we create edifices of color and shape.

At times, we think we see ourselves back out of these precious creations.

But the creations are not us, and we are not they.

One thing links the Self to Creation – impermanence.

Artist David Hammons sold snowballs in Manhattan as performance art. Larger snowballs, bigger price tag.

But the minute it’s sold, it begins to melt, evaporate.

Some nights ago, I awoke from a nightmare. It was the last day of class.

I mentioned a basic idea we’d spent the whole year learning.

No one knew what I was talking about.

I believe that dream reminds me to let go.

I cannot own the students’ learning. I cannot keep what they remember.


When my journal was stolen, I cried for the lost art and lost memories.

I don’t regret my tears for my lost art.

But in truth, my journal still resides in the place my students’ learning resides after they’ve forgotten it.

In the realm of impermanence, where all things go.

But that which is gone is not really gone, just changed.

Just as my students’ learning has trickled down to their hearts,

My art has joined the great, cosmic Mandala.


Rest and Relaxation Are Not the Same

rest vs relaxationThe following is a “D’var Torah” – an essay written by me, but inspired by the weekly Torah Portion. Though it comments on a 3000 year old, classic Jewish text, the I hope the message is current and universal… Although it’s really for teachers.


Parshat Behar

A few days ago, after a particularly challenging day at work, after the commute home, after the schlep up the stairs, the first thing I did was to drop my stuff in a heap by the door. Briefcase, jacket, tie. An hour later, I’d eaten half a bag of Trader Joe’s snack, checked my email eight times, and watched the latest You Tube “must-see cat videos.”

The thing is, I still didn’t feel rested, I didn’t feel nourished. Naturally, I was happy not to be at work, but I wasn’t exactly happy to be at home, either. I made some phone calls, I lay on the sofa and spaced out, I was suspended between exhaustion and chasing a feeling of relaxation I couldn’t quite achieve.

As it turned out, that feeling persisted until well into night-time. I made a mental note to myself.

 “Rest and relaxation are not the same thing.”

As I posted this note in my head, I found a bunch of other Post-Its there. Surprise, they all said the same thing. Apparently, I’ve learned and relearned this lesson many times. I am tempted, in the first moment of freedom, to let everything go, not in a Zen way, but in an uncontrolled way, a drop everything and pretend the world doesn’t exist way.

One of us is relaxing. The other is resting.

One of us is relaxing. The other is resting.

Ironically, my most restful after-work hours are spent in a bustling café, drinking coffee, people watching, and journaling. I’m still in my work clothes, my tie, but I am at peace.

The key to understanding this paradox is found in the wisdom of this  week’s Torah Portion:

Leviticus 25:1-5  TNK Leviticus 25:1 The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD.  3 Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  4 But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest [Shabbat Shabbaton], a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

This ancient Mizvah (commandment) goes far beyond the practical “laying fallow” of modern agriculture. The Miztvah is not just to desist from planting. It is to actively achieve a “Shabbat Shabbaton” – an extreme rest. It is not about stopping something. It is about starting something new.

resting with coffee. not a paradox, at all.

My hour in the café, writing or drawing, turning on the right side of my brain, is about rejuvenating a part of myself that has been on hold during the busy work day. The Land of Israel transitions, during the Jubilee Year, from being used for production, to being a sacred space with its own spiritual value. Likewise, I can experience the joy of being separate from my value as a producer:  not by letting go, but by celebrating.

This is, on the one hand, the essence of Shabbat. A time to celebrate the joy of being. And at this time of the school year, this is what our students have at their fingertips… two months to enjoy the celebration of being. The challenge is: will they know the difference between relaxing and rest?

We should be blessed to know and show what rest looks like. We should be blessed to guide our students towards experiences that nourish. We should be rejuvenated from our time with family and friends.

And still, we can leave time for You Tube piano-playing cats.