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.


 

failComedy.

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

prototype1

Prototype 1: Looks good, but…

 

buckling

#FailForward

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

Yay.

boo

Boo.

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.

Conclusion

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.”

 

cool

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.

Louis

#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.

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.

Ability.

You’re not “confused,” you’re a teenager.

wut v2Some words are used, almost exclusively by certain demographics, and the words, as used, don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean.

Example 1:

“The Gmail.”

Demographic: retirees in the Milwaukee suburbs.

Usage: “I can’t find the file in the Gmail.”

 

Example 2:

“Random”

Demographic: people under 20.

Usage: “We hung out all day and did random things.”

 

Example 3:

“I’m confused.”

Usage: one student, after reading the instructions, blurts out: “I’m so confused!”

Have you heard this? I hear it all the time. In fact, after telling a friend about how much this utterance makes me cringe, she reported back that after a day of teaching, she’d heard it no fewer than a dozen times. Is there that much confusion in the classroom? And why can it be so upsetting to hear the phrase, “I’m so confused?”

Top 5 troubling things about this phrase, as commonly used:

  1. It’s too vague to empower you to help. Confused about what?
  2. It’s not directly addressed to you, so any intervention is a form of interruption.
  3. It’s not really true. “To confuse” either  to swap one thing for another, erroneously (that’s probably not what’s going on), or to be utterly perplexed (also, not exactly the case).

confusedcatAnalysis:

Here’s what “I’m so confused means.”

  • I am a child / teenager. I am generally disempowered in my life. I am told where to go, when to sit, when I can leave, and I need to ask permission to use the bathroom. My mind is capable of learning what you’re teaching, but it hurts – like all stretching hurts a little.
  • As a teenager, I live in a world with only three categories: cool, sucks, and weird. And being lost – even temporarily – sucks. It makes me feel stupid and out of control. And since I am annoyed at you for putting me in this situation (not you, you, per se, but adults and the adult world), I’ll blurt it out in a slightly accusatory, passive aggressive way.
  • I have not learned about “hurts so good” yet. While you were explaining something, I got bored and stopped listening (you actually are a little boring, but only sometimes). I looked at the clock to see how long this torture would be going on and I got lost. The problem is that I don’t know how to ask for what I want to know. I am not familiar with terms like, “I could use a refresher on…” or “I followed you until you said…”
  • What I want is to feel heard and that my grievance is aired. I don’t have much hope in ever learning whatever it is you’re teaching, but if your pedagogical training and the kindness of your soul combined is able to help me out of this mire, I’d actually appreciate it. And I’ll try not to hold any of this against you.

Possible solutions:

  1. Indicate that you see and register the “confusion” and affirm that it’s okay to be confused.
  2. Remind students what the system is for getting “unconfused.” Do you have a “back-channel” or “help-desk” (I use https://todaysmeet.com/) – do you use flags or a list so students don’t have to sit there with their hand in the air?
  3. At the beginning of the year, teach students that productive discomfort is good, and that real learning is hard. Teach students to suspend frustration and try to solve a problem for themselves for a certain amount of time before verbally register frustration. Teach the difference between complaining vs. asking for help.
  4. Ask the student to recount for you everything s/he understood until the point of confusion. If s/he says, “everything,” say, “well, let’s start at the beginning.” Start to recount such incredibly basic stuff that s/he gets annoyed and vocalizes where the point of confusion is.

What to do when the Whole Class “Is Confused.”

  • Don’t allow a classroom of students to groan about being confused. Students need to learn how to be “grownups” about the challenging process of learning. Collective grumbling is not a good way to communicate. Quiet the room and instruct them in the appropriate way to handle “confusion.”
  • Say: “I’m hearing that some folks are confused. Use your flag / post a comment on my helpdesk / grab a red handkerchief from the box and put it at your workstation. I will come around and help you out. But this is pretty complicated stuff, so I appreciate your hanging in there.”
  • Appoint people to who understand to assist students who don’t understand. This works best when you have identified and appointed “helpy” types in advance when possible – for example: “tech guru” or “math whiz.”

Two Hacks to Make Online Grading WAAAAAAY More Efficient

efficientYou remember the old grade books.

Alternating rows of green and white. Spiral bound. Tiny boxes. Numbers. Here and there, a red check.

On the one hand, it was efficient and elegant. You could grab it from the shelf, flip to a page, scan for a name and quickly enter a grade.

On the other hand, it lacked the functionality of today’s online grade books. You could not enter in-depth notes. After a correction or two, the little box was illegible (remember white-out?). It certainly did not average scores, link directly to assignments, or communicate with students.

I’d say, we’ve made some serious progress.


That said, as I grade papers online, I find that a lot of time is spent not evaluating papers, but in clicking back and forth between the grade books for various classes. Each click requires a few seconds of internet-patience and a visual reorientation, since nothing online stays where you left it.

This clicking, scanning and scrolling ads up. It’s inefficient and fatiguing. What’s the fix?

Tiny little bookmark. BIG TIME HELPFUL.

Tiny little bookmark. BIG TIME HELPFUL.


Solution 1: in your shortcuts bar, make a tiny folder, labelled with a % sign. In that folder, save the webpage of all of your classes.

Before grading anything more than a single assignment, open all three as tabs. Now, you can click back and forth between your gradebook “pages” (like in the good old days) with no need to load a new page.

Solution 2: invest in a secondary monitor. This way, you can drag your grade book to one page, and your student projects (or a second grade book page) open on the other. I’m AMAZED that I’m the only person in my office with a second monitor. Best $100 investment you can make.

tank ii

Me, grading papers with multiple screens.

Solution 3: Purchase DUET on your iPad and have a THIRD monitor! YES! Now, you have one screen for your papers, one for your grade book, and a third for a grade calculator, your students’ portfolio, whatever.

YOU’RE A TANK FROM THE MATRIX.

But, like, all pedagogical.

Free Students’ Minds with Free Association

poopedSelf. Text. Theme. Free Your Mind.

My 10th Grade Literature/Sociology students are studying classic texts to understand how the ancient questions are still relevant to their lives, and to “mine and undermine” the original for imagery they can deploy in expressing their own experiences.

Their art, therefore, must contain more than recognizable imagery from the text. It must contain artifacts of their lives.

Last year, however, many students balked at this idea, omitting references to their lives altogether or protesting/resisting/asing “is this ok?” over and over.

Q: How do you get students to include imagery in their art about their most significant relationships: friends, parents, frenemies, enemies, and longed-for love-objects? And to include this imagery in a way which is, on the one hand, authentic, and on the other hand, safe (not requiring them to over-expose their private lives)?

A: Free association


  1. triangleI explained WHY we were about to embark on a journey of free association: “Imagery from your own life might be hard to come up with, or it might feel like oversharing – unless your project uses “symbolic code” to depict the people in your lives.
  2. I told students that at any time, if they wanted to lag behind, skip, backtrack or work ahead, they were free to. And that they could interpret or “intentionally misinterpret” the instructions however they wished – the goal was to produce captivating imagery to symbolize important relationships in their lives.
  3. We turned off the lights. Each student had a piece of paper and a marker. I played the music of Tony Scott: zen flute, zither and clarinet.
  4. Students folded the paper in half, creating a 4-page “booklet” or card.
  5. Students write a name of someone on each page. Prompts included:
    1. Someone you have a good connection with.
    2. Someone you’re in conflict with.
    3. Someone who you WISH you had more of a connection with.
    4. Someone you USED TO have a connection with, but no longer.
  6. Students drew a circle around the first name, with three rays extending from the name.
  7. From each ray, students would write a word or draw “an ugly little symbol” (worded this way to reduce art-inferiority complexes) of:
    1. The first word/object to come to mind when you think of that person.
    2. Something that person wears, owns, hangs on the wall, or keeps on a shelf.
    3. Something that person loves or hates.
  8. Students then “mashed-up” two images or words from each page, creating a new word or new image, no matter how absurd.
  9. Students then imagined that new hybrid-concept “visiting” the classic text. Where would it go? What would it do? Who/what would it interact with — no matter how absurd.

    Conclusions:morpheus

Art is very much about images which stand in for complex subjects, often contradictory in their message and use. While experienced artists are practices in developing meaningful, rich symbology, many people find the practice confusing or overwhelming.

By releasing students from any immediate expectation, they could free their minds to create the imagery that would eventually populate their projects.

At the conclusion, I told students that they could rip up their work or take it home to mine for their projects. At the end of class, indeed, a few scraps of paper sat in the recycling bin. But many more went home with the students.

Tonight, while they sleep, I hope their subconscious creativity will inspire them further.