Measuring Curiosity & Creativity in India

Many educational organizations want to know their impact in terms of test scores and quantitative metrics. I’m more more interested in the qualitative. Are children learning? Are they curious? Are they creative? Are they solving problems that matter to them?

In January I spent three weeks at the Agastya International Foundation, near Bangalore, India, observing educational programs designed to increase children’s curiosity and creativity via STEM. The government (public) schools in India are eager for supplemental science and math curriculum, which is how Agastya gets in. They send tens of thousands of teachers around the country in vans filled with science experiments with the aim of “sparking curiosity” through hands-on learning during science and math lessons.  

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Hamsa Latha, who leads the Impact Assessment team at Agastya, is seeking to assess the change in students’ curiosity after being exposed to Agastya’s hands-on science learning. Hamsa and her team have designed questionnaires for students before and after engaging in an Agastya program to see if they become more curious, more creative, more interested in the natural world. Last year they assessed 66,515 middle school students in 1,697 schools.  They found that on the whole, after completing an Agastya program, students believed that they learn best through hands-on experiments and model-making. Overall students showed 10-15% increases in awareness (of science in the world), curiosity, confidence and science knowledge. This impressive study is one of few being done in the education sector focused on traits and habits of learning rather than solely on content.

The Innovation Hub, one of many programs on the Agastya campus, focuses on how students learn, not just what. The aim is on solving community problems using technology, teamwork and innovation. Groups of students are led through a series of workshops that help them identify and rectify community problems, using a project-based learning approach. One of the brilliant innovations the children came up with is to  add pictorial symbols to village names to help illiterate family members know when to get off the bus. Another innovation deals with walking home from school in the dark and needing your hands to hold siblings hands, groceries, and books. Instead of also trying to hold a flashlight to be able to light the way, students created LED strips for backpack straps so that you’d have a hands free way of seeing if you’re about to step on a snake. It is projects like these that not only impact communities, but also teach children a way of learning. Children who complete a program at the Innovation Hub move through the world with the tools to change their world.

The Art Lab, another innovative program at Agastya, is designed as a journey of observation and imagination using nature at the medium. Students begin by drawing their idea of a tree and then spend days outside talking about the tree and what they see and notice. Who lives there? How does it change? What textures are evident? What shades and tints of colors are present? How does it move? What can and can’t you see? Students then make another drawing and compare the image in their mind with the one they’ve observed. The unit finishes with students designing their own trees, using creativity and imagination. Other units repeat this process with leaves, the sky, and animals. Through this process students really learn to see and observe. They begin to understand nature. They are learning how to learn.

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Sometimes in education we spend so much time focusing on content and forget to think about the process of learning and providing experiences for students to figure out how they learn best. By trying different methods like hands-on science experiments, solving community problems, and closely observing nature, Agastya has achieved their mission. Curiosity has been sparked.

Adventures with Norwegian Children

It was a Tuesday morning in early August, and we got off the train at Finse, Norway, a snow-covered mountain-top town with only a rail station, bicycle-rental shop, and lodge. The nearest anything-else is a 30-minute drive away, if the roads aren’t frozen over. The trail that begins here, the Rallervegen, was built from 1902-1904 for railroad workers building the tracks. It is now a famous bicycle route. We were so excited to cycle this 3-foot-wide path down the mountain. Other than a few other cyclists all we saw were sheep and goats.

We headed out on the pebbly, unpaved trail to ride the winding 4,000-foot descent. We snaked along rivers, passed by countless waterfalls, went up and over a few snow-covered passes (where we had to get off and push our bikes), and saw an abundance of super-fuzzy moss-covered rocks. About a third of the way down the trail we came upon four girls, right in the middle of the path, between the ages of 5-12. They were suited up in snowsuits with a small folding table, some folding chairs, pitchers of lemonade and fruit punch, and a plate of cookies. They excitedly offered us refreshments as my boyfriend said to me, out of the side of his mouth, “Where are their parents?” I smiled at him, knowing we’d have an interesting lunch-time conversation about independence, nature, culture, and the benefits of being left to your own devices without any digital devices.

As we rode away we saw their home in the distance, maybe 500 feet away from their snack stand. It was the only home we saw that entire day, which also made us think about the experience of growing up so far from civilization. Of having only you and your siblings to occupy your time. Of wanting to meet new people and being totally cool with it being only ten cyclists a day. Of offering refreshments without any idea of making money off it. Of carrying these things from your far-away home. Of occupying yourselves all day without screens. Of finding people to practice English with. Of the simple joy of being able to brighten a stranger’s day.

We wondered how they would handle an injury. Our questions started from the overprotective and moved towards the Scandinavian way. Did they have a first aid kit? If someone got hurt would they carry her home? Would someone run to get help? Would they assess the situation and, if it wasn’t so serious, deal with it later knowing it was only a minor injury that didn’t require immediate attention? If it was a small cut or bruise, would they just grab some snow and make an ice pack or use the melted ice to clean the cut? Did they know of healing plants growing nearby?

These children were self-directing their own learning. They were creating experiences that forced them to act on the spot, navigate emotions and social interactions, make group decisions, and practice first impressions. They were building their self-confidence, independence, and self-regulation skills. These are important life skills that, I would argue, many millennials in the US are lacking.

This makes me wonder: We know that we are better able to learn new languages at a young age. Wouldn’t this also apply to social and emotional skills? If we focused on these skills in early childhood, they would be ingrained, and the next generation would be more adept at supporting each other and solving the world’s problems.  

What if high school had options?

I’m having lunch with Ken Danford and he’s telling me how he coaches teens (and their parents) to drop out of school. He explains that students come to him when they are bored or stuck in school, home-schooled, or struggling with personal issues, and looking for an alternative. Ken explains to them “there’s nothing you can do with a high school diploma that you can’t do without one.” 

I learn that North Star is a high school alternative, a community-center-like place where teens can take any number of classes and study whatever they desire. Ken reports that most of his students go on to colleges or jobs, and that all come back to tell him how life-affirming North Star was for them; that the freedom they experienced allowed them to grow and develop as excited learners. 

This conversation is making my head spin with delight. I’m sitting there remembering how bored I was in high school; so bored that I created internships for myself and got my guidance counselors to sign off on them so I could study what I chose and leave that suffocating, institutional building. What if there had been a North Star for me? 

Dessert arrives as we delve into a flurry of ‘what if…’ brainstorming. Ken shares an idealistic vision of his: what if you had two choices in high school? You could take the proscribed classes and graduate with a high school diploma, OR you could take any classes you want (out of what is offered) and take the GED. (In many cases you’d still take all the same courses, just in a different order. Most high schools don’t offer enough courses that you could attend for four years and never take a math class, for example.) 

We discuss how there would be no change in administration, infrastructure, or funding. High schools could continue doing what they always do, while including a second offering for more self-directed learners. 

My mind is officially blown. If I had had this experience I would have immersed myself in subjects; I would have taken only art and language courses one semester, only science and math another, literature, writing, and English in the spring. We all learn differently; I would have benefited from choosing my own high school schedule. No one ever told me that the GED exam is equivalent to a high school diploma. I didn’t have a Ken Danford in my life. 

We all know how public school developed in the US when the government decided that child labor was unlawful, yet adults worked full-time, and so what to do with the kids? We also all know how quickly education became standardized as the schools grew in size and needed efficient ways to keep records. The goal of public school was to keep kids safe and accounted for (while parents worked) and to train kids for factory work. 

In our current day and age, more and more jobs have become automated, and our schools are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist; the mundane, follow-the-rules cookie cutter jobs are a thing of the past. Now we need citizens who think critically and creatively and want to solve problems that benefit society. That is not a realistic outcome if we force children for 13 years (from ages 5-18) to sit and follow directions all day. 

What if teens had more options? What if you could do the typical, proscribed course schedule and graduate with a high school diploma, OR you could take whatever courses you wanted and take the GED in place of the diploma? And what if there were more non-high-school alternatives, like North Star, for teens who learn differently? 

 

A New Kind of Public School

After reading countless articles, studies, and whitepapers on why homework is counterproductive, creativity is being squashed by the soldier-like regimen of public school, and why people forget more than half of what they learned in school, I’m prepared to offer a new kind of public school. 

I recently attended the Brooklyn School Alternatives Conference and heard from a panel of micro-school directors about what learning is like in their (private) schools. Here is what some of them had to say: 

“Experience ourselves as capable of changing culture” – Tomis Parker, Agile Learning Center

“Structure with flexibility” – Noleca Radway, Brooklyn Free School

“City as classroom” – Noah Mayers, Brooklyn Apple Academy

"Student-led open school and opt-in adult-led classes" - Monique Scott, Freebrook Academy

“Our curriculum is to everyday challenge the insular nature of the classroom” – Sara Casey Taleff, ALC Cottonwood 

These micro-schools in Brooklyn are doing it right. The schools are structured around community and communication, not content. In many of these schools the teachers are called facilitators and are trained in helping students develop strong communication skills, independence, and self-regulation skills. Instead of corporations and non-educators deciding what students should learn and when they should learn, and master it, students choose topics of interest to dive into. 

Students are taught to set intentions, reflect on their actions, and hold themselves accountable, while also learning to be flexible. 

The current public school system could be transformed into this by using the same infrastructure and materials, changing the curriculum from an absolute to a supplemental tool, and making professional development for teachers center around communication skills, problem solving, and nurturing students instead of mastering benchmarks. A new kind of public education can be fostered, without much additional costs. 

The focus is on students discovering their own learning style and then running with it. 

The public school I envision has only 4 parts: 
-    Creative play- passion projects, maker-spaces
-    Outdoor exploration- neighborhoods, parks, fresh air, sun, rain, and snow!
-    Self-guided learning- solo and group, built in facilitator support, opt-in classes
-    Reflection- what and how you are learning, your actions and choices

There would be opportunities for internship, apprenticeship, field trips and travel, and guest speakers, experts, presentations, and workshops- decided by the students and always optional to attend. 

What kind of adult would you be if this was your school experience? 
  

Should I do a Gap Year, Study Abroad, or Volunteer?

Malia Obama may be the spark I’ve been looking for.

Throughout my life I’ve advocated for traveling, exploring, and immersing yourself in other cultures.

-       In high school I went on sponsored trips around the world to understand other cultures.

-       In college I studied abroad in a tiny city in Italy where I spoke Italian, made friends with international students and locals, and began to see the similarities between humans.

-       After college I backpacked through Eastern Europe, wanting to walk where my great-grandparents walked.

Throughout my adult life I’ve traveled, often staying in small communities with friends or locals to get a feel for life there. I’m not as interested in visiting landmarks as I am with connecting with the people who live somewhere.

From 2014-2015 I lived in a small village in southeastern India as part of an environmental impact organization and sustainable community. I became immersed in local culture and became an expert in reforestation and water conservation in arid lands. 

I’ve recently discovered bicycle touring, a way to really see, in slow-moving fashion, an entire country or island, zigzagging or riding the perimeter, meeting locals, camping on stranger’s front yards, connecting with friends of friends of friends.

The things I always learn are:

-       The world is smaller than you think. It’s not a scary or dangerous place. And we are all connected. It’s easy to make friends and find people you really want to share with and get to know, everywhere.

-       Listening, observing, and reflecting are silent but necessary skills to learn about yourself, check your judgments, and find ways to connect that transcend the often-privileged mindset that ‘you know best’ and others should ‘do it your way.’

-       The different choices we make as humans are what brings us together and helps us learn from one another.  It’s empowering to use these experiences in other times of your life - to remember how someone else solved a problem or overcame an obstacle. These are lessons we can use over and over again.

I wish for young people to get out there and become a part of the larger humanity. There are so many ways!

-       Gap Year Programs- Volunteer, Intern, Apprentice

o   American Gap Association

§  How to Plan a Gap Year

o   Global Citizen Year

o   Go Abroad (Includes several Program Types: Intern, Volunteer, High School, Teach, etc.)

o   International Volunteer HQ

o   Global Volunteer Network

o   United Planet

o   Projects Abroad

o   Volunteer Alliance

o   Cross Cultural Solutions

o   2016 Best Volunteer Abroad Programs from Volunteer Forever

-       Study Abroad Programs

o   Generation Study Abroad

o   Study Abroad

o   Go Overseas

o   Brooklyn College’s Study Abroad Programs

o   Ciee Study Abroad (Council on International Educational Exchange)

-       Hosting an international study abroad student

o   AFS-USA

o   Ayusa (Academic Year in the USA) Global Youth Exchange

o   Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs

o   Aspect Foundation

o   Rhianna even has a scholarship for students in Central and South America to study abroad in the US!

In case you are wondering about cost, diversity, college acceptance or graduation, here is a great article with resources Busting the Top 10 Study Abroad Myths.

I’m excited to see what Malia does with her Gap Year. It could be the spark of a movement towards global exploration and cultural understanding that we so desperately need. 

What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning?

My friend called to say she’s going to start teaching her 4 year-old ‘pre-K stuff’ because he’s not ‘getting it’ at school. His school day and his teachers are focused on playing and being outdoors and they aren’t as academically centered as her daughter’s pre-K experience. Her daughter knew ‘everything’ before entering kindergarten. She is fearful for her son. School is not such fun for him and he still lacks the ability to count a set of objects or recognize all numbers and letters. She is seriously thinking about doing fun activities and playing games with him at home to get him ready for kindergarten. She called to ask my advice.

From my observations of pre-K through 2nd grade classrooms around the US and world, there is significantly too much focus on the academics and not nearly enough time to value children’s learning through play and exploration of their environment. It sounds like his pre-K teachers are ballsy and I admire them.

This is my counsel to my friend:

1.     YOUR CHILDREN LEARN DIFFERENTLY.
2.     What’s being taught in pre-K to 2nd grade is not developmentally appropriate. Until you turn 8, those things we call “academics” don’t mean much to you; you aren’t feeling a need for them in your daily life. Plus the same things are taught year to year, so IF YOUR KID ISN’T READY FOR IT NOW, IT’S COOL, THEY’LL BE EXPOSED TO IT AGAIN NEXT YEAR. 
3.     TELL YOUR KID IT’S OK IF HE DOESN’T GET EVERYTHING RIGHT AWAY. Explain that people learn things at different ages and it’s OK if he’s not great at it now.
4.     TELL HIM IF THERE IS SOMETHING HE WANTS TO LEARN, OR GET BETTER AT, HE CAN ASK YOU FOR HELP. This is not obvious to your child. This will plant a seed to help him become a learner, know what he can do if he’s passionate and wants more of something, and create his own process for seeking information.
5.     No matter how much fun you try to make formal learning at home, it will probably feel like ‘school’ to your kid and make him not enjoy learning as much. Since it isn’t really appropriate that he master all of these things this year, then it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that he GROW TO LOVE LEARNING. That should be your goal, not hitting school benchmarks.
6.     What we should be looking at, then, is: What are his friendships like? What activities is he drawn to? What does he talk about more in school? At home? NURTURE THOSE THINGS. 
Yes, there are options of other kinds of schools you could send your kid to. And yes, a revolution in schooling is on the way, but in the meantime, HELP YOUR KIDS NAVIGATE THIS WONKY SYSTEM!
Show your children how you are a learner. Do you do an internet search first when you want to know something? Do you read a book dedicated to it from the NYT best seller list? Do you call an expert friend and ask their opinion?
Ask your children questions, serious questions, in discussion of things they bring up, like:
TOYS/GAMES/ACTIVITIES: What makes you happy about playing like this? What are you imagining when you’re playing? Is there anything you don’t like about it? How would you change it?
IDEAS/ABSTRACT/PHILOSOPHICAL: Speak like you would to a friend or peer. Ask the same kinds of questions. If your kid doesn’t have answer just keep going. Talk. Listen.


What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning? 

What if students were connected to working experts in the field of what they are learning?

How many times do you hear students say, “when am I ever going to need this?"

When I was teaching I tried to bring experts into the classroom to talk about their work in light of the content or skills I was teaching. But it’s hard! All of that scheduling and making sure the experts know how to talk to children. Oy.

I dreamed of a world where I could contact experts at my fingertips and video-chat with them in my classroom for 20-30 minutes of sharing about their work, making what I was teaching relevant to my students, and broadening my students’ ideas of the jobs and careers that are out there.

Last week I attended the NYC Education Forum where 11 startups in the education-technology sector presented their projects for a chance to win $10K. Nepris, the winner, recognizes this need and has done something about it! Teachers go on Nepris and look for experts who use what they are teaching in class and then schedule a time for them to video-chat with your class. The brilliance of Nepris is that it leverages the LinkedIn community to find industry experts, vet them, and connect them with students.


What if for everything you learned in school there was an expert who uses that content waiting to video-chat with you?

What public education could be

Walking into the school building during arrival, students are happily rushing down the halls in groups of friends and classmates, eagerly awaiting another school day. Parent volunteers stand guard in the middle of the halls, each with a hand outstretched, palm facing outward, yelling “No running in the halls!”   For 10 years I taught in schools like this where while creativity and independent thinking were fostered (despite a scripted, overly structured curriculum), a culture of “no” always loomed.   —————————————  In the 2013-2014 school year I was graded on how well I could predict, in October, each student’s reading level, in May. I had just met these 4 and 5 year-olds and my perceived teacher-effectiveness depended on my educated guesses of children for whom I had not discovered their learning styles and abilities and who came to me with no “prior history”, as is the case in older grades where teachers are given evidence of student learning from their students’ previous teachers.   That was my last year of teaching.   I took a yearlong sabbatical in India in an environmentally-sustainable community that practices unschooling. I chose this community, as it was a place where children mattered; their interests were encouraged and they were trusted to be active members of the community. It was assumed that they implicitly wanted to learn.   Over the course of the year I spent much time with these international children of hippie-minded parents who had an inkling of their privilege in that they had previously attended school or had cousins in traditional schools in other countries. They took full advantage of having freedom to learn anything from anyone. They were used to asking adults to explain what they were doing, to offer feedback, or ask for feedback.   The village children also became a central part of my life in India. They came from poor families and attended government schools, which continue to use corporal punishment despite its illegality. These children were also witnessing Indians they personally knew, in their 20s, going away to school, leaving the village, and exploring jobs and opportunities away from home not having to feel guilty for abandoning their village. The middle class is growing and the children are preparing for their upcoming freedoms.   My experience of these young Indian children was their innocence and eagerness to soak in whatever they could. Like their international counterparts living in my community, these children recognized the value of meeting people from other countries, learning other languages, sharing their ideas, teaching each other their skills, working on projects that matter to their lives in collaboration for a better foreseeable world.   The more time I spent away from the American public school system, the more I could envision what I think school could be like. Gone are the necessities for creating factory workers. We are in a new position with different needs. Unfortunately the first need is a place for children to spend their day now that all of their parent/s are working and no one is at home to pass on skills and traditions and experiences. Children just need a safe place to be while their parent/s are at work. Some see it as glorified babysitting.   Second to logistics is the revelation that the world’s factories are automated, and the workers we are currently training will increasingly have creative and service jobs - jobs that depend on a human component. This means our children should be in a school that leads them to do this best, just as current schools and those of our past prepared them for factory work. The children need to practice what it means to be human- to think, make choices, reflect, speak, share, listen, and work together.   What does this look like, you ask? When we think about how adults perform these creative and service-type roles we hear more and more talk of uninterrupted hours of time to create, make, ponder, test, and, in essence, play. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can study what they choose and make what interests them. This is how we develop learners, creators, and inventors. This is how we allow them to be human.   We are also in a time and place where we can remember our ancestors working physically all day - in the fields, at home, and as artisans. Before massive industrialization we were outside for most of the day and had closer relationships to nature. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can explore nature including parks, neighborhoods, and playgrounds, in all kinds of weather. This too, is how we allow them to be human.   Even the so-called best public schools are instilling anxiety and fear in their students - to perform, complete work by deadlines, reach certain benchmarks within short time periods, and compare themselves to their peers. Why are we doing this? What kind of children do we want to develop into the adults of tomorrow? What kind of world do we envision 10 years from now? 20 years from now?   Now back in the US I am consulting with educational organizations who I believe are pushing these boundaries and asking the right questions. In order to stay connected to the public education sector I am substitute teaching in one of these “best” public schools. My experience there, after being out of this type of environment for so long is startling.   The classrooms and hallways are seriously over-stimulating. There is too much on the walls. Too much that did not develop from the children but rather was asked of them. The children’s work all looks the same. What purpose does this achieve?   The schedule and structure of the day includes changing activities every 15-20 minutes ensuring that there is no deep engagement.   The children are “taught” the same things, expecting the same output. There is no acceptable diversion from tasks, no bursts of creativity.   There were a few times when the class seemed at peace- playing outside and playing in the classroom – self-chosen activities. The children were absorbed, focused, quiet, talking to each other with purpose, listening with interest, and figuring things out. They were learning. They were being human.   At the end of the school day, knowing I had accomplished the plans the teacher had left for me, I took 15 minutes to tell the class about my experience in India, answer their questions, and show them a short photo-presentation of where I lived, the insects and animals I encountered, and what daily life was like. I showed short videos from the early activities of a fishing village, and a local musical performance. They were enthralled. Their interest was sparked. For a moment, they were the kind of kids I hope will be the adults of tomorrow.

Walking into the school building during arrival, students are happily rushing down the halls in groups of friends and classmates, eagerly awaiting another school day. Parent volunteers stand guard in the middle of the halls, each with a hand outstretched, palm facing outward, yelling “No running in the halls!”

For 10 years I taught in schools like this where while creativity and independent thinking were fostered (despite a scripted, overly structured curriculum), a culture of “no” always loomed.

—————————————

In the 2013-2014 school year I was graded on how well I could predict, in October, each student’s reading level, in May. I had just met these 4 and 5 year-olds and my perceived teacher-effectiveness depended on my educated guesses of children for whom I had not discovered their learning styles and abilities and who came to me with no “prior history”, as is the case in older grades where teachers are given evidence of student learning from their students’ previous teachers.

That was my last year of teaching.

I took a yearlong sabbatical in India in an environmentally-sustainable community that practices unschooling. I chose this community, as it was a place where children mattered; their interests were encouraged and they were trusted to be active members of the community. It was assumed that they implicitly wanted to learn.

Over the course of the year I spent much time with these international children of hippie-minded parents who had an inkling of their privilege in that they had previously attended school or had cousins in traditional schools in other countries. They took full advantage of having freedom to learn anything from anyone. They were used to asking adults to explain what they were doing, to offer feedback, or ask for feedback.

The village children also became a central part of my life in India. They came from poor families and attended government schools, which continue to use corporal punishment despite its illegality. These children were also witnessing Indians they personally knew, in their 20s, going away to school, leaving the village, and exploring jobs and opportunities away from home not having to feel guilty for abandoning their village. The middle class is growing and the children are preparing for their upcoming freedoms.

My experience of these young Indian children was their innocence and eagerness to soak in whatever they could. Like their international counterparts living in my community, these children recognized the value of meeting people from other countries, learning other languages, sharing their ideas, teaching each other their skills, working on projects that matter to their lives in collaboration for a better foreseeable world.

The more time I spent away from the American public school system, the more I could envision what I think school could be like. Gone are the necessities for creating factory workers. We are in a new position with different needs. Unfortunately the first need is a place for children to spend their day now that all of their parent/s are working and no one is at home to pass on skills and traditions and experiences. Children just need a safe place to be while their parent/s are at work. Some see it as glorified babysitting.

Second to logistics is the revelation that the world’s factories are automated, and the workers we are currently training will increasingly have creative and service jobs - jobs that depend on a human component. This means our children should be in a school that leads them to do this best, just as current schools and those of our past prepared them for factory work. The children need to practice what it means to be human- to think, make choices, reflect, speak, share, listen, and work together.

What does this look like, you ask? When we think about how adults perform these creative and service-type roles we hear more and more talk of uninterrupted hours of time to create, make, ponder, test, and, in essence, play. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can study what they choose and make what interests them. This is how we develop learners, creators, and inventors. This is how we allow them to be human.

We are also in a time and place where we can remember our ancestors working physically all day - in the fields, at home, and as artisans. Before massive industrialization we were outside for most of the day and had closer relationships to nature. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can explore nature including parks, neighborhoods, and playgrounds, in all kinds of weather. This too, is how we allow them to be human.

Even the so-called best public schools are instilling anxiety and fear in their students - to perform, complete work by deadlines, reach certain benchmarks within short time periods, and compare themselves to their peers. Why are we doing this? What kind of children do we want to develop into the adults of tomorrow? What kind of world do we envision 10 years from now? 20 years from now?

Now back in the US I am consulting with educational organizations who I believe are pushing these boundaries and asking the right questions. In order to stay connected to the public education sector I am substitute teaching in one of these “best” public schools. My experience there, after being out of this type of environment for so long is startling.

The classrooms and hallways are seriously over-stimulating. There is too much on the walls. Too much that did not develop from the children but rather was asked of them. The children’s work all looks the same. What purpose does this achieve?

The schedule and structure of the day includes changing activities every 15-20 minutes ensuring that there is no deep engagement.

The children are “taught” the same things, expecting the same output. There is no acceptable diversion from tasks, no bursts of creativity.

There were a few times when the class seemed at peace- playing outside and playing in the classroom – self-chosen activities. The children were absorbed, focused, quiet, talking to each other with purpose, listening with interest, and figuring things out. They were learning. They were being human.

At the end of the school day, knowing I had accomplished the plans the teacher had left for me, I took 15 minutes to tell the class about my experience in India, answer their questions, and show them a short photo-presentation of where I lived, the insects and animals I encountered, and what daily life was like. I showed short videos from the early activities of a fishing village, and a local musical performance. They were enthralled. Their interest was sparked. For a moment, they were the kind of kids I hope will be the adults of tomorrow.

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

At a family celebration this past weekend a friend shared that her daughter had just been accepted into a Gifted and Talented kindergarten class at their local school and she wanted to know my thoughts about putting her child there vs. letting her child experience, what she perceived would be, a less anxiety-producing mixed-ability classroom environment. Here are my thoughts (and research):

What is tracking? 

Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.

What are the perceived benefits of tracking students? 

Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.

Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.

Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.

What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students? 

There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:

- Students learn from each other!

- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.

- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.

- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!

- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.

- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.

- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.

Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)

What if every “comment” box on the Internet was changed to “reflect?”

What if every “comment” box on the Internet was changed to “reflect?”

I think a lot about setting intentions. The language we use should reflect our intentions. Often language is chosen for it’s simplicity, or ability to be broad, but isn’t it more important to use words that elicit the kinds of interactions we seek to have?

Along these lines I’m interested in the changes, if any, that would occur if every “comment” box was changed to “reflect.” Would you be more willing or less willing to share your ideas? Would you frame your opinions more gently, as a reflection is personal and makes one vulnerable? Would there be less arguing because the venue doesn’t allow for it, and more discussion and validation of ideas? Would people share more or less subjectively? More or less objectively? Would we see more productive conservations and less ranting? Would we, over time, engage with the Internet differently? Would we see these dialogue boxes as a place for constructive conversation? Would we use these forums to help us understand ourselves better in the context of humanity, of the world?

What if we talked to children the same way we talk to adults?

Parents often ask me for advice around their kids not wanting to do something the parents deem necessary. Examples include: getting dressed in the morning, eating healthy food, all routines. Parents often end up frustrated and come to me for ways to smooth out their communication. 

My advice is this: In these situations, don’t think of your child as a child. Imagine you are having this same conversation with an adult. 

With an adult you would talk to them at a calm time (not in a moment of conflict) and: 

1. Gently state the problem. (“I noticed that whenever we talk about Bobby we fight.”)

AND/OR

2. Validate their feelings (“I can see you’re having a really hard time.”)

3. Ask, “Why do you think that is?”

4. Ask, “What can I do to help?” 

 

Example Scenario- Morning Routines

Every morning is a hassle. Your child doesn’t want to get out bed, brush her teeth, get dressed, etc. You find yourself yelling and rushing and doing things for your child in order to get the whole family out of the house to school and work. 

Problem-Solving Communication: 

Parent: "I noticed that the mornings are hard for us. Why do you think that is?" (Then listen! Then validate your child’s emotions. “That feels tough.”

Parent: What can I do to help with your morning routine? (Then listen! Maybe try a suggestion the next day! Some ideas include: choosing clothes the night before, child having their own alarm clock, a list/pictures of the morning tasks that the child can refer to/check off to feel independent). 

 

The benefits of this kind of communication are endless, but here are a few of the most important ones: 

- You are teaching your child how to effectively solve problems

- You are showing your child how to communicate in a way where both parties share and value each other’s thoughts 

- You are validating your child’s emotions

- You are setting the stage for your child to gain independence and not feel dependent on you 

- You are building your child’s self-regulation skills so they can monitor themselves and reflect on their decisions

 

Communication is something that we as a society have forgotten how to do. We spend so much time writing emails, thinking of how to say something in as few characters as possible, that the art of listening and valuing another’s ideas has become almost irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. 

We need to compartmentalize different kinds of communication for different arenas of our lives. With people we are close to and any kind of face-to-face communication we need to remind ourselves to listen and value what others say and practice this until it becomes automatic again. 

The most effective teachers and parents I know are effective because the children feel valued, which causes them to trust the adult and know that when they are not given a choice or asked for their opinion/suggestion, that it’s OK, and they will trust and do what the adult says. Isn’t that how successful adult relationships work too?

What if students designed their own schools?

“When Sam Levin was a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., he realized that two things were in short supply at his school: engagement and mastery. He also noticed that he and his peers were learning plenty of information, but not much about how to gather or create their own data. And he noticed that students were unhappy. So he took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.” (source)

The program Sam designed, The Independent Project, debuted in 2010 and is still going today. Students applied, proving that they could manage their time well. The majority of the semester is structured into half-days. For half of each day, per week, students choose a question to investigate and then share with the group at the end of the week. The other half of the day is filled with a semester long individual project that could be learning a musical instrument, writing a book, etc. The last 3 weeks of the semester the students work collaboratively to create a project for social impact. The only requirements of the various projects are “effort, learning and mastery.” There are no grades; it is pass/fail. 

This student-guided experiential education is the key! Parents of students at Sam’s school were concerned about not having letter grades for the project, but colleges were excited to read about students who did something different. Not only that, the project helped students develop skills: they were more proactive, self-motivated, good with managing time, focused, collaborative, communicative, curious, and engaged. 

For me, one of the unexpected positive outcomes of this project is that it has shown the teachers what the students are capable of, and has encouraged teachers (of regular school subjects) to give ALL of their students more choice- what to read, which topic to study, how to present. And through this process the teachers are also discussing their own roles in student education. Holy reflection, Batman! The teachers are trusting the students to make decisions about their own learning! 

“Students who have gone through the program ask more questions and have a greater awareness of how to answer them; construct their questions more carefully; became more thoughtful in the way they consider ideas and evaluate sources; and became better at managing their time.” Win. 

Community in all Forms

In light of the Internet and the ability to ‘find’ your tribe, I have come across an ingenious peer network called Warm Showers. It’s CouchSurfing for cyclists. It’s a free place to stay with people who’ve done what you’re doing. It’s a worldwide network of people like me! I’ve had only incredible experiences staying with WS-folk. And now for some anecdotes:

The couple in their 60s whose kids have grown and left and encouraged them to host cyclists, as we are “kinder travelers” than the CouchSurfing crowd. Upon entering I was given a room, a towel for a warm shower, and told dinner would be ready in 30 minutes. The gentleman of the couple didn’t tell us until after dinner that he’s a retired 5-star Michelin chef. He made salad with fresh raspberry vinaigrette, and gluten free pasta with fresh veggies and a homemade tomato sauce. He apologized for whipping it up and not making a ‘real’ sauce. Ha! After dinner we looked through a stack of about 10 travel photo albums as without language (he only spoke French) we could communicate through image.

The bicycle-messenger who wanted us to stay forever and hang out and be his friend! He left us notes all over his apartment like, “Please stay another night! I’ll show you around town!”

The girlfriend of a bicycle-enthusiast (who was away at the time) who knew nothing of bicycles but was super happy to talk with us, cook for us, and send her neighbors to check up on us while she was away.

The couple in their 20s who met while on separate cycle tours through Romania. They lived in the attic of a converted brewery with amazing archway doors and ceiling cross-beams. The lady-cyclist made her own jam and sent us with cake for the road.

The couple in their 30s, living just outside the city, who’ve cycled the world. They became our friends. We hung out, made dinner, went out to dinner, and met them in the city. They are planning another adventure…

The couple in their 30s, living in a small city, who just came back from a 2.5 year cycle tour, were featured in their local newspaper, had very few belongings, paid $3/month to rent their apartment (because it could be sold at any moment and they’ll have to leave so that’s the deal. What a deal!) They just bought a house in the country, gutted it, and are rebuilding it to suit their needs, and bicycles. They get requests from Warm Showers everyday. They want to repay the community for the countless WS hosts they visited on their big trip and so they almost always have guests.

The retired racing cyclist with a house at the end of a road and a horse shed converted into a loft with extra beds and an external-facing kitchen. She had terraces of pineapples growing, a hot tub, some animals, and a kitchen she never used. She watched me make dinner for us with enthusiasm and constantly commenting on how impressed she was that I could just “whip up” a veggie-noodle stir-fry with many of her own ingredients!

The couple in their 30s living in the middle-of-nowhere France, in a gigantic house. They were excited to tell me about how cheaply they can live in this easy-to-host house, as they were able to stay connected to their friends and family who could crash with them any time for as long as they wanted. Every room of their house had at least one mattress on the floor and nothing else. They were prepared to host everyone they knew. They were also excited that in one year they would quit their jobs, buy touring bicycles, and travel the world together for as long as possible. I was their first Warm Showers guest and they made me pumpkin soup and sent me with snacks and route advice. They suggested I take a road that snaked down the side of the mountain they lived on, over a gushing river and luscious greenery. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever cycled.  (One year later: they’ve emailed me to say they quit their jobs and can I meet up with them somewhere on their journey!)

I’m humbled to be shown so much love from these people with whom I share a passion, a lifestyle, a sense of adventure, and a desire to learn from and about other cultures. They open their homes, give me the keys, tell me to eat anything, and are sometimes amazed at just how much I can eat! They understand my journey. They know what my needs are. We speak the same language. And the one thing we all agree on is that when cycling and staying with people, in their homes, you get to see a different side of the places you visit; you get to see the locals, the community, the traditions and customs. You get to really see how they live. And in all cases, you are humbled.

It’s amazing to connect and feel so connected because of this simple thread that weaves us. What if there were communities like this for all different hobbies and you could stay with people based solely on shared interests? Like CouchSurfing with a bit of Pinterest thrown in… Just thinking out loud here but there could be ways to connect with people traveling to a concert with people from that city who are also going. Or when there are conventions you could stay with people who have that interest in the host city: knitters, artists, scientists, foodies… it’s endless.

This could be the future: not networking, but finding your network.

What if all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

I am supremely interested in how we present ourselves to the world, how we categorize our experiences, how we value what we’ve learned, how we see ourselves over time.

I grew up being a great test-taker and therefore always being at the top of my class. I had friends, much smarter than me, who froze during tests or did poorly one time and were plagued forever by those numbers that dictated much of their future, not to mention self-worth.

As I developed into a teacher I noticed more and more the value in documenting my students learning experiences. I began making an annual class website that I updated weekly to show off the multitude of learning that was happening in each of my students: photos of their art, writing, and creations, photos of their interactions with each other and nature, videos of creations in action, readings of stories they wrote, poems and songs we collaborated on together as a class, and invitations to events where we could celebrate the students’ learning in person.

Parents thanked me for giving them a glimpse of the variety of learning activities happening throughout their child’s day. They congratulated me for celebrating more of what their children had to offer than purely academic-lensed accomplishments. The students shared with me their reflections upon viewing their experiences - hearing how their reading had changed over time, seeing how their drawing skills developed, celebrating that math problem they solved as a team and remembering the poster they made that explained how they solved the problem differently from everyone else.

I found these students to be more celebratory of each other’s strengths and accomplishments, and less focused on who was better at x or y. There is always something to celebrate about everyone. My class website validated all kinds of learners and learning.

This got me thinking. It’s great to share these learning experiences on a cozy little class website, but what if every student had their own digital portfolio that captured their learning experiences as a way to reflect - to see patterns and sparks, to document other kinds of learning, to celebrate learning both in and out of school?  

Imagine your family moves and your child begins attending a new school: think about the implications for your child’s transition if the teacher could see what kind of kid they are, the kinds of friends they seek out, what kinds of things they are interested in learning.

Imagine you’re a teacher and it’s August and you’ve just received your class list: think about the implications for you as a teacher to see your class as a set, find commonalities among experiences and interests, help you brainstorm activities and lessons that will be interesting and meaningful to this new set of students.

Imagine you are applying for a job or internship: think about looking over your portfolio, choosing a few experiences that highlight who you are and why you’d be a great fit, and then sharing them as your application.

Imagine you are applying for colleges: think about what you would share of yourself, to complement your transcript (that’s filled with one-time-measurements), to give the college a better understanding of who you are and what you bring of yourself.

Imagine you are a parent: think about all you know of what makes your child great and how it would feel to have a record of this that your child could use to validate his/her experiences instead of relying solely on test scores.

Imagine you are an after-school facilitator of music, arts, sports: think about the value of being able to add this to an on-going record of who these children are, another facet of their life that while you find valuable, rarely makes it to “permanent records.”

Imagine you are a student: think about all you’ve added to this record, this digital portfolio, over the last 10 years. Can you see how interests have developed into others? Can you see how you’ve grown as a learner? Can you see certain skills you keep coming back to? Can you spot a single experience that led you to develop a particular skill? Can you see passions that always find a way into your experiences? Does this reflection help you think about your life, your choices, and what’s next?


What if all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

What if all learning experiences “counted?”

I am sitting in the lush forests on Kauai, Hawaii, after several days of hiking up to mountain ridges and walking along narrow pathways to glorious ocean vistas. On the hikes I am sharpening so many skills - balancing my weight, navigating though a variety of terrains (sometimes quite slippery), and making innumerable snap decisions regarding safety and exploration. I stop often to admire details of the flora and fauna - touching, smelling, and comparing. The moss is tremendous. I am constantly astounded by the variety and texture. The rocks, too, many which have bits of lava from different stages of volcanic eruption within them, are exceptional and though they look strong, easily crumble in my fingers.

I am learning about myself too - endurance, strength, preparedness with food and water, how to protect myself from the elements with minimal gear, and to remind myself to look up from the path and admire my surroundings. 

I knew from an early age that what I learned and sought outside of school was just as valuable, and sometimes more so, than what I was learning in school. In my senior year of high school I created a half-day internship for myself at an educational television show. It was there that I learned about public speaking, speaking professionally, how to develop relationships with co-workers, how to do specific and detailed research for on-air deadlines, how to produce a television show, how to splice tape and create pre-recorded segments, and the list goes on. 

In 1999 I began attending one of only a handful of co-op universities in the US, which offer programs that are half academic, half real-world work experience. When I began as a freshman at Northeastern University, I was most excited about the yearlong schedule: 6 months of classes split up into two, 3-month semesters, and then 6 months of working in the field of my major or one I might be interested in. Within these paid internships I was able to work in a variety of departments to understand each field. At a PR firm I did cold calls for our database, spent a few days with the bookkeeping team, sat in on meetings, shadowed an executive for a day, and learned the culture of the organization. At a pop-rock radio station I worked in several departments each for a week at a time: music, promotions, news, and the office. These experiences gave me the perspective of work-culture, what it means to be proactive, how to show you’ve learned something by applying it appropriately, and, maybe most importantly, how to sell myself. Tailoring a resume, writing a cover letter, and going on an interview were things I began to just know how to do, and they set me apart from other recent graduates. 

Emily Rapport, in her opinion piece for edSurge titled Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn, explains as a current undergrad how the learning experiences she pursues outside of her classes are offering her more learning and skills that apply to her interests and passions than the learning and skills she is getting from her classes. More so she is pushing that these out-of-class learning experiences be credited, acknowledged, and appreciated by her university. These experiences are clearly what her future employers will value. 

She offers some solutions: 

1. “Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.” Teach students to reflect on all of their learning experiences and value them as such. 

2. “Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.” Classes that apply theory to required internships and community service projects. 

3. “Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.” Allow students alternatives to a thesis to apply their skills before graduation and as their requirement for graduation. 

I am a huge fan of, not just talking but, taking action. It is one thing to privately value the variety of your life experiences, knowing you are using them and getting the most you can from them, and it takes those experiences to a whole new level to advocate for their legitimacy in the academic world. 

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So what if all learning experiences “counted?” 

What if instead of just talking about Social Emotional Learning, we restructured all of the ways children learn to include adults who are trained in developing these skills?

Donna Housman, EdD, clinical psychologist and founder, CEO, and president of Beginnings School, the ONLY PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY that has developed a comprehensive curriculum around self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, discusses the reasons children need to learn these skills before they turn 4 years old as well as how their learning and social development are compromised without these skills.

It seems obvious; when you feel good about yourself and your relationships and can listen, process, and communicate your ideas, then you are open to more challenging tasks and learning. In other words, when children are not preoccupied or worried about their most basic emotional needs, they can flourish.


This is not new information. There is just more and more research pouring out of school-laboratories, graduate programs, psychological case studies, and comparisons of educational models worldwide. So why aren’t we changing what pre-school looks like in light of this information? Why aren’t we offering classes, workshops, and training to new parents around developing these skills in the first three years of a child’s life? Why aren’t nanny agencies picking up on this and offering trained SEL professionals to spend time with your young children? Why aren’t graduate schools offering Masters in Early Childhood Education focusing on Social Emotional Learning? With all of this research why is there only ONE PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY implementing this curriculum?

Reverse culture shock & the power of positive thinking

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.   I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth.   The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.   After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey.   I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.   I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.   I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.   My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.   After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.   And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.   I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on  where  they happen,  who  they happen with, and how you  reflect  on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism.   I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children.   “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.

I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth. 

The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.

After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey. 

I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.

I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.

I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.

My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.

After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.

And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.

I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on where they happen, who they happen with, and how you reflect on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism. 

I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children. 

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

What if youth had toolboxes full of strategies to combat bullying and build respect among peers?

Chance to Choose is a project aimed at doing just this. Dave McGrail, parent of a middle-school girl, noticed that there are all kinds of bullying his daughter was engaging in, unaware of and often adamant that it was not bullying. So he wrote a book: a “choose your own adventure” book for middle-school girls where they would be confronted with situations involving bullying, cyber-bulling, gender, body image, and peer pressure and have to make choices and face the consequences.

The book inspired a teacher to read it in an after-school setting to her female students to address these topical issues. This, in turn, inspired Dave to create Chance to Choose, a formal after-school program that plays through these scenarios with small groups of girls and works out solutions, outcomes, consequences, and all along the way throws in variables that adjust situations, making one rethink her actions. It’s interactive, it’s role play, it’s social learning, it’s building emotional intelligence, and it’s filling a significantly under-attended to need. It’s great to be talking about why bullying is bad but it’s a whole different thing to do something about it.

On this day, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., I celebrate Dave and Chance to Choose for working to help young girls stand up for themselves and to treat each other with respect. What if youth had toolboxes full of strategies to combat bullying and build respect among peers?

What if anti-bullying curriculum was the ticket to a kinder world?

I saw this video and it literally made me cry. Five 5th grade boys decide to befriend a much-bullied boy with special needs and it changes all of their lives. As a teacher, this is the goal! I want my students to see each other as individuals, with different strengths that make them special, and to look out for each other, protect each other, create community together. Through sharing personal stories, books, role-play, and language empowerment, children can all develop empathy.