by Heather M. F. Lyke
A simple Google Search or a scroll through a social media feed from an educator, and it’s easy to confirm that this is a hard year—a hard year that follows two previously hard years. This is a truth that has not alluded us here at Third Eye Education: simply explore some of our articles from this past year to confirm:
In the past year—particularly, over the past few months—there is one phrase we hear over and over from educators: We just don’t have enough time.
Yep. That tracks. Over the course of a school day, teachers have classes to prep for, labs to set up, emails to answer, students to follow-up with, make-up assessments to give, test scores to analyze, poor student choices/behaviors to address, copies to make, coffee to drink, emails to answers, bathroom needs to attend to, parents to call, papers to grade, meetings to attend, assignments to create, messes to clean up, referrals to follow up on, chapters to preview, grades to update online, club meetings to facilitate… and those are only the basics. Not to mention what happens when the classroom phone rings: Can you cover __ class during your prep hour? Could you attend this IEP meeting in place of __ since he is out ill today? FYI, there will now be a mandatory after school meeting.
So the day finishes with work undone; which means that teachers take the work home with them, or they stay late to finish it, or they feel guilty that they did neither of the two. Little of this refuels the soul, little of this is why teachers went into the field, and none of this is sustainable for the long term.
While too much to do in too little time may be a truth universally acknowledged in our field, it’s not one to embrace. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, readers learn that you must “treat your time with respect” (227) and ensure there are many opportunities to do deep work, or “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration” (3).
Considering how little time educators have, the likelihood is low that most Third Eye Education readers will have time to complete Newport’s book in the near future (maybe once summer arrives), I bring you the following key reasons and applications for educators:
3 Reasons Why Deep Work is Needed
It increases job satisfaction.
Counterintuitive though it may be, “jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because…they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it” according to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Newport 84).
Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi is perhaps most famous for his work on flow states, which is outlined here along with how educators can utilize this concept in classrooms:
Newport notes that a state of “flow generates happiness” and that “deep work is…well suited to generate a flow state” (85). Therefore, to increase satisfaction with work, educators may wish to find more opportunities for deep work, just as educational leaders may wish to remove/limit the many barriers that can get in the way.
It increases the ability to learn new things.
It is not uncommon to hear that “the educational system is broken” nor that someone would like to lead a new initiative but they “just don’t have the energy.” If we want to try new things, if we want to fix broken systems, then we have to have a capacity to learn new and hard things.
Newport notes that “to learn requires intense concentration” (34); yet, we often try to squish it into 10 minutes at the start of a staff meeting, 30 minutes of table conversation in a room where other groups are also talking, or 45 minutes of PLC session that is filled with interruptions by emails or visitors. But learning requires “deliberate practice”: attention “focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or idea you’re trying to master” (35) for long periods of time.
The educational system we are working in right now needs change, but to learn and apply what is needed to make that change, we first must ensure there is time for deep work.
It increases productivity.
Deep work pushes past that concept that being busy is being productive. “Doing lots of stuff in a viable manner” isn’t the aim (64). Instead, when deep work is embraced one identifies what tasks are most important and ensures they can be completed during periods of high concentration.
If one has “clarity about what matters” it then “provides clarity about what does not” (62), and knowing the difference allows one to focus on the work that will have the greatest impact. In turn, productivity—at least the productivity around what matters most—is enhanced.
3 Ways to Reclaim Time to Do Deep Work
Take control of your tasks.
Newport notes that the “key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and to add routines and rituals into your working life,” to “minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration” (100).
Some routines to try:
Some of what Newport suggests when it comes to limiting distractions doesn’t fit in education. For instance, as much as I would love to try his “Don’t Respond” method for dealing with email, I don’t think that would go over well with the staff, parents, students, and community members who email me frequently. Nonetheless, here are some ideas to do work in the education field:
I know there are those who might scoff at some of these suggestions, usually with the argument that we need to be available for our students at all times. While that may be true in some cases, for most of us setting and sharing boundaries like these is a way to teach students time management as well as a way to model the importance of focused work. Setting boundaries lets us become even more available for students in those times when we are not engaged in deep work: these boundaries allow us to be more focused while working with students, as we know our other tasks have already been, or are scheduled to be, completed.
Build capacity for future focus.
Perhaps this is the most counterintuitive of the ways to reclaim time and embrace deep work. To focus deeply, one must also have time allotted for boredom, reflection, meditation, and creativity: this is the yin that balances out the yang of deep work.
In Deep Work, Newport notes that he doesn’t “work at night and rarely on weekends;” yet, during the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2014 he published 20 peer-reviewed articles, won two highly competitive grants, published a book and wrote the bulk of another all while being a full-time professor at Georgetown. His ability to sequester work to Monday through Friday, and to finish each day by 5:30 PM, actually provided him with stronger focus; knowing he had limited time enhanced his productivity and allowed him, upon getting home, to be more present as a spouse and father.
Some ideas for reclaiming the downtown needed to do deep work while at work:
By putting into practice some of what Cal Newport recommends, we might be able to make educational change happen faster and achieve more ideal outcomes. Whereas, as Henry Ford is attributed with saying: "if we keep doing what we have always done, we will always get what we have always gotten."
Now, with all of that said, I have just spent two hours doing deep work by focusing on this article (awesome!)—but I did it on a weekend (not so awesome)… So, that is a change I will need to make going forward.
In honor of my own suggestions above, I am now going to turn off this laptop and take a nice long soak in a warm bath so I can better focus on work when I arrive back at school on Monday.
by Jean Prokott
I've been thinking about self-portrait poems lately. Not writing them, because I can never get a turn to work, more about what they can offer to students who don't need to worry about a turn.
For Valentine's Day, my creative writing students made self-portrait valentines along the lines of "Self-Portrait as Conversation Heart Trapped between Couch Cushions" or "Self-Portrait with ½-off Valentine's Day Candy." They halved cardstock, cut heart-shaped cards, opened the wings, and wrote poems on the stretch marks inside.
The students weren't overly jazzed about the activity—only a few meandered up front for a red marker—but they wrote little poems and shared with each other, or tried to anti-valentine if that was their vibe for the day (e.g., a persona poem about raccoon roadkill that ends with a smooshed striped tail), and we were able to put a little checkmark next to a cold February Monday, which is harder than it seems.
On day one of that class, we'd modeled Dean Rader's "Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry" as a more interesting version of "two truths and a lie." Last fall, we wrote "Self-Portrait as [insert Halloween costume here]," based on Sandra Beasley's poem "Halloween." The students love that poem, and I love the irony that they have to dress themselves up in order to understand what's happening underneath.
For context, a self-portrait poem is not much different than a self-portrait in art. In an essay featured on Silver Birch Press, poet Lisa Russ Spaar notes the poems took off in the mid-20th century with John Ashberry's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1975), inspired by the Parmigianino painting of the same name (1524). Spaar observes that all poems are self-portraits—consider Whitman's "Song of Myself"—but the title "self-portrait" itself suggests retrospection thematically and "That the use of 'self-portrait' is an overt nod to its long, fascinating, and complex tradition in art history."
A self-portrait is or is not an ekphrastic poem. (An ekphrastic poem is a description or narrative inspired by a work of art. One of my favorites is Anne Sexton's interpretation of Van Gogh, "The Starry Night," in which the tree is a woman drowning.) Ekphrastic poems are also wonderful, and they serve as a wonderful transition out of this tangent:
Where I'm going is that a "self-portrait" assignment could serve a number of purposes if you need a last-minute lesson plan on Those Winter Mondays™ when we get up early. Some of our professional development meetings this year have started with ekphrastics of sorts as ice breakers, if you've seen the model—a teacher shows four paintings, the students identify which best represents them or their mood, and they share why or journal about that personal reflection. This is one of few ice breakers I actually enjoy, because humanities lessons should always be snuck into our day—like one might sneak spinach into a strawberry smoothie for hidden nutrients.
Some ideas for self-portrait journals or assignments might look like:
While one could think it a stretch to use a poem in science class, I think the self-portrait works because you don't have to read a poem to get the jist of it. Sure, if you want a summative assessment, but one could simply start class with a review called "self-portrait" and define the term with the students:
Q: What is a self-portrait?
Teachers know that we need to get our students' I, me, my into our content as much as possible to make the schema stick. 
And, truth be told, many of the self-portrait poems I've linked can be abstract, complex, full lesson plans in themselves, perhaps over students' heads in a non-writing or upper-level literature course. If you're interested in a starting point, though, Mary Jo Bang's "Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror" is money:
"Some days, everything is a machine, by which I mean remove any outer covering, and you will most likely find component parts […] there is no turning back to be someone I might have been. Now there will only ever be multiples of me."
Why not throw "self-portraits" in your tool box, or in emergency sub notes this winter/ fake spring/ and then winter part two once again. It freezes, it slushes, the slush freezes. Always a good time for introspection.
 Or, literal self-portraits. I just had a vision of students drawing their faces as a nucleus of a cell, but it looks like the Sun Baby from Teletubbies. Quite haunting. And if you hung the portraits in your classroom, the nightmares alone would be enough for them to remember the material for the test and subsequently the rest of their tortured lives.
Learning from Our Students
by Jean Prokott
The sophomores have spent December writing creative nonfiction, short vignettes that allow them to rummage around for the metaphors hiding in their lives. I’ve been teaching personal essay for the last decade, so I often predict the topics students will choose (failing a test, church mission trip, sports injury) and the symbols they will find (butterflies, water, clouds) and preemptively direct them away from those clichés. The best part is to tell them what not to write. They have to keep rummaging.
Every once in a while, a kid finds a perfect peach of a topic and writes about it in a way that unties me. I want to share with you the story of “nonnie” so you see what I mean.*
That comma splice in the last line alone.
That structure with time, to start and end with death, to bring nonnie to life in the middle.
Her metaphor is one we all know. There's a defining moment in our lives when we learn about death. nonnie represents the literal of this coming-of-age, but also her struggle up the hill represents how my student felt when she lost nonnie.
It was a gift to read this piece. I wrote tomes of feedback in purple pen—mostly stars and wut and this is powerful over and over to the point where she probably thought I’d been living as a recluse for the last decade with only episodes of trash TV to keep me company. (Although to be fair, I think I just described last year and most of this one.)
One would have to be a callous car crash of a person if they didn’t feel their heart explode when they learned about nonnie’s fate and the effect she'd had on my student, and the day I read this, the time of year I read this, that this had been the 80th out of 95 essays I’d read—nonnie’s story was literally the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my whole sad life and I would spend the rest of my days mourning nonnie and my student’s loss.
After I read about nonnie, I had a flashback to an experience I’d had on my grandparents’ dairy farm and a cow named Flopsy, who’d been born with a messed-up leg. The end of that story is predictable: while eating hamburgers one evening, my father brought it up.
That wasn’t the impetus of my response, however.
Because it is quite clear we are all nonnie.
Her tragedy was that she’d wanted to climb a hill. There are so many hills this year. nonnie drowned “all because she faced an incline and couldn't get up. Such a simple action.” nonnie had spent her life free and sassy and getting under fences. She “liked potatoes.” I like potatoes, too, I’d thought. I like potatoes, too.
Since the assignment was not one short scene, but three, when I conferenced with my student this week, I reviewed more rough drafts. One was about a horse named Iago (and I’m sorry, but find a more perfect name for a horse). An excerpt:
Is Iago still alive? I asked. Yes, Ms. Prokott, Iago is still alive.
The third scene was about a chicken.
I read this, I looked up, I said: Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to kill me?
What also kills me is how humble she is. I think I might spend the rest of the year convincing her that, yes, it is that good. I know I will spend the next decade using her essay as a model for the assignment. And I just now realize this random IKEA print of a cow I have hanging in my classroom will never look the same.
My reaction to this powerful piece was not only reader-response, of course—this student has mastered empathy and control of language and voice and happy accidents and every possible technique to make me react the way I did. But I don’t want to talk about how she got there, don’t care to list which activities we did in the classroom, don’t want to get my nails dirty in pedagogy. This was all her. I simply want to share this victory. Her victory to write such a heart wrenching piece, to have the maturity to revisit grief and make it beautiful.
While we’re all nonnies this year, struggling up the hill (and praying we don’t meet her fate) maybe we can also be my student. It’s been a year of loss, so let’s talk about it. Maybe find the metaphors. Learn from our students.
And the next time you have a glass of milk, please pour one out for nonnie.
* The student has given me permission to share.
Finding Our Portals to Transcendence
by Phil Olson
There is an experiential continuum between being awestruck by the majesty and scale of the natural world and being utterly engrossed by a detailed, complex task. Macro versus micro, breadth versus depth.
My students and I are suffering from a lack of both.
When my Advanced Placement Literature classes recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, they encountered dense prose and the need for a good thesaurus. At first, they didn't like it. The plot is a slow burn, and all those words make it a slog, so we get through the early pages by looking for word combinations that might make excellent band names:
Some students take offense when I point out that young Victor Frankenstein is a STEM student who is obsessed with the potential power of numbers and formulas and is determined to make them answer humanity’s biggest questions:
As he pursues science, Victor becomes a narcissistic jerk who makes an eight-foot-tall mistake, and students are eager to criticize him by arguing that no one could be so short sighted as to actually assemble and animate such a powerful creature without heeding its obvious dangers. Then we talk about nuclear arsenals, the petroleum industry, Facebook and Twitter….
Shelley’s title character is not a good romantic, so he serves as the perfect foil for Shelley’s celebration of Romanticism, the early 19th Century artistic movement that championed a love and respect for nature, emphasized emotions over intelligence, and foregrounded the rights and potentials of all human beings, even those without rank or wealth. Radical stuff. Victor is a failed romantic because he violates nature, lacks empathy, and watches passively as lives are destroyed.
Basically, we experience the sublime when we contemplate features of nature that are vast, mysterious, enchanting, and even dangerous. When we encounter a violent storm, a glacial mountain, or a roiling ocean, we feel small, vulnerable, and even afraid. And this is good. It’s humbling and allows us to take a load off: we are not the center of the universe. It also helps us put our daily experiences, especially nagging frustrations, into the proper context where they matter a heckuva lot less. We need the sense of proportion afforded by the sublime.
Last summer I had a sublime experience while hiking, alone, in California’s Redwood National Forest. It is morning, not yet full light. Moisture hangs suspended between the mammoth trees and the carpet of ferns. Silence. I am tiny; somehow both exhilarated and at peace; and I can’t help but recall a conversation with a local who told about recent sightings of a mountain lion.
My spine tingles in the same way when I share this story with my students, and then I ask them about their recent, sublime experiences. Some share stories, but many don’t, and some discover that the sublime erodes with time. We all agree we want more sublime experiences, so we spend a few minutes planning class trips we’ll never take.
And back to the continuum. When teaching Frankenstein, I place the sublime at one cosmic pole. On the other, I situate another concept that emerges when reading the novel with my students: the idea of “deep work,” a concept explored a few years ago by Cal Newport, a professor, author, and podcaster. (Check out his book, Deep Work, and/or listen to this revealing podcast interview with Newport for a quick, thoughtful introduction to the topic.)
The starting point of Newport’s argument is that, in our distracted world, we have an increasingly difficult time engaging in meaningful, complex, absorbing work. We have a hard time paying close attention. If you want to test your ability to focus, see if you can read the first ten pages of Frankenstein and, as you do, immerse/lose yourself in the setting and the plight of the characters. It’s not easy. Reading complex literature is deep work, and so is writing essays (especially this one!).
Everything educators do is deep work: reading and offering feedback on papers, planning lessons, creating projects, facilitating discussions, composing consequential emails, listening to students and colleagues, and on and on. And, of course, studenting is deep work, too. My students spend 35 hours per week in school, and each day is organized into eight periods, in which they take six classes, many of which assign homework. Calculus, physics, economics, Spanish, orchestra, art, and English all require deep work.
The problem for students and for me, is that we all have to juggle competing demands while also attempting to fend off distractions. The result is that I am always incredibly busy and seldom incredibly productive, and my students report the same. It feels impossible, but we must all carve out more time for deep work.
Here, at the end, I had intended to list some actionable ways to approach the sublime. How to engage in deep work. But my draft list is rather obvious (i.e. When experiencing sublime experiences, do not take selfies, and Close Outlook if you want to accomplish anything, ever). Instead, I return to Frankenstein and close with metaphors:
There are portals to transcendence at both ends of the continuum. When we channel our minds into the depths of experience, we flow with passion and power; and when we escape ourselves to tune in to the epic drama of existence, we’re left humbled, breathless.
We are readers. Readers of novels, readers of people, and readers of ideas—all intricate and not-entirely insignificant elements of the sublime world.
by Sweta Patel
I’m a teacher and also serve as a “Seniors Transitions Advisor” at a local alternative high school. This involves meeting with seniors one-on-one and talking about their plans for after high school and how to best support them. Often, I help our seniors with college and scholarship applications. There is one question that always makes them pause:
What extracurriclar activities have you participated in?
Now, when I see that question, I think about my 9 year old and 5 year old. Regularly, I find myself in the position of a taxi driver, stopping in front of art and dance studios, soccer fields, tennis courts, piano lessons…and the list goes on.
But for our seniors? They usually name classes or activities they participated in at some point during their time at our school:
I believe there is a population within all of our schools that doesn’t have access to these types of ‘extracurricular activities’ due to any number of factors, including financial constraints, transportation barriers, or needing to work after school.
And yet time spent in these activities often leads to feeling a sense of community and teamwork, learning a skill that may become a lifelong hobby, or even developing a sense of what career path we’d like to pursue.
At our school, as a staff, we agreed that this list of benefits is equally as important as our academic standards. They are not “extra” to us… They warrant being a part of our school curriculum and culture. We want our students to be exposed to a variety of new experiences so that they can identify new strengths and interests and carry them beyond graduation.
The Duiring-the-School-Day Solution
To that end, we completely overhauled how Wednesdays look at our school. On these days, we go by a different bell schedule and master schedule. Each teacher teaches 5 sections - advisory, academic help, and 3 seminars (single or a double block).
During advisory time, students spend an hour deepening their relationship with each other and their advisor. Advisors also use a part of this time to have one-on-one conversations with each advisee, following a set of weekly questions created by our social workers. Past topics include: goal-setting, healthy relationships, coping with stress, and self-talk.
During academic help time, we give students a built-in pause during the school week and use this time to re-teach concepts and help students one-on-one with assignments. This helps to prevent the end-of-the-quarter mad rush that often happens to catch up on the past 8 weeks’ worth of learning.
And during seminar time, teachers choose engaging experiences to offer students, such as:
At our school, we are on a 9-week quarterly system. We broke each quarter up into two rotations, consisting of 4 Wednesdays each. We call these our “Student-Centered Wednesdays” because the students get to self-select what their schedule looks like for each rotation. Some rotations, students might be heavy on academic help hours; and during others where they’re feeling academically strong, they might have one advisory period with 4 seminar experiences. Their schedules are centered around their learning needs.
Prior to Each Rotation
Rotations & Collaborations
While it’s definitely more work to be on this type of rotation system, we feel it’s necessary for the following reasons: Students can try out many different types of experiences throughout the year. Also, if they don’t end up liking an experience, they only have to make it through three more Wednesdays (same goes for the teachers!). But most importantly, it allows teachers to more easily partner with community organizations.
For example, for our Chess Seminar, we’re partnering with the Rochester Chess Club. One of their chess instructors comes out to teach our students, and they only have to commit to four Wednesdays at a time.
As we continue to reflect and revise what these Wednesdays look like, our hope is that we’ll eventually be able to take students to off-site trips (for example, hiking at Quarry Hill or volunteering at a care center). Right now, our experiences are all on-site.
Implement With Purpose
Some may argue that these types of experiences don’t belong within the school day, but at our school, we argue back: We all agree that extracurricular activities have value, but it’s a matter of access to these opportunities. Because our students can’t participate in after school activities, we’re trying to integrate these activities into their school day.
If you’re interested in doing something similar at school but can’t on this larger scale, one idea is to replicate it for the last week of each quarter or even a few days each quarter. You’ll be surprised by how many students as seniors will remember these experiences when it’s time to complete that “extracurricular activities” box on an application.
But there’s even a greater reason for more schools to jump in:
When I was younger, I took piano lessons, and this led me to introducing music into my daughter’s life. My husband played cricket and badminton, and he continues to play now as an adult as part of his fitness routine. My 9-year old daughter takes art and dance lessons, and through these, has developed dreams of selling her art one day and making it on the high school dance team. So many of us have these stories.
We’re hoping that through our Student-Centered Wednesdays, our students will generate similar stories of their own. A particular seminar just might change the trajectory of their life.
The Pedagogy of 'The Great British Bake Off'
by Nick Truxal
The time has come. When Third Eye Education was launched, we made sure to include a link to make suggestions for future articles. At the time, we needed to test if the system would work appropriately, and someone on the team posted this anonymous suggestion.
“Like, what if you wrote an article about how good the Great British Bake Off was for educators?
We thought it was a fun joke, but as with many jokes, the more we thought about it the more the suggestion became an inevitable future article. With the launch of a new season of The Great British Bake Off (sometimes known as “The Great British Baking Show”), the time is now!
So, why is The Great British Bake Off great for educators? Here are three rounds of reasons!
The Signature Round
It Fixes You Up (“Solves” Burnout)
What can we say? High stakes relaxation doesn’t bring the heart rate down in quite the same way.
Repeatable at Home
Because Bake Off is something every single viewer can feasibly do on their own, it can build confidence to try out new skills in the realm of baking. Further, there is research to suggest that hands-on projects can boost mood for days to come after a successful outcome.
Speaking of successful outcomes, if baking does become a home enterprise, we can gain quick and easy wins in the form of cupcakes, breads, and eclairs. Once again, research shows that one of the very best ways to overcome burnout is through a series of quick, small wins. This can even happen just by watching the show and seeing the person you are rooting for progressing on to the next stage. Do keep in mind that students are also burned out right now, and finding quick wins for the classroom can be very useful for the culture of the class and the mental health of all involved.
The Technical Round
Represents Great Teaching
Clarity and Progression of Goals
The Great British Bake Off breaks each show into three parts: the “Signature Challenge,” the “Technical Challenge,” and the “Showstopper Challenge.” Each is clear in its expectations from long before the season begins. Furthermore, they build upon one another. The Signature Challenge can be practiced long in advance of the show. Contestants know what all Signature Challenges will be as the show begins, and they speak about how they practiced at home to get comfortable with their particular approach. The “Technical Challenge” is the “productive struggle” of the show. A chance to push the contestants outside of their comfort zones and force them to make connections between skills they’ve learned previously. The “Showstopper” is the final display - the representation of learning to the wider community.
As each of these challenges takes place, contestants get feedback in a variety of ways. During the signature challenge in particular, the judges will walk from contestant to contestant to give feedback about their planned projects. As soon as each bake is completed, the judges instantly give feedback. Study after study has shown that the most growth happens when feedback is done live or, at minimum, immediately after a skill has been practiced.
Choice & Community
Not only does each contestant get the structured choice of what they will bake each episode, they also have the opportunity on how to engage with their community of bakers. In the COVID era of Bake Off, contestants are put into a baking bubble where they can only interact with each other. This results in practice sessions being done with each other, advice being given, and bonds being quickly formed through this shared experience.
Models How to Adapt to Challenges
The Great British Bake Off has gone through judges, hosts, formats, and channels in its life on television. With each change, the audience is quick to point out that the show is doomed and life will never be the same. However, with each change, there returns a cast of people that clearly care about the direction things will take. There is an optimism that is infectious. There are, again, small wins in seeing favorite elements of the show continue on. In a world so full of change, it is great to see a show model how to successfully adapt.
So, thank you to whoever it was that jokingly suggested The Great British Bake Off for an article. It was a lovely exercise, and we look forward to the next article suggestion!
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.