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.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
— first published in October 2016 by RPS Secondary Curriculum & Instruction | updated in February 2022 —
As we help students develop skills that will suit them well in the world beyond our classrooms, many of us find ourselves moving to more and more partner work, group tasks, and full class discussions and debates. This is especially true as we return to in-person learning now that we're finishing the second year of the pandemic: more and more we set aside the technology we depended on in recent years--embracing opportunities to have students discuss face to face.
Discussion opportunities help our students develop collaboration skills and illustrate teamwork, develop communication skills and think critically—all skills which today’s students need to thrive in the 21st century workforce that awaits them in their not-to-distant futures.
The struggle, however, is in ensuring that all students still walk away with deep levels of understanding. Far too often in partnerships, in small groups, and in full-class activities only a few students are actively engaged--some students choose passivity. When this happens, does it mean only those few students who participate walk away with the learning? It can, so it becomes our jobs as teachers to ensure all students engage in the learning we offer them.
As we return to more collaborative and in-person learning environments, here are some strategies to help ensure all learners are still learning at high levels
For Groups of 2-3
1. Partners A & B
What to do:
Why this Works:
This ensures that there are equal voices, encouraging shy students to speak up while preventing naturally talkative students from taking over. It also teaches students balance, which is not a skill that many students develop naturally.
What to Do:
Why this Works:
Just like with Partners A & B, Triads ensures balanced voices and balanced participation within a small group; the addition of a third student, however, allows for more versatility and creativity within the structure of the activity. Additionally, the ‘additive’ element in almost all variations of Triads forces students to see and to work with how other students think. Often, there are multiple routes to the same answer, or various correct answers, and should ‘student 1’ opt to take a route different than what ‘2’/‘3’ were expecting, then the thinking of ‘student 1’ must broaden and thereby deeper learning will occur.
For Groups of 4-6
3. Numbered Heads
What to Do:
Why this Works:
When students are assigned to work in groups, particularity groups larger than four or more, it’s common to assign roles. Where roles certainly have their merit, they can also backfire. When one student is assigned to be “recorder” others in that group might hear, I guess I don’t have to write any of this down, and thereby may disengage. Likewise, when one student is assigned to be a “reporter” others may hear, I guess I don’t need to really know this if I won’t have to share out later—again, potentially encouraging some disengagement. However, when students know you use Numbered Heads to determine whose work is turned in and/or who shares out, then all must stay engaged for the entire activity.
For Whole Class Discussions
4. Random Selection
What to Do:
Why this Works:
When facilitating a whole group discussion, students who blurt answers aloud or constantly raise their hands tend to take over, giving other students perceived permission to tune out and disengage. However, establishing that all students will be called on at some point encourages students to stay engaged throughout. This strategy ensures that both shy students and students who prefer to be passive learners stay more active in their learning.
5. Chip Toss
What to Do:
Why it Works:
Again, as was noted with Random Selection, large group discussions tend to foster environments where some students naturally dominate, either pushing quieter students aside or giving students who wish to disengage permission to do so. However, a strategy like this helps combat that by making students aware of the discussion's balance—helping those likely to over-contribute keep themselves in check while simultaneously motivating those likely to under-contribute to add their voices into the conversation.
If you are looking for more ideas on increasing student voice and engagement, or would like to dig deeper into the value of such strategies, consider starting with these four resources:
by Nick Truxal
Recently, I took a break from my years as an educator to get new training on better leading and applying evidence: specifically, data driven evidence. The focus of my program is the corporate world, and as such, I am having a number of revelations.
The one that I want to focus on today is that the corporate world is transforming in many of the same ways that we have been doing in education. There is an enormous focus on skills: building new skills in employees, breaking jobs down by associated skills, understanding the skills needed to perform well in teams, as well as assessing and reporting based on skills.
Since our inception, Third Eye Education has been speaking about skill-based reporting. Just a few examples:
I personally love feedback only, skill-based instruction and reporting. The remarkable thing is that the entire world seems to be making a pivot in this direction as well. There are a few key reasons driving this transformation, and a few key takeaways for educators.
What's driving this transformation?
These reasons may sound familiar, but the slant on them I find unique:
What may educators pull from this?
I see these as being parallel to the conversations we’ve been having in education. Of course, each can be applied to how we, as teachers, are assessed as well as how we assess our students. I do wish that I had considered the third bullet point above, which is offering options to better our practices, before jumping into the work, myself.
Ultimately, this means a few things for educators:
A small disclaimer as I conclude: I’ve always hated the idea that education should take anything from business. We are not a business. We are here to help young people to grow. I’ve often found it difficult to accept the best practices emerging in the workplace. I think I found it easier this time because it so closely mimics what we’ve been working on for a long while.
Further, it does show a fundamental shift in the way our society is thinking, and having advanced knowledge of such a shift can indeed help us better prepare our young people to grow.
by Julie Brock
February is the longest month in Minnesota. The snow and cold have settled in. Cold has nestled deep into marrow and snow is a welcomed relief to cover the dirt and sludge covering the roads and—if we’re honest—our hearts.
On the wind in February
It is the same routine. Start the car, scrape the windshield, drive to your destination seeing your breath hang around your head the entire way, and maybe--if you are lucky--the car warmed up by the time you get there. It's a grind, even for the most optimistic.
Add “the beginning of the end” for high school seniors and it is fertile soil for teaching absurdism and existentialism. Welcome, young friends, to the existential crisis season for 12th graders. Although many have pronounced their plans for all their peers to hear, the confidence behind the bravado is small, infinitesimal, in fact. And the questions seep in as they hear the choir around them sing of their collective, positive plans. Some are questioning their early action to college. Others are digging their heels in and fighting against the idea of any more school. Others are looking abroad at a gap year and others are gearing for military. All are trying to have conviction about their choices, but the Ides of March are near, and the tides start to turn in February.
Absurdism results from the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning and the inability to do so with certainty. Albert Camus, a French absurdist philosopher, believed individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence and then gave characters to challenge our inability to do so.
Absurdism? It is a literary genre? Are you serious? All great questions I’d greet with a smirk.
I’d start class with a series of questions:
Small blinks from eyes followed by silent contemplation, then discomfort.
Camus’s The Stranger was the cornerstone to the Existentialism Unit I used to teach. Meursault became the unsettling presence for many students. They were confronted with a character who planned nothing, who was connected to nothing, and had no cares for what others thought about him. He had needs, and he filled them. That’s it. No more, no less. When he shoots the man on the beach the prosecution asks him for his motive, and he says the sun was in his eyes.
This outraged every class. How can that be? No one shoots someone because the sun was in his eyes. There must be more!
But there isn’t.
The acceptance of life as a series of choices is one that is hard for my February friends to grasp during their own crackling façade of identity. Who am I really? What am I really? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?
Pushed in class to consider the idea that there is no one answer to any of these probing questions, and that the truest answer is in the recesses of their DNA, happy in the shadows of self is one thing; contemplating it in the second year of a global pandemic is another.
Transition from high school into what comes next is a big milestone in one’s journey. Doing that under the shifting sands of COVID-19 is exhausting at best and damaging at worst. Conscious or not, these young adults have built up expectations and stories following the close of their high school chapter. To do that without any true knowns pushes them off their axis and the world cannot turn without glitching. It doesn’t feel stable.
Absurdism pushes on the construct of certainty. How can we be certain of anything other than the breath that enters in and out of our lungs? And even that is not a guarantee. Existentialism asks the questions, “What else is there than existence?” and “What else is there to existence than the choice we make now, now, or now?”
Watching eighteen-year-olds grapple with the idea that their life is a series of choices and even the best laid plan may not work brings both anxiety and relief. Collectively, there is nervous laughter as they contemplate how much energy they have poured into the future without a thought to what happens when they walk out the door when the bell rings.
Isn’t it absurd that when you walk out the door you will make a decision, turn right or turn left, and that decision will lead to a series of choices that will ultimately lead you to your next destination?
by Phil Olson
Each fall, former students, seniors who are a week or a month into their last year of high school, show up at my door. They try for some small talk, while their eyes communicate that they know I know about the Ask that’s coming. It’s awkward and sweet, and I say yes, telling them it will be my pleasure. And it is.
In recent years, college recommendations are increasingly accomplished via one platform, the Common App, a non-profit organization that represents 900 institutions of higher education.
The application’s commonness allows students to complete one application for undergraduate college admission, instead of completing separate applications for each school. The platform also manages teacher recommendations, which consists primarily of letters of recommendation and a series of comparative ratings.
As far as an unpaid, part-time jobs go, completing college application recommendations is a good one. Let me explain.
First, I enjoy writing recommendation letters because I must pause to reflect on my experiences with students who are about to be done with high school. I think about the work we did together (in fact, I like to revisit and quote their essays!), the things I learned about their personal stories, and I marvel at the truly remarkable process of maturation that unfolds in dramatic, double-time fashion during high school.
Because I teach the spectrum of grade levels, I get to know my students first as kids and later as young adults. I like how the recommendation process caps our time together, and I find it meaningful to have played a positive role, sometimes small and sometimes substantial, in helping students prepare for and take next steps. I also get earnest thank you notes whose words do their intended job of making me feel useful and appreciated, and sometimes students show up to tell me when they’ve been accepted to schools and to talk through plans--often including the fact that they need additional recommendation letters for this scholarship and that. I get to help with those too.
A second, meaningful feature of the recommendation dynamic has made me a better educator, an improvement fueled by the ratings chart below. Give it a close read before we move on.
I have mixed feelings about rating recommendees in relation to student peers, but I continue to appreciate almost all of the categories, as they capture attributes that really matter—for success in high school, college, and life. The thing is that, years back, I realized I was rating students with regard to categories they were not aware of. Sure, these are things that matter to educators, but I can confirm they are not obvious to students who have absorbed messages about the defining nature of GPAs and standardized test scores. To be more blunt, students are confused about what matters, as evidenced by how surprised mine are when I share the chart with them.
Since teachers are evaluating students on the criteria above, it makes sense for us to establish them as "studenting" targets in our classrooms—targets that need to be discussed early and often.
A couple of criticisms:
Okay, “academic achievement” is challengingly broad and inclusive, and rating “intellectual promise” is a toughie, but I like to ponder the promise I see in my students. The student who writes poetry or plays chess beautifully? That’s promising. The student who is passionate about saving the planet, dismantling patriarchy, or understanding physics . . . promising!
The five criteria, with some overlap, that I find most meaningful:
Like many area teachers I am in the midst of ultra-busy weeks as I bring first semester classes to a close, while simultaneously preparing to transition to the second half of the year. This time in the academic calendar is always fraught, with extra helpings of grading (and some grade-grubbing) and planning, as well as a never-quiet Outlook inbox. This year, though, it’s fraught² (An exponent because many of us must wrap and restart in distance-learning mode. **Deep breath, focusing on a long exhale with healing self-talk: Phew... Everything will be okay.**)
As my students and I start second semester, we’ll wait on talk about percentages or papers; instead we’ll use the ratings chart to discuss authentic, effective studenting, which is even more important in distance-learning mode. Then they’ll reflect, in writing, on how they rate themselves for semester 1 before specifying targets for where they want to grow in semester 2.
They will write recommendations for themselves.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.