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 Heather M. F. Lyke
I may be one of few adults with reliable internet access who has yet to see Ted Lasso. In fact, my partner and I don’t even have Apple+ TV, which airs the show. For this reason, I was startled to learn the other day that, apparently, I have been quoting the show for months, often asking of myself and of other, “is this rooted in judgement or in curiosity?
I thought, over the last few months, that I had been quoting Arij Mikati of Pillars Fund, who’d used the phrase in a recent podcast interview. Perhaps it is possible that Mikati had been quoting Ted Lasso?
I wonder it if matters who said it first, since no matter it’s origin, there is extra need for us to lean into curiosity right now. It’s been a challenging fall. A challenging fall that’s followed a difficult year. A challenging fall that followed a difficult year, which came right after an unthinkable spring. A fall that has left us with many, well, challenges. And when challenges come along, judgement often follows.
Deliberating as to why this is, I did a little digging; learned that psychologically, it’s often easier to label a struggle than to really work through the challenge itself. Labeling things can make them easier to file away and to move on. Ella Alexander shared in 2020 that, particularly during the pandemic, people have had a greater quickness to judge during times of stress; that “when we’re stressed or anxious, as humans we need to find a release for those emotions and...one of those ways is criticizing others because it makes us feel good...If we shame someone else first, then it deflects from our own insecurities and internal unhappiness, and even our own fears about being judged.”
But Alexander goes on to note that while we “cannot condemn anyone for processing quickly—life really is tough enough when you think of the many things an adult must concern themselves with” there are, “some things which we do need to stop and think about…”. That since “judgement is quite base; we have to learn to understand complexity.”
In the world of education, the benefit of being curious might prove more useful than judgement from three levels.
On a Micro-Level
On a Meso-Level
On a Macro-Level
I think it was Dr. Sharroky Hollie who I first heard say that, “our first thought doesn’t have to be our last thought.” We have the ability to rethink, to rephrase. Therefore, while stress may drive us to initially judge—making it easier for us to file away our struggles and to think we have pushed past them—we don’t have to sit in that judgement. We can push through, actually push past judgement, and embrace the curiosity that sits just beyond. Curiosity, which may make it harder for us to file and move on, is what is more likely to help us find solutions, grow stronger relationships, and increase our understanding. And isn’t that what the world could benefit from?
Speaking of increasing understanding…in the aforementioned Ted Lasso episode, which I still have not seen, the quote “Be Curious, Not Judgmental” is attributed to Walt Whitman. Curious, I attempted to verify: eventually I learned that, according to Snopes, it’s misattributed. How curious.
Ideas by Gauri Sood & Dr. Amit Sood, framed by Heather M. F. Lyke
Building trust, whether it be with students or fellow staff members, is foundational for learning and growth to occur. In our recent conversation with student Gauri Sood and her father Dr. Amit Sood, we explore five aspects that, when laid out and actively implemented, help establish trust.
Amit Sood notes that, “people don’t like you for who you are: people like you for how they feel about themselves in your presence.”
Plotting it Out
The Soods share five ways to build trust in such a way that people will grow to “like you for how they feel about themselves in your presence.” And, not surprisingly, these five fall into line much like the points found on a traditional plotline.
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Social Emotional Learning as a Collaboration
with Gauri Sood & Amit Sood | 9.28.21
Daughter and father, Gauri and Amit Sood (an international expert on mental health) speak to the team about collaboration with your audience as well as great mental health tools for teachers and students.
Dr. Amit Sood is one of the world's leading experts on resilience and wellbeing, executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and the creator of the Resilient Option program. He has also authored many articles and books, including The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.
Gauri Sood is co-creator and lead trainer of HappiGenius, a Social Emotional Learning tool for young learners. She also serves as a member of the education committee for the Rochester Community Initiative and the Rochester Youth Commission, and she is the teen representative for Food Allergies of Rochester, MN. Gauri is a senior at Mayo High School.
Heather M. F. Lyke is the Teaching & Learning Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools and author of numerous articles focusing on quality education.
“How do you say your name again?”
“Oh, okay. I’ve heard others pronounce it differently.”
"Yeah, there’s an Indian way and then a non-Indian way. You can just call me ‘Sweet-a.”
I’d like to take you back to 1990 for a moment, when I entered second grade. I was seven years old, eager to fit in. And I was still “Svet-ta.” But that year, my teacher and classmates butchered my name enough times that I resolved to just change it to make it easier for them to pronounce. I was embarrassed each time anyone called me “Sweat-a” or strangely enough, “Sweat-er.” I started telling everyone (well, non-Indians) to call me “Sweet-a.”
The name that my seven-year-old self-deemed as more culturally appropriate has continued to follow me into my 30s in all aspects of my life, from my workplace to the tennis courts… and most likely, will continue to stick for life.
My own experience with my name has made it a priority for me to get my students’ names right. With each new class, I wonder how many share a similar journey. But most of all, I emphasize that if I ever mispronounce their name, I want them to correct me rather than silently go along with it. I never want to be part of the reason why a student chooses some other name because they feel it's easier for their teacher.
In the years that followed, I struggled with the yo-yoing back and forth between my two identities. I still remember an open house night during seventh grade. My mom was sitting next to me, listening to my choir teacher talk about the class and expectations. The teacher must have asked me a question, and I answered back with a soft voice. My mom turned to me afterwards and said, “What was that? Where’d your voice go? I’ve never heard you speak so quietly before.” You see, “Sweet-a” was soft-spoken, unsure of her voice and opinions. “Svet-ta” was confident. She spoke and laughed loudly.
A more telling moment happened in eighth grade when I passed a bathroom mirror at school. I remember a surreal moment where I was taken aback by the brown skin reflected back at me. I had come to feel very white in those school halls.
And now, years later, to my Indian friends, I’m still Svet-ta” - a popular Indian name that signifies “purity.” I cringe every time I have to introduce myself to a non-Indian in front of other Indians as “Sweet-a.” I feel overly American in those moments. I’ve tried to teach these same non-Indians the correct pronunciation, and they do try… but the continued butchering makes me cringe even more. So, the two names have stuck.
I don’t know how much of these dual identity experiences and feelings are connected to the moment I adopted a more easily pronounced name. But I do wonder that had I been able to remain “Svet-ta” in school and at home, whether I would have felt more comfortable bringing my Indian self into the classroom. When we’re young, we’re eager to fit in and are quick to reject anything that gets in the way as ‘uncool.’ We try to scrap parts of us that others don’t accept as easily. As an adult, we know that one culture isn’t necessarily better than the other. “Sweet-a” is a nagging reminder of how I shoved my Indian heritage down and hid it away. I regret the feelings of shame that contributed towards the divide.
With a new school year almost upon us, I hope that all staff are mindful of working hard to get student names right, the way the student is requesting that it’s pronounced. After one or two failed attempts, students generally just silently accept it. Instead, staff can double check with: “It’s really important to me to get your name right. Please tell me if I’m still missing it.” That statement can go a long way in preventing mispronounced names from sticking not just for that one class and for that one school year, but for the rest of their life.
So many in my extended family have similar stories: “Chirag” is “Shiraq.” “Hemant” is “Harry.” “Suresh” is “Sam.” “Roshan” is “Ro-shawn.” And on and on the newly created names go, in an effort to provide “easier” names. My cousin often tells the story of always running to class whenever she’d find out there would be a substitute teacher that day. She didn’t want the class to laugh when the sub would predictably mispronounce her name. So she’d walk up and quietly give her adopted name before her classmates arrived.
One idea that districts might adopt is having a place within their student management system (SMS) to include the phonetic pronunciation of students’ names. Imagine if each parent/guardian who registers their new Kindergarten student had a chance to write in how their student’s name is pronounced. This information could then be integrated into their student profile page.
Parents/Guardians of current elementary or middle school students might get a pop-up message when they access the SMS system to enter the phonetic pronunciation. Current high school students could enter the information on their own.
This change would allow staff a better chance of getting student names right on the first try. It would also help to lessen student anxiety and embarrassment around butchered names. And not to mention, graduation ceremonies would be a lot less painful for students and their families. I can still clearly recall last year’s ceremony: A student walked up to accept her certificate and told the staff member, “How did you get my name wrong? I’ve been here for four years. Really?”
Sweta Patel is an English teacher at the Rochester Alternative Learning Center in Southern, Minnesota. She also teaches Cell Phone Photography, Personal Finance, and a motivational class for seniors (co-taught with a community college). She feels lucky to work at a small, alternative school that encourages creativity and innovation.
It's my first year. Last year was my first year, too, and I had a first year back in 2008 (student teaching), and then another in 2009 (first year on my own), and then another in 2010 (new district), and then another in 2013 (this district), and then 2020 (online). It's human to mark time, especially when we define the year by nine months, like nesting mothers. Oftentimes, beginnings are celebrated. The new school year allows for this—busses weave their caterpillar selves in a parade through the suburban streets, Target sells out of oatmeal-colored cardigans, hallways smell like fresh books rather than freshmen—and it's worth our Cheers. Once summer says goodbye, we're a little ready even if we don't admit it, and we raise our glasses and thank it for its dedication to the company.
To be a first year teacher is to start planning too early, or to start planning too late. The anxiety of a blank calendar, or an overdone calendar, becomes nightmare fuel, as do the faceless heads of future students, new PLCs, new rules, new norms, new shoes to break in, literally and figuratively. You wonder how long it will take for students to know you're a cool teacher or how long it will take them to respect you, you wonder the protocol for going to the bathroom, you wonder how to set up your gradebook. During a teacher's first year, the stress of choosing the correctly colored paper is somehow equally as important as writing an entire unit plan, and prioritizing depends on which lottery ball you pull from the machine that morning.
So, 2020 felt like that, because I had no idea how to teach online—it was new platforms, new technology, new norms, new ways to build student relationships. (On top of this, of course, there was a global pandemic, if you've heard of it. Also we were all very tired.) It didn't matter how long you'd been teaching when you started the 2020 school year. You were a first year teacher. We survived by softballing the phrase we got this! over and over, we were selective about the "effs" we decided to give (sometimes it was zero effs, a few times it was negative effs), and we figured it out, as teachers do, and we did a good job, because we are good at our jobs.
Here we are once again. During my first in-person meeting since March 2020, I sat in a small room and felt a stomachache. While a PLC and I collaborated on a writing diagnostic, I thought about my classroom desks, which need to be cleaned, and also my entire curriculum for three preps, which needs to be rewritten. Should I sharpen some pencils and tidy them like a floral arrangement in a coffee cup, or should I write a unit test? These are the same, somehow. I feel like I've forgotten how to talk to students, face to face. I spent the last school year teaching to SpongeBob icons and Helvetica letters, so I've forgotten what students look like, and when I pulled up class lists last week, I saw that students had grown weird mustaches and landed on haircuts that might have been dares. It was a grid of aliens. What do we say to these awkward, beautiful beings? We got this? So, 2020, amirite? Will they answer? How do I put them in groups? How do we count our traumas? Will I learn names, since they'll be wearing masks? Is decorating your mask too corny of an icebreaker? Are they sick of adults asking them how they're doing? How do I teach students how to read, or how to write? If I sit with this last question, the answer moves farther and farther away, and years of schooling and experience bubble as they sink to the ocean floor, to live in a pineapple under the sea.
For a few years, I taught new teachers through Winona State University's Teacher Preparation Collaborative—folks who'd gone to college for other careers and found their way to the secondary classroom. These classes were the second week of June—I'd gotten only two days of summer before diving in—and it was difficult to be optimistic after a long school year. But the first-years' excitement was always contagious. They'd put their lives on hold to become teachers, so they helped me to see the work was worth it, that there was magic in school, that magic was fueled by nostalgia. They hadn't been tainted by the political nuances or roadblocks I'd met during battle. The first-years were me a decade ago. She was nervous, but she was all-in.
One good thing about last year's first year, and again this year's first year, is we are learning this together. Whoever learns to tie her shoes first bends down with the rest of us to loop our bunny ears. While our traumas, losses, weight gain, coping skills, relationships, etc. are different, what we have in common is that we must use each other to advocate for ourselves. If the last school year and the pandemic has taught us something, I hope it is that we are allowed to be vulnerable. Lean, hover, take a mental health day. We tell our students to prioritize their mental well-being far in front of algebra problems or pages 3-20 of The Scarlet Letter. I don't think new teachers hear this (or tell themselves this) enough: it doesn't have to be perfect. Get off Pinterest. Nobody who is normal or who has a life actually has that color-coordinated HGTV classroom. Your Expo markers are a little dry, sure, but the kids in the back can still read the board.
Students are not behind and neither are we. It's their first year, too. There is no rush. There is no "lost time*" to make up for—there is only the time we give ourselves to heal.
Jean Prokott is an English teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. She is also the author of the book The Second Longest Day of the Year which won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize (available fall of 2021), author of the chapbook The Birthday Effect, a recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has both poetry and nonfiction published in numerous journals. Learn more about Prokott online or connect via email.
The piece that most intrigues me is that students thirst for community and belonging, yet when educators spend time on building a culture and community, it’s often we tend to build it for our students. Occasionally, we build it with our students. In terms of clubs and organizations, we sometimes build it through our students. However, I have yet to see an educator help students learn how to build a community in which they can belong.
In trying to break down the component parts that we may use to help students with community building, we journeyed through several layers of an umbrella process. Ilan represents these umbrella parts by recommending that we:
- Be organized. “Remember people... remember names… remember dates. Remember who hasn’t [been] seen in awhile… and promises made to get together.”
- Follow up on those things
- Be fun to be around and be very charming. Just be a lovely, good person.
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Of course, we can teach structure and organization. Through the conversation, Lazerbeak and Ilan elucidated that the organization of a community requires building an organized system that others can easily join. This also requires having a structure to reach out to those we admire or value—a clear system through which we can reach out to others. Structured discussions are wonderful in class, but we need to have the skills to engage in face to face or digital environments—to make calls, send emails, begin conversations, or “send out feelers.”
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Following up can include strategies of organization (one strategy they shared outside of this podcast is to keep a list of names and conversations as they take place). We can, of course, also lean on calendar reminders, clock apps, and other technologies to be notified to follow up.
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The piece that may be the hardest to teach—essentially having a tone of approachability—they luckily also had specific ideas for.
- Showing appreciation whenever possible: things such as handwritten notes, sincere verbal thank yous, or just returning the favor.
- Showing a sincere curiosity for the work and thoughts of others, both through that initial reach out and in an ongoing fashion. Such as, how is their dog doing, and what happened with that great song draft they’d created?
- Taking care of ourselves so we can perform at our best. They recommended gratitude journals and mindfulness in order to stay at “peak us.”
A Rich Process of Creation
with Lazerbeak & Ilan | 8.3.2021
Two amazing Minnesota music minds discuss how to help students and educators create communities, as well as how to stay as the best versions of ourselves.