by Sweta Patel
Science teachers teach science... Math teachers teach math... We’re all familiar with teacher licensure dictating our course load.
But what if... an English teacher taught a fine arts class? Or a math-related class?
As a teacher at an alternative high school in Minnesota, the state grants us variances to take on classes outside of our licensure areas. Some might balk at this and slam an educational ethics textbook at our door.
Therese Huston, the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, would reply: “Can you be a good teacher before you’ve mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you’re mastering it? I believe the answer is yes.” And I agree.
Stretching Skillsets of Both Teacher and Students
In these past two years, I became aware of a growing need for more elective options for our students. I wanted to be a part of the solution. In a Googling session, I perused a variety of high school course catalogs in search of a topic that would engage both the students and me.
This past year, I—an English teacher—was approved to teach Cell Phone Photography for a fine arts elective credit.
The next minute, fear set in. Ah, crap. What did I get myself into? I don’t even know where to begin. My own photos are often a blurry mess (and sometimes, my own finger makes an appearance). I’m such a fraud, and the students will pick up on it. I quickly spiraled down the Drain-of-Negativity-and-Anxiety. Fortunately, the “fool factor” soon set in.
In her book, Huston writes, “Content novices are often more effective learners because of the 'fool factor.' The fear of having nothing to say, or, perhaps worse yet, the fear of saying something that is contradicted… is highly motivating.” She adds, “Instructors who were happy teaching on the edge of their expertise often diffused the imposter problem by finding a way to be honest with their students about their limited knowledge.”
For a period of time prior to the first day of class, I browsed dozens of syllabi for high school and online photography classes, lesson plans, websites with project ideas, forums, and more. I decided to teach students one composition technique at a time, eventually leading to longer projects that would require combining techniques. I was highly motivated to build up knowledge so that I could confidently guide my students’ learning (and not appear the fool). For instance, to prepare for teaching the Rule of Thirds, I turned to article after article for descriptions, tips, and sample images. But I was very up front with my students as well—this was my first time teaching this class, that I was a cell phone photography novice myself…that we would have to help each other grow.
So, my students also researched and studied articles, collected and imitated examples, experimented with their cell phone camera tools, and helped each other to carry out their vision for a particular project. We spent an equal amount of time projecting our photographs, offering self-reflection, and giving each other feedback about what was or wasn’t working and why. This feedback helped to shape the choices we made as photographers.
Some might say that our school’s art teacher should have been the one to teach this class. She has the content knowledge after all. I would agree that she’s an exceptional teacher and would have created an engaging class. In fact, she was my mentor and sounding board throughout my course planning.
However, I disagree that only the art teacher is qualified to teach an art class.
Huston writes, “The obvious assumption is that students learn less from faculty who know less about the subject matter and learn more from faculty who know more. But that assumption isn’t correct. Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and optimal environments suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised.”
With search engines at our fingertips, we can build our content knowledge. A good teacher is one who can create an engaging learning environment. That’s the art of teaching. Huston feels content novices bring three strengths to the classroom:
“Being an expert can get in the way of seeing the issues from a student’s perspective. After all, when you’re the expert, you’re fascinated by the inner latticework of the issues and often can’t formulate questions that beginners will relate to…. The beauty of being a content novice is that you have an outsider’s level of excitement and curiosity… You see what’s interesting and what matters to someone who is new to the topic because you’re new to the topic, too, and you see how the topic relates to other problems and questions in everyday life.”
With the endless topic of photography before me—where library shelves are filled with volumes and volumes of thick books—I had to make choices about what aspects to cover in the 9-week class. I thought about the end goal that excited my students and me—to become better cell phone photographers. This would require learning the most popular composition techniques and practicing them. We would have to take lots and lots of pictures. I could have included lessons around the history of photography or studying famous photographers in depth. A content expert may have made that decision. But as a content novice, taking pictures was priority #1. And my students—also content novices—were inspired by the same.
“We know that teacher expectations impact student achievement. High expectations are motivating when they are realistic about how much effort and time a task requires… What’s surprising is that people who have a lot of experience and are regarded as experts are much worse at estimating the amount of time a task will take for beginners than are the beginners themselves. In fact, the experts’ predictions are worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all.”
“Concrete explanations lead to more efficient problem-solving—if you’re teaching students how to solve a problem that you recently learned to solve yourself, research shows that you will probably provide a more basic and concrete explanation than would a content expert. As a result, your students will probably experience fewer frustrations and more successes when they sit down to work on that problem.”
As a content novice teacher of this Cell Phone Photography course, I made sure I completed every task, assignment, and project I planned to assign to my students. In doing so, I had a better understanding of how long they would take my students to do. I worked through the same challenges I knew they would encounter. This often led to breaking down longer assignments into smaller chunks, including specific brainstorming tasks, clarifying written directions, adding more examples and links to resources for help. Essentially, creating a more supportive learning environment. As students came across challenges or questions I didn’t account for, we problem solved them together. I also often asked them for feedback on the class itself and let them help shape the direction we took with our projects.
But it’s another point that Huston makes that excites me the most about teaching what you don’t know:
“It would seem, at first glance, that content experts would be in a better position to foster deep learning. They know so much more about the field than the content novice; they have a sense of the big picture; and they’ve invested a lot of their own time finding meaning in the material…. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that a deep approach to learning involves helping the student find meaning in the material from the student’s vantage point. It’s the student’s discovery of meaning, not the teacher’s that makes or breaks the deep learner. So who is better equipped to create that kind of environment of discovery?”
She and I would both argue that it’s the content novice. We say that we believe that teaching isn’t imparting knowledge into empty vessels. But if we truly believed this, there would be more widespread acceptance of content novices teaching what they don’t know. I believe the biggest strength of the content novice is our full acknowledgment that we don’t know all the ins and outs of our class topics ahead of time and that we will have to co-construct our understanding of them through outside resources - print, online, and people.
Because of this acknowledgment, content novice teachers have to think outside of the lecture box (as knowledge givers) and have more of a push to create collaborative, engaging learning environments.
Additional Application Approaches
Perhaps you’ve reached this point of the article and are left wondering, Well, we don’t all work at alternative schools. This isn’t relevant. But there can be creative scheduling moves that can be made to allow for more teachers to teach what they don’t know.
A mainstream school in our district used to schedule an “e-term.” For one full week, teachers would stop their regular classes and host different seminars that students could sign up for. A history teacher with an interest in children’s literature might offer a weeklong seminar in “Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.” A math teacher with an interest in cars might offer “Basic Car Care & Maintenance.” A Special Education teacher who coaches baseball after school could offer “Building a Workout Plan.” (At our school, we used the “e-term” as inspiration for our own “j-term” in January—here’s a copy of our course guide.)
Then perhaps, these initial, brief dips into unknown waters could lead to something longer. Our district requires 24 credits, 8.5 of which are elective. Why not offer quarter-long elective credit opportunities? Teachers could teach around a topic they have some interest in (or a topic that students are requesting), like Basket Weaving, East Indian Music & Dancing, Podcasting 101, Music Production, Tattoos & Storytelling... By graduation, imagine all of the different experiences students would leave with: one such class topic could even lead to a lifelong hobby or interest. I know I’m not considering all of the logistical issues in scheduling and staffing, but that’s purposeful. There are always reasons we can find that a new idea won’t work. The key is to find a way around all those “but we can’ts.”
Another “but we can’t” might be this: We don’t all have the time it takes to learn and develop the content for brand new, unfamiliar classes. In my case with the photography class, I did do a lot of research to develop a course plan and then again for my daily lessons.
However, I think I did that primarily out of the “fool factor” fear. Instead, I think teaching what we don’t know could lend itself very well to student-led project-based learning, where the teacher is a facilitator or guide. I could have said this to my students on day one: “This class is called Cell Phone Photography. What are some of our goals for ourselves around this topic? How do we get there?” As the teacher, my job would have been to guide students to form questions, develop a plan of action, self-reflect, and seek feedback. Perhaps the class could have generated a list of techniques they wanted to learn about, and then each student could have been responsible for teaching that technique to the rest of the class. I think when we teach what we don’t know, we can help our students learn how to learn. And that’s a skill they can carry with them well past graduation.
Lean on Community & Collaborators
Finally, as content novice teachers think about their unfamiliar topic, they should be reminded that they aren’t alone. With technology like Zoom and Google Meet, professionals are easier to access than ever. Teaching what we don’t know offers a bonus opportunity of networking with others who can serve as our mentors, or checks for our instruction. In my course, I not only had the support of our art teacher, but we also regularly conducted Google meets with a former photographer for the Post-Bulletin (our local paper). She got to know my students and we developed mini-portfolios for her constructive feedback.
She was as proud as I was over my students’ (and my own) growth in our photography composition skills over the course of nine weeks. I can now confidently say that I’m no longer just an English teacher.
Cyphers as Restorative Circles
Ian, you make our minds jump to places we weren’t anticipating. In this particular moment, we jump to a fabulous teacher in a nearby district, Sweta Patel, who has been doing work with restorative circles. She has found fabulous success—said this year in particular has been amazing, which seems to be in large part because of the ability to have individual conversations with students through new uses in technology. It seems like another example of a different way to involve students, make sure they are heard, and have hard conversations. My assumption is that, if we do that, hip hop will emerge as a key vehicle.
I think about it in a couple ways. One way is - yeah, you can do restorative work, and if it is done authentically and there are hip hop voices within that space, that will naturally come to the surface. I also think that, when you talk about chapter six, which talks in depth about interacting in cypers--Isn’t a cypher itself a restorative circle? I think they are.
This idea of creating circles in school environments so youth can process conflict with each other, come to some sort of resolution, reach restitution—the cypher has always been that. Much like the circle has been as well. There are connections to Paulo Freire and all the work that has been done circularly in Brazil. That’s where all the critical consciousness ideas come from—all situated in circles. I am thinking of African drum circles. Circles themselves have cross-cultural meaning as communicative spaces. If I’m not incorrect, circles are pulled from a lot of inuit populations and culture. Again, hip hop is a version of the restorative circle in so many ways, and that is a beautiful thing.
Having the Bigger Conversations
The examples in your book, such as students making a mix tape around police brutality, with them you mention resolving conflict. We have the internal things we may be dealing with, then we have the large external things that may be happening. Was the choice of the police brutality example in your book about speaking to a larger audience, or is there something about grappling with those large world issues that makes students feel like they are trusted to have bigger conversations?
Youth decided on that topic, that concept, and all the songs on that album—very much because that was what was happening around them at that time. Effective group counseling work is able to grapple with the impacts of the larger context and the worlds in which youth live in and how that impacts them and can pivot to those when it needs to.
I can come into a group and say, “We’re only going to talk about your self doubt in your math class.” I could make a group narrow, and there is some evidence that can still be effective even if you’re very prescriptive with the direction. But, at the high school level, in particular, I love facilitating groups where youth decide on the direction of the group. That is very process oriented. That is what happened here.
There were a ton of shootings. A lot of death of a lot of youth—black and brown boys and girls. It was all over the media. This was at a time that the media was hyper focused on it. It was everywhere. Youth were saying, “We need to talk about this,” “We need to talk about this: did you see this case happen?” so naturally. As we talked about each and created songs around each and their feelings around each, this project came together.
I think it is hard to separate that out from what youth are experiencing in school. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens—that we say: this student didn’t do their homework, they were struggling at home to finish it, and they must not feel competent at math. But what if it is just that when the student is at home and they go to pull out the book, they are thinking about the world around them? And then they are bringing that to school and they walk through a metal detector and see police officers at school. If you live in this hyper vigilant kind of world and you feel like you are being watched and seen as threatening, how can you focus on anything else?
Naturally, this stuff came to the surface. I don’t think you can parse out one’s reaction to a specific situation in school, whether that be relationally or with regards to academic content, and not think about the larger context. Youth took it there because that is where it needed to go. That is the value of this kind of work.
We loved the story about going to a school and students coming in wearing sneakers being forced to change into the school uniform. Are you familiar with the poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Pound said he was trying to capture a moment that something external became something internal. In grappling with the larger issues, well, you aren’t isolated from them. You are showing that they interweave.
They aren’t binary, right? We can’t just deal with one and then deal with the other, they don’t work that way.
In terms of those externals and internals are “zones of control.” Something internal, I can control to a certain extent: something local to me, I hope I can control to a certain extent. The wider mindset of the world, it would be great if I can influence it, but probably less influence than with something local. Is there power in these activities because of the feelings of helplessness around certain topics?
Yeah, in a myriad of ways. If I express something that I am expressing as external, and a bunch of people around me are like, “Hey, I felt that also,” that is universality. That, in and of itself, helpful in realizing, okay, this isn’t a “me thing.”
By the way, when you are fifteen, everything’s a me thing. News flash—when you are thirty-two, it still feels that way. That’s life. Everything feels like it’s us. To disconnect oneself from that—to say, I’m not alone in feeling this—is great in terms of control. In terms of realizing that I don’t need to bear the burden of this myself. This is something that the world is feeling, that my peers are also feeling.
There’s another—expressing it out into the world to potentially impact or effect change—is that advocacy work that is also very helpful. Letting youth know that there are ways they can advocate from a place of deep personal knowledge and experience affect positive change on the world. That is one way of taking control. Even if it's not changing the whole thing, but being able to produce this mixtape and share it and let other people hear how you feel: it depersonalizes it because you’ve had this experience and you’ve talked about it with your peers, and you realize that it isn’t only you, but then you’re owning it to the world as this thing outside of me. You're telling the world, “Hey, this is something that’s going on.”
That is the ultimate way of realizing that it's not you. Trying to hold the world accountable. What’s beautiful about hip hop is that the entire process is ideal counseling: ideal counseling is realizing universality, transferring what you’ve learned inside a session to outside a session. Mixtapes as a cultural medium offers the ability to discuss, to create a cohesive product with your peers, and a distribution plan so the world hears what you need to share. Hip hop offers this pathway for realization. Regaining control by saying, “this is you all, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to read one more comment from our poet in residence, Jean Prokott. (A plug for Jean--go buy The Birthday Effect and The Second Longest Day of the Year.) Prokott noted: “Just to comment on how amazing this professional development would be. Since I am in English, I always wonder how STEM teachers would address this. Notes on using hip hop as statistics, counting beats to per minute, etc., are so wonderfully applicable, something other books on pedagogy fail to do. This isn’t theory, it’s practice.”
I love it. That is really nice to hear. I think a hard task with books is to be practical. That’s something mentors of mine have modeled so well for me: how to keep one foot in schools and one foot in the academy, in such a way that you’re able to bridge theory and practice. To reimagine how we think about the work and applying it. That is an incredibly important modeling that I am trying to uphold in my career because I don’t want to become the classic stuffy old guy in an ivory tower. That balance has been on my mind a lot lately.
We love drawing lines in the sand in this world. Like counseling is here but education is here. As a school counselor, I’m like, then where do I go?
Well, Ian. You can be with us.
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
Third Eye Education recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ian Levy, both for this podcast episode as well as for this interview where we discuss his new book Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy in School Counseling: Developing Culturally Responsive Approaches. What we found most enjoyable was how applicable the book is to all areas of education. For the podcast, we focused on ways hip hop can be leveraged as a tool in the classroom and in the counselor’s office.
For this article—a transcribed interview and the first of a two-part series—Levy and our team focus on the empowerment of students through the creation of space.
We’d like to focus on chapter four and chapter six, if that's okay?
Yeah, absolutely. The office creation and then the cypher chapter. Yeah totally. Those would be great.
A Safe Space: physical & dialogical
Perfect. A question from Jean Prokott, our poet in residence: Could creating space translate to classrooms and to broader educational use in some way? What obstacles prevent that from happening?
When I think about creating space, I think about the ambiguous, hard to find emotional space, and then the physical space. I think about both spaces. The physical space is more the focus of chapter four, in particular. It boils down to: Why do we create spaces based on an assumption of what feels comfortable for youth rather than saying, “Hey, what kind of space do you want to come into every day?”
It is a very simple idea, but a powerful one. This came from years of experiences being in schools—we come in those few weeks before school starts and we get our room set up and we plan really hard. That is really wonderful and we get a lot of great work done in that time. But I don’t think it always involves youth voices. It is based on our assumptions, but not that next step of, “Hey, what do you want to do? How do you want to design that space?”
When I looked at the literature, there wasn’t a lot on that. When you look at differences culturally--What does it mean to create a space that is inclusive and intersectional?—that didn’t really exist at all. I found a multicultural checklist that was like: put some posters on the wall of different cultures. That was as close as it came, which was so far off the mark. So, there was this pivot to say, “Hey, I’m just going to go into school and work with the youth to define what it is that a space needs to look and feel like for them to want to talk about their emotions within that space.”
When I started thinking about where that happens in hip hop—the studio has always been that. Rappers explain studios as spaces for personal transformation: as comfortable environments where they can engage in this emotional labor. Those spaces are usually—dim lighting, comfortable seating, being able to sit with other people and process things out loud: very lounge-like. It is interesting because the little bit of literature about asking youth, even after the fact, those things came up: dim lighting, couch—all the things the studio has already been doing. There’s evidence that those are helpful, but no one has connected those things and said, “Let me take some young people and say, ‘Why don’t you help me create a space?’”
The other reason is more dialogical. What skills do educators have or lack that allow or don’t allow emotions to come to surface? If a space is a safe space, a lot of the time we conflate a space where there is no tension to be what we need. A space where we ignore the difficult stuff isn’t the answer. A radically uncomfortable space isn’t the answer, either. But I know from group processes that this storming phase of group work—that groups have to be in—this place of discomfort is needed to get to a place of cohesion. We need to be able to facilitate dialogues in a space that youth have decided is the space for them to feel comfortable. Then, conversations need to occur in that space: emotions can come up, difficult conversations can occur. Get us to a place of cohesion.
What is so impressive about chapter four in particular, but the book in general, is that any doubts you have--for example, “I could give students the voice and the opportunity to shape the room, but that’s going to take time, and that’s time that I could be spending instructing. I could be helping with skills around my content...”--you’ve gone on to show that: student voice is the skill. Their participation is helping grow their skills faster and be more productive.
What skills stood out to you in terms of the things students developed as they went through this process with you?
There are skills that students developed and skills that students had. I learned a lot about the skills that students had that I might not have seen before.
Students were putting the microphone in a specific place so that there would be some ability to have privacy. If I put the mic in a specific way, one where I am facing all the other students, then all eyes are on me while I’m sharing. But, if I’m facing this corner wall nook, I’m away from everything else. So students knew how to create a pocket of security within a room.
",,,they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others..."
But also, this act of sharing and being heard within the studio, students valued it on a personal level, but then they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others; which is something hip hop says, “each one teach one.” Youth saying, “Hey, this space is really great for us. We could use this space for freshmen when they come next year.” Youth were starting to think about how the studio itself was not just a space for them to process or work through whatever they needed to, but then [how it] could become this large component of school culture and could shift policy and practices within the school to make it more safe and inclusive for all students that come into the school building.
There was self-advocacy, the ability for youth to look out for each other—to showcase empathy and compassion for their peers, and to show they have this knowledge already.
I’ve had schools that have tried so hard to create a nice transition program for youth that are coming into the school building. While students working inside the studio figured out a more appropriate and valuable process within a couple weeks. When we relinquish power, everything happens, because youth already have a lot of the skills that we think they need to develop. Maybe they can be refined, and built upon, and explored in new ways, but the core of those behaviors exist within youth already, and that is very humanistic. We just need to create the conditions for those to then shine and be cultivated further.
Creating Bridges & Fostering Connections
You spoke about collaboration. Another question from our poet in residence, Jean: Have you noticed that creating space at school translates to creating space in the wider community? How can students owning their space exist outside of the school building?
I think that this kind of a space invites parts of youth that historically have been relegated to only exist outside of the building to come into the building. I might love hip hop, and love the cypher, but I’ve got to go do that somewhere else. Maybe I even cut school to go to a cypher or go hang out with my friends and rap. Because those forms of who I am are not welcomed in that school. So now we say—you can enter this space; which not only upholds part of who youth are outside of school, but it also naturally creates bridges to foster connections.
I’ve had parents come for parent meetings and see a studio in the corner of the office and be like, “Hey, you know I make beats,” and then offer to do workshops outside of school. I’ve had DJs reach out who are in the local community that heard student’s songs on Soundcloud somehow, and say, “Hey, I was a student in the Bronx, too. I wish we had this when I was in school. Let me come and do some work with your students.” The community will come. “If you build it they will come” [Field of Dreams].
If you create the confines for this to occur. If you validate and appreciate the skills—that youth and community, youth and families have, the assets they have—and you allow them to exist within the school, then all of the ones that exist around it—the ancillary partners, collaborators, stakeholders—they’ll come. They will flock towards the school. I’ve heard time and again from parents and others that came into the school, “I wish we had this when I was in school.”
This is again in the Bronx, where a lot of my research is done. Parents that were saying that were the same age as the students I work with in the 70s and 80s. They resonated with the culture in a huge way and loved seeing it in the school. The community was ready for it. We just weren’t ready for it. The school, the education system weren’t ready for it. So once you open that door, it’s all going to come in as long as you’re authentically engaging in it. How do you do this from an authentic place? I think those connections form and youth are upheld and their communities are upheld when you invite hip hop to exist within the school.
Opening Doors to Inherent Community Builders
The book is really good at talking about realness and authenticity--and helping the reader to understand what that means.
Part of what you are talking about also connects to something coming up. We will be having a discussion with Lazerbeak & Ilan Blanck on the podcast: they are teaching us how to build community. In having those conversations, we realized we don’t teach our students how to build the community they are desperate for. At every age level, they want to know how to belong to one, and we don’t teach them how to create one.
The work you did empowering students--showing them how to collaborate--you were teaching them how to create a community. Was that intentional? A happy byproduct? Would you have any advice to help other schools in being more purposeful in teaching young people to create communities?
Again, I would return to something I was saying before, which is that the hip hop community understands in a very deep and personal way how to create community. I don’t think it is teaching youth to create community as it's calling on the power and potential of hip hop to foster community.
When the Bronx was literally burning and falling apart, rival gang leaders said, “We’re not going to do this any more. Let’s form communities.” They came together in the midst of the chaos that surrounded it to chart a path forward and process. That is the origin of hip hop.
I like to think sometimes of the studio work as a microcosm of that much larger process. School isn’t an inviting place: it's kind of all falling apart. I’ve worked with a lot of young people who were traditionally struggling, or at risk, or however the school wanted to frame them (even though that’s a deficit way of framing our youth); then the youth came together to create community—to make sense of all of the chaos that is surrounding them. It wasn’t super intentional to form community. The intention was: let’s make a mixtape—let’s make a studio. Through doing something that was inherently connected to hip hop, through creating some physical product connected to hip culture, that community formed.
Facilitating as a group counselor, [I] naturally processed things and worked through tensions to build cohesion. I operated with a group counseling mindset, which naturally is about fostering community.
Again, I cannot understate that youth are hungry for connection: they’re hungry for community building. Yet, there are never—or seldom—authentic ways for community to be fostered. We’re asking youth to build community inside a sterile classroom where they’ve never learned real things about each other and they don’t know their teacher very well. That kind of environment doesn’t pull on the innate community building skills and tactics that youth have been given as a result of identifying with hip hop. When you allow hip hop to come in, a community is built. It is overly simplistic, but it is inherent, so it will happen whether or not intentional about it. It’s a cool thing.
Next week, you can look forward to part two of our interview with Ian Levy.
A taste of what to expect: it opens with the statement, "One of the nice things about talking to you is that you make my mind jump to places that I wasn’t anticipating."
Excited? We are...
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
by Jean Prokott
Part of an educator's job description includes insomnia, but nobody tells you that at teacher-school. It's more on-the-job training. The sleeplessness is nerves, mostly--did I remember to print those worksheets? how is that student's mental health? what if my zipper is down tomorrow?--but it's also anxiety-ridden in that instead of counting sheep, we spend hypnagogic moments counting our failures.
We make hundreds of decisions a day, and a healthy portion of them are mistakes. Failing hurts, and it is uncomfortable, yet we tell our students they learn through failure. It's only fair we know this for ourselves.
To reframe, we're counting the moments we learned. If a lesson plan goes awry, the students watch you flounder (if they're paying attention). If, like me, you say the phrase Netflix and chill in class thinking it's literally about relaxing while watching Gilmore Girls, you're going to sit in that for a while, and you're going to save Urban Dictionary to your Favorites bar.
Physiologically, we can attribute this to the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and which hangs out next to the hippocampus, where memories are retrieved. We recollect emotional experiences more precisely and colorfully because our brains are built that way. Theoretically, as educators, we know Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD), which they did teach us in teacher-school, and which explores the sweet spot of comprehension. In a parallel, one can look at this as emotional intelligence, this sweet spot where you feel just uncomfortable enough to remember. A student ignores or forgets a class where they are not emotionally or intellectually challenged. A student does not feel safe or confident in a class that challenges them, content or skill-wise, too much.
Our job is to hover in the ZPD. It's not easy to create these moments for our students, to get their hippocampi to remember how we made them feel and what we taught them. Especially because every student's ZPD is different. So is mine, so is yours. And they fluctuate.
But, as I mentioned before, we must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. Teachers might not experience the anxiety of feeling intellectually or emotionally unsafe in our classrooms (not to be flippant, but aside from the fact that a student could kill me with a gun, or that I could be fired for saying the "wrong" thing). However, educators can find themselves complacent in the nucleus of the ZPD. Not because of laziness, but because of survival. In those rare circumstances when opportunity and time presents itself to us, we should strive for the next layer.
Education, as its own institutional beast, struggles to evolve on its own. For one cog to move, myriad others in the government and community must be greased. Fortunately, (hopefully), teachers have control over their classrooms. To move to the outer ring, we can challenge ourselves with new curriculum, new projects instead of tests, cross-curricular activities if the school structure can be manipulated for it. With support from our administrators and colleagues, we can set plans in motion for "hard conversations."
It isn't a leap to explore how this, too, is exactly how poetry works. (Everything is a metaphor, even a metaphor.) Third Eye Education is ever grateful for the conversation and new poems from poet Taylor Mali, who opened a door to the joy of discomfort by way of poetry, teaching, and shaking dice for a symbolic gamble.
Mali's new poems, "Momentum," and "Are You Going to Come for Me'' explore the Gestaltian circumstances when we're thrust from our comfort zones. Mali tackles how one new experience can change our big picture.
In "Momentum," the speaker challenges his sister on the accuracy of her memories with their father: "I repeated a story he had only ever told to me [...] his brothers locked him in a windowless shed—/ piled firewood against the door outside—and dared him/to escape in under five minutes." While the speaker uses the story as evidence of "joy," his sister interprets the story as evidence of "destroying everything around him to become free," which warps the memory of his father. This discomfort leads the speaker to rearrange his past relationship with his father, and perhaps to question whether any of his memories can be trusted. I think, here, of how this ties to the lessons I've learned in my classroom. How might I look at my prior discomforts now, as a seasoned teacher? Discomfort breeds when our Truths are challenged. Do we accept this, or do we double-down?
Speaking of “discomfort,” the next poem contains content
that might make some uncomfortable. But isn’t that the point?
By Mark Barden
Constraints get a bad rap. People see them as wholly negative: they impede progress and diminish potential. Entrepreneurs, in particular, seem locked in a perpetual grim struggle against scarce resources and abundant obstacles.
But constraints can also be fertile, enabling—even desirable. They can make people and businesses more than they were rather than less than they could be. Constraints force people to reframe problems and get creative, and from that fresh perspective and creativity emerge new opportunities: superior alternatives at which smooth, open roads would never have arrived.
In these “interesting times” when our lives seem chock full of constraints thanks to the pandemic, it can be liberating to think about the possibilities in the constraints.
Examples are everywhere:
Google and Zappos were responding to external constraints, which is the typical scenario for startups, but the NBA and Seinfeld created their own constraints. Can you imagine becoming so confident in your ability to transform your limitations into gold that you might impose them on yourself?
As advisors to the plucky challengers of the modern world, we’ve been wrestling with this subject for 20 years. Our research spans four continents and numerous industries and we’ve reached some simple, but powerful conclusions about the mindset, method, and motivation required to make constraints beautiful, including:
With the right mindset, method and motivation, the thing that binds you may just be the thing that liberates you to achieve greater success. Good luck!
Making Educational Constraints Beautiful
with Mark Barden | 3.16.2021
Barden shares a wealth of information on how to leverage the constraints in education to create more than if no constraints existed at all.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
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As soon as Dessa’s voice hit the word slay in the third paragraph, I knew I had them. Even my most skeptical sophomore sat up a bit taller—took note. Clearly, this narrative exemplar was not what he and his classmates had been expecting.
We were just about to finish our Telling It Like It Is unit in American Literature and Composition, and the grand finale was to craft a nonfiction, mini-memoir overflowing with description and—ideally—cleverly framed. What exemplar could be better than the chapter “Household Magnets” from Dessa’s book My Own Devices? Oh. Wait. The audio version where Dessa herself reads her own words.
Honestly, most were leaning in, highlighters poised, right from the first sentence: “Mayo Clinic is a world famous hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.” After all, at the time I was teaching in Rochester, Minnesota, at a high school named after the famous clinic where many of my students’ parents were gainfully employed.
But, to hear the author herself use language like what students used in the hallways--slay, punk kid, s’pose—in an American Literature class was novel enough that even the cynical took note. Success!
My own students discovered what many educators know, and yet that many educators forget.
“The world is not organized like a university, with its sharply demarcated departments. There is one world, which we can (and should) approach from many perspectives. Dessa’s work is a great illustration of this principle.”
My students were expecting American Literature to be something that it is not. Stagnant. Isolated. Lacking soul.
The “transdisciplinarity of Dessa’s art and work make it well suited for rich conversation and analysis” that “allows educators to cross boundaries.”
In showing students how interlaced learning, content areas, and personal interests can be, it allowed them to break down their preconceived notions. This boundary-crossing approach is part of what makes learning “sticky” for students. According to John Hattie’s research, “Integrated Curricular Programming” has the effect of producing approximately a year and a quarter of growth, and “Creativity Programs” have an effect of producing over a year and a half of growth, when compared to an average school year. This is not how Hattie is meant to be read, but is our best approximation of simplifying his data.
“I teach English, but through that, my students learn Psychology, History, Cultural Context, and how everything ultimately connects together. The more connection between material we can make for our students, the more they will be able to see the full picture...It is not my job to tell them what to think, it’s my job to teach them how to think so they can make critical and informed decisions/ not be taken advantage of due to ignorance.”
In the same chapter I shared with my students, Dessa notes that for that day her “job was to talk about life as an indie musician, hopefully sparking some cross-disciplinary insights.” Yet, as the renaissance person that she is, Dessa manages to ‘spark cross-disciplinary insights’ even when she’s not necessarily trying to. As a rapper with a philosophy degree who once worked as a medical technical writer, it’s not surprising that her polymath skillset has her interweaving inspiration from across a wide spectrum into her vast portfolio of works.
Dessa’s work is beautiful, intellectual, witty - it speaks to me personally and is a great example to my Alternative Ed learners that you can weave your interests and your passions into your work. That the things we enjoy, like Rap, don’t have to be 180 degrees different from schoolwork, or your life’s work.
At the time I used “Household Magnets” with my students, I leaned on her references to local geography, to biological science, to kickdrums, as a way to ensure student interests. (You don’t like writing creatively, but you enjoy science? Well, maybe this will keep you listening! -- You don’t want to read a long piece by a dead white guy? Well here is a work of art created by a living, breathing, female rapper: so there!)
However, when I return to the classroom, I suspect I will do things differently. I missed a golden opportunity with this chapter. Rather than just hook the science-loving learners, what if I had collaborated with Mr. Devine on an analysis of the accuracy of Dessa’s biological descriptions in this section? Rather than simply connecting with the musicians in the classroom via the content covered, what if instead we had worked with Mr. Cole and Mr. Devine to do a side by side analysis of how a kick drum sounds in comparison to the beating of a heart?
Perhaps, this is one of the most inspirational ways in which Dessa can push us to be better educators. She is never locked into the confines of one content area, so why should we be?
Classroom Application Suggestions
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.