by Phil Olson
There is an experiential continuum between being awestruck by the majesty and scale of the natural world and being utterly engrossed by a detailed, complex task. Macro versus micro, breadth versus depth.
My students and I are suffering from a lack of both.
When my Advanced Placement Literature classes recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus, they encountered dense prose and the need for a good thesaurus. At first, they didn't like it. The plot is a slow burn, and all those words make it a slog, so we get through the early pages by looking for word combinations that might make excellent band names:
Some students take offense when I point out that young Victor Frankenstein is a STEM student who is obsessed with the potential power of numbers and formulas and is determined to make them answer humanity’s biggest questions:
As he pursues science, Victor becomes a narcissistic jerk who makes an eight-foot-tall mistake, and students are eager to criticize him by arguing that no one could be so short sighted as to actually assemble and animate such a powerful creature without heeding its obvious dangers. Then we talk about nuclear arsenals, the petroleum industry, Facebook and Twitter….
Shelley’s title character is not a good romantic, so he serves as the perfect foil for Shelley’s celebration of Romanticism, the early 19th Century artistic movement that championed a love and respect for nature, emphasized emotions over intelligence, and foregrounded the rights and potentials of all human beings, even those without rank or wealth. Radical stuff. Victor is a failed romantic because he violates nature, lacks empathy, and watches passively as lives are destroyed.
Basically, we experience the sublime when we contemplate features of nature that are vast, mysterious, enchanting, and even dangerous. When we encounter a violent storm, a glacial mountain, or a roiling ocean, we feel small, vulnerable, and even afraid. And this is good. It’s humbling and allows us to take a load off: we are not the center of the universe. It also helps us put our daily experiences, especially nagging frustrations, into the proper context where they matter a heckuva lot less. We need the sense of proportion afforded by the sublime.
Last summer I had a sublime experience while hiking, alone, in California’s Redwood National Forest. It is morning, not yet full light. Moisture hangs suspended between the mammoth trees and the carpet of ferns. Silence. I am tiny; somehow both exhilarated and at peace; and I can’t help but recall a conversation with a local who told about recent sightings of a mountain lion.
My spine tingles in the same way when I share this story with my students, and then I ask them about their recent, sublime experiences. Some share stories, but many don’t, and some discover that the sublime erodes with time. We all agree we want more sublime experiences, so we spend a few minutes planning class trips we’ll never take.
And back to the continuum. When teaching Frankenstein, I place the sublime at one cosmic pole. On the other, I situate another concept that emerges when reading the novel with my students: the idea of “deep work,” a concept explored a few years ago by Cal Newport, a professor, author, and podcaster. (Check out his book, Deep Work, and/or listen to this revealing podcast interview with Newport for a quick, thoughtful introduction to the topic.)
The starting point of Newport’s argument is that, in our distracted world, we have an increasingly difficult time engaging in meaningful, complex, absorbing work. We have a hard time paying close attention. If you want to test your ability to focus, see if you can read the first ten pages of Frankenstein and, as you do, immerse/lose yourself in the setting and the plight of the characters. It’s not easy. Reading complex literature is deep work, and so is writing essays (especially this one!).
Everything educators do is deep work: reading and offering feedback on papers, planning lessons, creating projects, facilitating discussions, composing consequential emails, listening to students and colleagues, and on and on. And, of course, studenting is deep work, too. My students spend 35 hours per week in school, and each day is organized into eight periods, in which they take six classes, many of which assign homework. Calculus, physics, economics, Spanish, orchestra, art, and English all require deep work.
The problem for students and for me, is that we all have to juggle competing demands while also attempting to fend off distractions. The result is that I am always incredibly busy and seldom incredibly productive, and my students report the same. It feels impossible, but we must all carve out more time for deep work.
Here, at the end, I had intended to list some actionable ways to approach the sublime. How to engage in deep work. But my draft list is rather obvious (i.e. When experiencing sublime experiences, do not take selfies, and Close Outlook if you want to accomplish anything, ever). Instead, I return to Frankenstein and close with metaphors:
There are portals to transcendence at both ends of the continuum. When we channel our minds into the depths of experience, we flow with passion and power; and when we escape ourselves to tune in to the epic drama of existence, we’re left humbled, breathless.
We are readers. Readers of novels, readers of people, and readers of ideas—all intricate and not-entirely insignificant elements of the sublime world.
by Sweta Patel
I’m a teacher and also serve as a “Seniors Transitions Advisor” at a local alternative high school. This involves meeting with seniors one-on-one and talking about their plans for after high school and how to best support them. Often, I help our seniors with college and scholarship applications. There is one question that always makes them pause:
What extracurriclar activities have you participated in?
Now, when I see that question, I think about my 9 year old and 5 year old. Regularly, I find myself in the position of a taxi driver, stopping in front of art and dance studios, soccer fields, tennis courts, piano lessons…and the list goes on.
But for our seniors? They usually name classes or activities they participated in at some point during their time at our school:
I believe there is a population within all of our schools that doesn’t have access to these types of ‘extracurricular activities’ due to any number of factors, including financial constraints, transportation barriers, or needing to work after school.
And yet time spent in these activities often leads to feeling a sense of community and teamwork, learning a skill that may become a lifelong hobby, or even developing a sense of what career path we’d like to pursue.
At our school, as a staff, we agreed that this list of benefits is equally as important as our academic standards. They are not “extra” to us… They warrant being a part of our school curriculum and culture. We want our students to be exposed to a variety of new experiences so that they can identify new strengths and interests and carry them beyond graduation.
The Duiring-the-School-Day Solution
To that end, we completely overhauled how Wednesdays look at our school. On these days, we go by a different bell schedule and master schedule. Each teacher teaches 5 sections - advisory, academic help, and 3 seminars (single or a double block).
During advisory time, students spend an hour deepening their relationship with each other and their advisor. Advisors also use a part of this time to have one-on-one conversations with each advisee, following a set of weekly questions created by our social workers. Past topics include: goal-setting, healthy relationships, coping with stress, and self-talk.
During academic help time, we give students a built-in pause during the school week and use this time to re-teach concepts and help students one-on-one with assignments. This helps to prevent the end-of-the-quarter mad rush that often happens to catch up on the past 8 weeks’ worth of learning.
And during seminar time, teachers choose engaging experiences to offer students, such as:
At our school, we are on a 9-week quarterly system. We broke each quarter up into two rotations, consisting of 4 Wednesdays each. We call these our “Student-Centered Wednesdays” because the students get to self-select what their schedule looks like for each rotation. Some rotations, students might be heavy on academic help hours; and during others where they’re feeling academically strong, they might have one advisory period with 4 seminar experiences. Their schedules are centered around their learning needs.
Prior to Each Rotation
Rotations & Collaborations
While it’s definitely more work to be on this type of rotation system, we feel it’s necessary for the following reasons: Students can try out many different types of experiences throughout the year. Also, if they don’t end up liking an experience, they only have to make it through three more Wednesdays (same goes for the teachers!). But most importantly, it allows teachers to more easily partner with community organizations.
For example, for our Chess Seminar, we’re partnering with the Rochester Chess Club. One of their chess instructors comes out to teach our students, and they only have to commit to four Wednesdays at a time.
As we continue to reflect and revise what these Wednesdays look like, our hope is that we’ll eventually be able to take students to off-site trips (for example, hiking at Quarry Hill or volunteering at a care center). Right now, our experiences are all on-site.
Implement With Purpose
Some may argue that these types of experiences don’t belong within the school day, but at our school, we argue back: We all agree that extracurricular activities have value, but it’s a matter of access to these opportunities. Because our students can’t participate in after school activities, we’re trying to integrate these activities into their school day.
If you’re interested in doing something similar at school but can’t on this larger scale, one idea is to replicate it for the last week of each quarter or even a few days each quarter. You’ll be surprised by how many students as seniors will remember these experiences when it’s time to complete that “extracurricular activities” box on an application.
But there’s even a greater reason for more schools to jump in:
When I was younger, I took piano lessons, and this led me to introducing music into my daughter’s life. My husband played cricket and badminton, and he continues to play now as an adult as part of his fitness routine. My 9-year old daughter takes art and dance lessons, and through these, has developed dreams of selling her art one day and making it on the high school dance team. So many of us have these stories.
We’re hoping that through our Student-Centered Wednesdays, our students will generate similar stories of their own. A particular seminar just might change the trajectory of their life.
by Nick Truxal
The time has come. When Third Eye Education was launched, we made sure to include a link to make suggestions for future articles. At the time, we needed to test if the system would work appropriately, and someone on the team posted this anonymous suggestion.
“Like, what if you wrote an article about how good the Great British Bake Off was for educators?
We thought it was a fun joke, but as with many jokes, the more we thought about it the more the suggestion became an inevitable future article. With the launch of a new season of The Great British Bake Off (sometimes known as “The Great British Baking Show”), the time is now!
So, why is The Great British Bake Off great for educators? Here are three rounds of reasons!
The Signature Round
It Fixes You Up (“Solves” Burnout)
What can we say? High stakes relaxation doesn’t bring the heart rate down in quite the same way.
Repeatable at Home
Because Bake Off is something every single viewer can feasibly do on their own, it can build confidence to try out new skills in the realm of baking. Further, there is research to suggest that hands-on projects can boost mood for days to come after a successful outcome.
Speaking of successful outcomes, if baking does become a home enterprise, we can gain quick and easy wins in the form of cupcakes, breads, and eclairs. Once again, research shows that one of the very best ways to overcome burnout is through a series of quick, small wins. This can even happen just by watching the show and seeing the person you are rooting for progressing on to the next stage. Do keep in mind that students are also burned out right now, and finding quick wins for the classroom can be very useful for the culture of the class and the mental health of all involved.
The Technical Round
Represents Great Teaching
Clarity and Progression of Goals
The Great British Bake Off breaks each show into three parts: the “Signature Challenge,” the “Technical Challenge,” and the “Showstopper Challenge.” Each is clear in its expectations from long before the season begins. Furthermore, they build upon one another. The Signature Challenge can be practiced long in advance of the show. Contestants know what all Signature Challenges will be as the show begins, and they speak about how they practiced at home to get comfortable with their particular approach. The “Technical Challenge” is the “productive struggle” of the show. A chance to push the contestants outside of their comfort zones and force them to make connections between skills they’ve learned previously. The “Showstopper” is the final display - the representation of learning to the wider community.
As each of these challenges takes place, contestants get feedback in a variety of ways. During the signature challenge in particular, the judges will walk from contestant to contestant to give feedback about their planned projects. As soon as each bake is completed, the judges instantly give feedback. Study after study has shown that the most growth happens when feedback is done live or, at minimum, immediately after a skill has been practiced.
Choice & Community
Not only does each contestant get the structured choice of what they will bake each episode, they also have the opportunity on how to engage with their community of bakers. In the COVID era of Bake Off, contestants are put into a baking bubble where they can only interact with each other. This results in practice sessions being done with each other, advice being given, and bonds being quickly formed through this shared experience.
Models How to Adapt to Challenges
The Great British Bake Off has gone through judges, hosts, formats, and channels in its life on television. With each change, the audience is quick to point out that the show is doomed and life will never be the same. However, with each change, there returns a cast of people that clearly care about the direction things will take. There is an optimism that is infectious. There are, again, small wins in seeing favorite elements of the show continue on. In a world so full of change, it is great to see a show model how to successfully adapt.
So, thank you to whoever it was that jokingly suggested The Great British Bake Off for an article. It was a lovely exercise, and we look forward to the next article suggestion!
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.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.