by Stefanie Whitney
I hear myself using the phrase “messy middle” quite frequently of late. This meander seeks to make sense of what the term “messy middle” even means.
In my mind’s eye, I imagine the messy middle as a place where one is suspended in an ocean between two shores–both shores well beyond reach. Solid ground no longer underfoot, it’s incumbent upon me to make decisions that will, once again, lead me to a steady, grounded place.
Some moments I have experienced this uncomfortable feeling in the classroom and community have been when I have turned over the reins of control and held my breath in wonder about what my fellow humans will do with them. What will they do with the foundation I have built? What will my role look like now? Will they need me? What if a mess is made of the beautiful ground I crafted? What holds? What falls apart? And what was my role in both outcomes?
We cannot possibly know how all of this (envision widespread hands, palms up, gesturing at our world) is going to turn out, which is a bone chilling reality for anyone who appreciates a semblance of control. A reality that seems all the more staggering as each month passes in this extended twilight zone in which we all exist. (Though, I’d argue that messy middles occur whether we are in the middle of a global pandemic or not.)
From here, my mind wanders to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” particularly this stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
I am always admittedly stalled by Yeats' use of the word “loosed” twice, placed so closely together. In a little search for an improvement that I’m certain Yeats would appreciate, I arrived at Merriam Webster’s definition of loosed:
Loosed: (1) to cause a projectile to be driven forward with force (2) to find emotional release for (3) to set free as from slavery or confinement
Misters Merriam and Webster are speaking my language. For the purposes of this essay, please focus on the latter two definitions. Because of them, I will leave Yeats’ word choices alone. Also, if I may continue being so bold, it seems clear to me that Yeats was stuck in the messy middle of something, and he leaned on language to help make sense of it. The messy middle. Here we are. The middle of the school year, in the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of hope for progress.
Observing myself and others during this sustained time of discomfort, I am starting to believe that the messy middle really indicates that moment when logic and structure disappear and emotions begin to creep into the fray. Of course, it makes sense to feel like things are starting to fall apart. That the center is not holding.
I find myself considering: Who built the center? And why is it their axis we seek to latch onto?
In fact, what if this discomfort isn't indicative of a “falling apart” at all?
What if we are active participants in the collision of our outdated systems and our ever-evolving value systems? And what if the result of this “turning and turning” is the suggestion that logic and structure do not hold without an awareness and grounding in values and emotions? Maybe the feeling of a messy middle simply indicates we are now entering a phase that cannot hold upon the foundation and structures of the past, without an approach that requires us to tread water while we look around, feel things more deeply, and root ourselves in updated, albeit still developing, value systems.
Safir and Dugan, in Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, address this type of uncertainty:
The idea of throwing yourself into a change process with no known outcome and just a line of inquiry may feel uncomfortable and revolutionary all at once--a blast of fresh air on the stale econometric framework, which assumes we can data-fy and plan our way into new results. By contrast, emergence calls on us to slow down, listen deeply to those at the margins, bring folks to the table to reimagine the landscape with us, and move in partnership to build a new reality. It is a liberatory change model, freeing us from the fantasy of control while pushing us to maximize our influence in service of equity and antiracism.”
“...fantasy of control….” – “...the centre cannot hold….”
If we are finding that our old norms, our old systems are not working right now, then perhaps we need to investigate what those systems are built upon. If our souls are unsettled and we feel the bottom dropping out, then maybe our old systems are crashing head-on into our developing values; we are trying to hold our old systems up against an evolving human experience. It’s uncomfortable because that system felt safe and I knew my role, but I see more clearly all those not meant for that old system. They do not belong in it. So we don’t belong here, either. Change is crucial, and hard.
A bit about belonging
Brene Brown’s latest work, Atlas of the Heart, aims to help us identify and name experiences and emotions in order to gain power of “understanding, meaning, and choice.” While delving into the experience of belonging, Brown interviewed 8th graders about what it feels like to belong in a place. In their words:
Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you.
Brown juxtaposes the definition of “belonging” against the definition of “fitting in,” which they describe as:
Being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
Brown further explains,
Because we can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our self-acceptance.
Which begs the questions:
Heart is sea,
(1) Belonging to myself–getting square with my values (for me, compassion and curiosity).
For an exercise on isolating your core values, check out Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead value activity.
(2) A sense of belonging within my communities.
It’s not lost on me that I have the privilege to seek out agency in most of my experiences. Do our students have this same privilege? All of our students, I mean? Social and emotional learning is an educational hot button right now, and rightfully so. The more language I have as an adult to work through my discomfort, my emotions, and get clear on my values, the more agency I have when working for equilibrium. As an educator, how can I build systems in my spaces that allow all of us to get grounded in our values, to belong in this community?
The Students’ Take
Inevitably, the responses of all 43 students, grades 8-12, revealed themes surrounding relationships, trust, and belonging. Feedback is an action, often a system at play. As an English teacher with limited time, logic centered my feedback, even if emotions (pride, frustration, excitement, passion) bolstered my feedback process. Students also acknowledged the existence of emotions at the heart of their feedback experience. All of the students spoke of how feedback, their teacher, or the classroom environment, made them feel.
Rarely did students talk about grades as the sole reason feedback is helpful, but all students discussed the need to have a relationship with the teacher or person giving feedback and a need to feel a sense of identity and belonging in the class. Some even spoke of the need for passion–from the teacher regarding their quest for students to learn and within the student for the subject area or topic. In short, students want to feel like they belong, like they are seen, and that their voices matter.
I’m struck by how students spoke of values and emotions, yet as adults we often find ourselves rumbling about external systems.
Of course, in this sustained discomfort, we are apt to fight harder to reach one shore or the other; some form of solid ground. But what are we hoping to accomplish with all the splashing, thrashing, and death grips on past systems that don’t serve everyone? What if we normalize the kind of discomfort that bends toward progress, inclusion, and shared humanity?
Maybe the next best step is to calmly look inside at what is causing the turbulence, ground ourselves in our values, and then confidently and slowly start moving in a direction that aligns our value systems with the external systems that demand our attention? In that slow motion, one shore starts to loom larger. We can belong to our messy selves, and we can move with those folk who want us among them exactly as we are.
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.
Every once in a while, a kid finds a perfect peach of a topic and writes about it in a way that unties me. I want to share with you the story of “nonnie” so you see what I mean.*
That structure with time, to start and end with death, to bring nonnie to life in the middle.
Her metaphor is one we all know. There's a defining moment in our lives when we learn about death. nonnie represents the literal of this coming-of-age, but also her struggle up the hill represents how my student felt when she lost nonnie.
One would have to be a callous car crash of a person if they didn’t feel their heart explode when they learned about nonnie’s fate and the effect she'd had on my student, and the day I read this, the time of year I read this, that this had been the 80th out of 95 essays I’d read—nonnie’s story was literally the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my whole sad life and I would spend the rest of my days mourning nonnie and my student’s loss.
After I read about nonnie, I had a flashback to an experience I’d had on my grandparents’ dairy farm and a cow named Flopsy, who’d been born with a messed-up leg. The end of that story is predictable: while eating hamburgers one evening, my father brought it up.
That wasn’t the impetus of my response, however.
Since the assignment was not one short scene, but three, when I conferenced with my student this week, I reviewed more rough drafts. One was about a horse named Iago (and I’m sorry, but find a more perfect name for a horse). An excerpt:
He broke through the fence the first day we had him […] Iago became my favorite horse. First I was brushing him, that soon turned into riding him, performing tricks like standing on him, spending hours in the barnyard making different ¨5 star meals¨ out of oats, potatoes, and grass (sushi was the favorite).
The third scene was about a chicken.
the chicken I refuse to name
While we’re all nonnies this year, struggling up the hill (and praying we don’t meet her fate) maybe we can also be my student. It’s been a year of loss, so let’s talk about it. Maybe find the metaphors. Learn from our students.
And the next time you have a glass of milk, please pour one out for nonnie.
* The student has given me permission to share.
Jean Prokott is an English teacher in the Rochester Public Schools. She is also the author of the book The Second Longest Day of the Year which won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize, author of the chapbook The Birthday Effect, a recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Award, and has both poetry and nonfiction published in numerous journals. Learn more about Prokott online or connect via email.
When stuck in a situation (or a series of situations, to be honest) that is disquieting, it can be easy to dwell on the on the negative. When drowning in a glass that’s half empty, it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s also half full.
Which is why here we lean on Amit Sood, who we’ve collaborated with before, to highlight (1) a way we can reengage students and (2) a way we can reengage ourselves.
1 | Reengage Students with Voice
Want to help someone feel good? Let them speak
Do you know what is common between dark chocolate, surprises, gambling, winning the house in bingo, and meeting people who agree with us? Each of these experiences causes a surge of a chemical dopamine in our brain’s reward network. That surge feels uplifting, sometimes intensely so.
Another activity that increases dopamine in our reward system is talking about the self (saying the word “I”). “I do this,” “I do that,” “This is how I feel,” “I like this,” “I don’t like that,” and so on. Research shows when we talk about ourselves, our reward network activates, and we feel happy.
No wonder 40% of speech and 80% of social media content is people talking about themselves.
When you choose to listen to others mindfully, even if you cannot solve their concerns, you are helping them. This is because when they inform you, their brain’s pleasure center activates. People would even give up a monetary gain in favor of the joy of sharing information. At least that’s what the research shows.
So, a simple way to connect with others and make them happy is to sit back, relax, and enjoy hearing them speak — about themselves. Try this today with someone who may have missed an engaged sympathetic ear for a long time.
Listening to others with complete presence is such a simple way of spreading happiness. No wonder we have two ears for each mouth!
- I felt this book was challenging because…
- I think this rubric wasn’t fair because…
- I turned this assignment in late because…
It doesn’t mean we can’t still push deeply into content:
- I felt this book was challenging because…might lead to ➡ and here are three examples from the text that highlight my point!
- I think this assignment too hard because… might lead to ➡ I still don’t understand how to use math mountain—can I use another way to get the answer?
- I turned this assignment in late because… might lead to ➡ I don’t understand how this applies to the field I’m planning to go into. Does it apply? Can you show me?
2 | Reengage Ourselves with Antidotes
Give no one the power to affect your health
Hera was the wife and sister of Zeus, the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion. Hera was known for her jealousy and vengeance, which came partly as a reaction to Zeus’ infidelity.
The difficulties Hera faced weren’t unique to her life or her times. Many of us face difficult interpersonal situations that awaken a different Hera within us — the Hera of Hatred, Envy, Revenge and Anger (the kind that produces violent rage). Research shows this HERA predisposes us to a multitude of medical conditions.
Just as a physical body fighting an external infectious agent becomes inflamed and injured, and a country at war finds it difficult to keep its citizens peaceful, when we intend to hurt others — either because they hurt us or because we feel hatred or envy — we hurt ourselves.
Research shows a mind fighting itself or others predisposes the physical body to cardiovascular disease, cancer, infections, inflammation, dementia, and even premature death. In one of my workshops on forgiveness, a participant got up in the middle and said, “I can’t give my ex the power to increase my risk of dementia. That’s a good enough reason to forgive him, as much as I hate to do that.”
The other reason HERA damages our system is that once we are mired in the habit of getting angry, feeling hatred, harboring envy, or seeking revenge with one person, we deploy these missiles to the rest of the world. We paint the world with our negativity and seek out reasons to validate our inner negative feelings. These feelings start defining our life’s course.
Locked in the HERA prison, we start despising the world, jeopardizing our peace.
HERA often sneaks in from an unguarded corner of the mind when you aren’t watching. It then multiplies, like a newly hatched virus against which you have no immunity. Carefully guard your mind — not just its living room, but also its attic, basement and backyard — from any elements of HERA, and sweep it clean when you find them hatching.
Crowd your space with the antidotes — gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. Transform your negative thoughts, so they surrender to these higher values.
When you convert your hatred into compassion, envy into inspiration, revenge into forgiveness, and anger into acceptance, you’ll save yourself and the people you love from much suffering.
I’m going to lose my prep hour to sub for a teacher out quarantining…might shift to:
- …but this way at least I can meet the students who I’ll have in class next year. (gratitude)
- …I hope he doesn’t actually end up getting Covid. (compassion)
- …yet I’m not going to make do with the lack of sub notes considering he likely had to leave on short notice. (forgiveness)
I can’t believe she used that racial slur…might be followed by:
- …at least I have a strong relationship with her and we can talk about this. (gratitude)
- …it hurts me to think she may be others who thinks that okay. (compassion)
- …but I’m going forgive this instance of poor word choice now that we have discussed it and start fresh with her tomorrow. (forgiveness)
That email I just received really cut to the quick…might be followed by:
- …yet, at least I know they’re engaged and passionate about this. (gratitude)
- …I wonder what’s troubling them that they felt the need to be so curt and condescending (compassion)
- …I’m going to share this with my principal to loop her in, and then just delete this so I can move forward. (forgiveness)
The blinking image in my mind: “tl;dr.” (In case you too are late to this party, “tl;dr” is an abbreviation for “Too Long; Didn’t Read,” which I feel summarizes every email I have ever sent.)
My internal struggle for this article vacillates between two contradictory thoughts:
- a need to meander gently through what is on my mind so not to offend
- no one has time for meandering
The latter is winning out; so, today I aim for brevity—windy introduction notwithstanding.
The pursuit of a degree required me to delve into existing research before developing my own theories, which is a process that I understand and, frankly, enjoy. I’ve always believed that answers can be found through enough digging. That we can lean on the expertise of others to help us find our way. Namely, that someone else has been there, done that, and drawn a map with coffee shops clearly marked.
“I develop theories based on lived experiences, not existing theories. Only after I capture the participants' experiences do I try to place my theories in the existing research. Grounded theory researchers do it in that order so that our conclusions about the data aren’t skewed by existing theories that may or may not reflect real experiences by diverse populations.”
As the first hour bell rang on a mid-October Tuesday morning, I heard myself declare two words to a gaggle of colleagues who I also consider friends. “Save Yourself.”
Who am I to suggest such a thing? I have been assured by this group of colleagues that “save yourself” was sound advice, perhaps in the vein of Brene Brown’s “clear is kind” approach; however, I did find my confidence waning as I stepped cautiously into the hallway. How loud was my voice moments ago? Who heard me?
Initially, the meaning behind my words came from a place of compassion; I want my colleagues to be okay. I hear you; I see you; I know this year is incredibly challenging for reasons beyond our control. The oxygen mask version of saving yourself first. I meant this then and I still mean it now.
It is critical for our teachers to be okay—for themselves and for students. On that particular Tuesday morning, the suggestion was couched in thoughts like, “create your own asynchronous learning environment once a week so you can give students feedback and perhaps alleviate some of the work you are taking home.”
A side note: I’m currently interviewing kids about feedback that encourages action and 86% of students I interviewed indicated the most effective way to receive feedback for them is verbally, in person.
Enter grounded theory: If we know these are indeed unprecedented times. And that no one alive today has dealt with a global pandemic, a divided nation, an assault on critical thinking, social inequities and the long overdue need for justice, an ongoing climate crisis… then why are we looking around to someone else for answers? Why am I delving into books and “experts” and looking to leaders who also have not lived through this before?
We are the leaders we seek. In our families and classrooms and schools and districts. And if we aren’t sure where to begin, let’s do what grounded theory researchers do: listen. We need to ask—and not just the loudest voices, those who expect to be asked and who find it comfortable sharing their opinions. Ask those who are quietly watching, observing the chaos and experiencing its impact. Ask. Ask students who are sitting in class—avoiding eye contact. Ask those who went to the bathroom 30 minutes ago—when they return, of course. And then settle in to listen to their answers. Share power.
- Are our departments and classrooms models of the culture we seek in our building?
- How can we manifest these cultures in our spaces?
Let’s ask students, in the same way we hope our leaders ask us, what they need in order to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of agency.
In a time when ‘powerlessness’ is the pervasive feeling:
- How can we manifest power?
- How can we lead in our spaces?
True to form, when trying to determine how we can manifest power, I’m struck by how ready we are to give it up. We are living through a time where nothing feels familiar, known. Our past touchstones now look and feel different in our hands and in our minds. That which comforted us and made us feel successful in the past no longer carries reassurances that we know what we are doing. Unsettled is an understatement.
But we are not powerless. The rally cry six months ago was that we cannot return to the way things were. Yet, it feels like we returned to school, dusted off our old talisman, and are using standards previously deemed ineffective to measure our current success and the success of everyone around us. And we look to others to be the change we hoped to see.
Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.“
“If what’s under cynicism and sarcasm is despair, the antidote is cultivating hope. According to the research of C. R. Snyder, hope isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling; he actually defines it as a cognitive emotional process that has three parts. The three parts are goal, pathway, and agency. We can identify a realistic goal (I know where I want to go), and then we can figure out the pathway to get there, even if it’s not a straight line…. Agency is belief in our ability to stay on that path until we’ve arrived….”
- Voice in my head: Are you really joining the ranks of folk who are telling educators this is our problem to solve?
- My hopeful, logical voice: No—I’m not. I’m saying—save yourself and, in doing so, contribute to a community of folk, the power of whom can make collective change.
I do not have this mastered, nor am I an authority. Today, I’m simply following Brown’s advice: “Write the book you need to read.”
I needed to read this—this article—to reclaim some of my hope, my action. If you are feeling this way, too: save yourself.
Stefanie Whitney, EdD, works with the Curriculum and Instruction team in Rochester Public Schools (RPS). She's also been an English teacher, an AVID instructor, and both a high school and a middle school instructional coach in RPS.
But Alexander goes on to note that while we “cannot condemn anyone for processing quickly—life really is tough enough when you think of the many things an adult must concern themselves with” there are, “some things which we do need to stop and think about…”. That since “judgement is quite base; we have to learn to understand complexity.”
In the world of education, the benefit of being curious might prove more useful than judgement from three levels.
On a Micro-Level
On a Meso-Level
On a Macro-Level
“Like, what if you wrote an article about how good the Great British Bake Off was for educators?
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.
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.