TESTED AT THE SPEED OF LIFE – The Learning Lesson Series


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Life is a series of tests that take various shapes and forms. Some tests involve people. Others are about places or situations. Many of them are complex, have numerous dimensions, and seem to never end. The short ones demand quick responses.

Some of life’s tests that come my way, I pass. Many of them I do not. Those I fail, life makes me retake until I pass them. The events of this day test me. Read on to see whether I pass or fail?

Temperatures are in the high sixties. The sun is bright. Puffy-clouds lazily float above the mountains. A perfect day for Elk Fest, the annual transition to fall and celebration of Estes Park’s signature wildlife and natural beauty.

Bond Park, the epicenter of Elk Fest, has 43 booths, hundreds of people and, ironically, no elk. There is barely room for any of us people to walk, let alone park cars and find food to eat. Proof that the thousands of elk who populate the Rocky Mountain region are more intelligent than those of us who are attending the fest in their honor.

Bzzt Bzzzt! Bzzt Bzzzt! I look at my iPhone. Caller-ID shows a call from Fran, my friend. The commotion of the fest makes answering her call impossible. Since she seldom calls me, it must be important. Feeling an urgency to call Fran, I wiggle myself through the crowd, going past one booth then another and another, until I reach the west side of the Town Hall. There, in an oasis of quiet, I press re-call. Fran answers. She starts talking. I was correct, the call is important—health issues.

While listening to Fran describe her impending surgery, I notice a steady stream of people coming in and out of the Town Hall building. It soon becomes apparent that they are not going into the building to do business with the town. Rather they are going in to do their business. As some pass by me, a few nod at me. The looks of relief on their faces confirm—business done.

As Fran and I continue talking, a woman leaves the building. I nod at her. She politely nods back. As she passes, my eyes follow. I notice that the back of her skirt is tucked into her navy blue tights. Her hind-side, though covered by the tights, is more visible to the world than she would want.

My mind is in overdrive. I think about asking Fran how to handle the situation. But there is no time. Why should I care? I consider letting the woman go on, back to the fest, where surely someone will inform her. Suddenly, the woman stops to comb her hair. She looks at me, our eyes connect. Oh my, what do I do?

Without thinking, I point to my hip. She looks down, at her hip. Mortified, she lets the comb drop to the sidewalk. Her face reddens, as her hands pull the tucked-in portion of the skirt from her tights. It falls in place.

The woman looks around. No one, except me, saw her hind-side. Her dignity preserved, she looks at me. Her lips mouth the words T H A N K – Y O U. I nod. No smile, laugh or smart remark, just a nod. Knowing that this test need never be taken again.

Later, heading home, walking along MacGregor Avenue, on the outskirts of Estes, I watch a herd of elk in a field. Munching grass—nothing more, nothing less—they are living in the moment. What comes their way, they take in stride. Each moment is their festival.

Nearing home, with night settling in, I think about the speed of life. How choosing to go to the park, the commotion there, and an unscheduled phone call brought me together with a woman, whose skirt is in her tights. The way her moment of need bound us together. How in an instant her drama became my test. How an instant later, her drama, and my test are over. The way each of us goes on with our respective lives.

Walking up the driveway, the North Star captures my attention. She reminds me that the tests of life make us better people. How true, false, or multiple-choice answers are insufficient. Only answers of the heart—manifest through thoughts, actions, and deeds—will suffice.

Unlocking the front door, I pause. In that moment, I realize the tests are part of the festival of our lives. The foibles that the tests force us to experience, add color and meaning to the events and traditions in which we partake. The connections they forge enrich us. Through them we celebrate our commonality and honor our diversity.

Entering my house, I say a prayer of thanks for the tests of this day. And ask that more tests come my way tomorrow. Then I say the same prayer for you. As I do, a nearby elk bugles…Amen.

Mark 


Note: This is the 18th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

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RE-TYING THE TEACHING KNOT – The Learning Lesson Series

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“Today, you will learn to tie a bowline knot,” I say. Then quickly add, “Mastery for the lesson I am teaching is you tying the knot three times without assistance. My goal is to have everyone achieve mastery, and for at least 10 of you to tie the knot behind your back with your eyes closed.”

I pause while the 100 teachers in the room absorb the learning goals for my lesson—100-percent mastery, 10-percent exceeds, and none fail. Knowing full well that not a single one of them consistently achieves such results with their teaching. Then say, “Let’s get started.”

I proceed to provide information about the bowline. How the working end of the rope and a fixed loop comprise the knot. That, during the making of the knot, a portion of the loop may pass around or through an object, such as a pole or person. How pulling the non-loop part of the line tightens the knot. The knot, when tight, will not slip or come loose.

The tightness, non-slipping is why sailors use a bowline to raise and lower the sails of their ships. Forest rangers use it to rescue people who have fallen off a cliff onto a ledge. Firefighters use it help people get out of burning buildings. Soldiers rely on the knot to repel down fortress walls. And aviators use it for tying down light aircraft.

“Okay, eyes on me,” I say. “Watch as I tie a bowline knot.” Facing the class, using both hands, I tie a bowline with a three-foot piece of rope. All the while, holding the rope, with knot and loop visible for all to see. Done, I say, “Now, you tie a bowline knot using your piece of rope.”

I stand at the front of the room, holding the rope with the knot and loop as teachers attempt to tie the knot. As seconds pass, groans fill the room. Soon, groans turn to pleas for help. Not budging from the front of the room, I wait a few minutes then say, “Who correctly tied the knot?”

Six teachers proudly present their knots. A quick check determines that four are correct. On a nearby whiteboard, I write four out of 100. Four percent is woefully short of my goal—all correctly tying the knot.

bowline-003“Okay, let’s try this again,” I say. “Please follow along. Hold one end of your rope between the thumb and index finger of your left hand.” Standing in front of the room, I hold up my rope—its end between the thumb and index finger of my left hand. “Now, with your right hand, make a small loop in the rope,” I say as I make a loop. “Now take the end of the rope in your left hand. Put it through the loop, around the rope, and back into the loop. Pull it tight.” I model each step.

Holding up my rope, with knot and loop, I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” Hands rise. I count them—33. After checking the knots, I write 31-percent on the board, 31 out of 100 correct. My goal attainment remains far away.

“One more time,” I say. “Here is a strategy for tying the knot. Watch me as I teach the strategy.” Holding up the rope, I make a loop. Holding the loop with my right thumb and index finger, I say, “This is a rabbit hole.” Holding the far end of the rope with my left thumb and index finger, I shake the end while saying, “This is the rabbit.”

“Now, watch carefully,” I say. “The rabbit comes out of the hole.” As I say this, I bring the end of the rope up through the loop. “It goes around the tree,” I say as I bring the end of the rope over the lower portion of the rope. “Now the rabbit goes back into the hole,” I say as I pull the rope taunt to form a bowline knot.

“Let’s do this together, one step at a time, using the strategy,” I say. I model each step of the strategy—the hole, the rabbit, out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole. At each step, I rotate around the room, checking to see if teachers correctly do each step. When not, I provide instruction.

Steps complete, I ask, “Who correctly tied the knot?” This time, most hands go up. A quick check indicates 92-percent with a correct knot. My goal near, I push on.

bowline-002“Now, please tie it again. This time by yourself, without my help,” I say. Each time a teacher holds up her knot, I review its correctness then, if correct I say, “Again.” The first teacher to tie the knot correctly three times, I match with one the eight teachers who has yet to succeed, saying, “Show her how you tie the knot.” I do the same with the second, third and so on until eight pairs of teachers are tying knots together.

Once more I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” All teachers eagerly hold their ropes high. I say, “Please check each other’s work for correctness.” The report out, all teachers with correct knots, means one goal achieved, now for the other.

“Volunteers, please come forward,” I say. Eleven teachers rush to the front of the room. I pull one aside, give her a stopwatch, and ask that she keep time. I line the remaining ten teachers facing the large group of teachers, then say, “With your eyes closed, tie the bowline knot behind your back—ready, set, GO!”

Tick, tick, tick…five seconds pass, tick, tick, tick, and then ten. Tick, tick at the 13-second mark, one teacher holds up her knot. One more second passes, another teacher holds up her knot. Then another, another, and another…at the 27-second mark the last of the 10 teachers holds up her knot. Quick inspection, all knots correct. Behind their backs, with eyes closed—second goal achieved.

When the teachers are back in their seats, and the applause subsides, I ask, “What did you learn today?” An animated exchange ensues. During which no teacher, not one, mentions learning to tie a bowline knot. Not even the ten who tie knots with eyes closed.

The exchange is about how students learn differently and at various rates. That insufficient instruction–as my first teaching shows–does work for some students. However, if the goal is for most students to achieve, and some to exceed mastery then instruction must be well designed and delivered. It must establish the relevance of the lesson, consider the learning styles of students, teach strategies that aid learning, scaffold learning-tasks, guide practice, rotate-and-check learning, harness peer power… and more.

Every time I teach this lesson, and I often do, a similar pattern emerges. As teachers learn to tie the bowline knot, their instructional practices start slipping and sliding. They question their instruction and its effect on their students’ learning. They want for all their students what they experience during the lesson. So they untie, and retie their instruction to enable that to happen. Teachers who persevere in this way, make previously unattainable learning goals attainable for themselves and their students. They have a knot that holds true.

Mark 


Note: This is the 17th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

TO STOP STRUGGLING, PAY IT FORWARD – The Learning Lessons Series

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My energy is high, as I leave the Bear Lake parking lot, heading to the Fern Lake trailhead, 9 miles away. Walking along the eastern portion of the lake, I feel relieved to get away from the people who are milling around the trailhead. Wanting to be alone, I energetically, and often rudely pass by less-adept hikers.

An ever–so-gentle breeze caresses my hair, forcing me to look up. There, hands cupped over my eyes to protect them from the morning sun, I see three popped-corn shaped clouds floating lazily above Flattop Mountain. I am grateful for this moment, and look forward to many more of them today. If only people would leave me alone.

Sounds of my size-15 hiking boots crunching the small rocks on trail interrupt the moment. Each crunch awakens my muscles. Every step activates my lungs. The fanny pack—containing a jacket, windbreaker, lunch, and water—settles on my hips. I am energized, and eager to hike. At a fork in the trail, I head eastward to Fern Lake. I am alone, finally.

The trail steepens. As it does, my cadence slows, breathing intensifies, and leg muscles burn. One switchback follows another, each steeper than the last. My shirt becomes wet from exertion. Sweat stains the brim of my hat. It runs down my forehead, mixes with the sunscreen on my face, and drips into my eyes. Making them burn like hell.

I pause to tend my eyes, breathe deeply, and drink water. Looking down, over the edge of the trail, I know I should appreciate the majestic view below of Bear Lake, but do not care. Miles to go, I forge on…alone.

Up another switchback, then another, alone, I trudge on ever so slowly. My head throbs, back hurts, and legs ache. Doubt joins me. Why am I hiking this trail? What am I trying to prove? Can I even make it to the Fern Lake Trailhead? What if I do not?

I am pondering these questions when the trail narrows as it crosses a field of boulders. They are still with me when the trail takes a sharp rightward turn. On one side is a massive granite wall, the other, a precipitous drop. The footing is treacherous. Mind numb, I slip, but catch myself. Damn, that was close.

Scared, depleted, no energy to spare, little hope, I seek comfort on a rock. Sitting there, I drink water. Eat four fig bars. Rub my forehead. As I do, doubt keeps me company.

What to do? Should I turn around? Thump, thump, thump beats my heart. Every breath is like sandpaper on my parched lips.

pay-it-forward-images-002Crunch, crunch, crunch… the sound of boots on the narrow trail. I look up just as a man and woman come around the granite wall. They are from where I am going. As he squeezes by me, he smiles then nods. Following closely behind him, she proffers a “nice day to hike”. As quickly as they showed up, crunch, crunch, crunch, they are gone. Reflecting on what just happened, I think, “If they can do it, so can I.”

Standing up, I feel a twinge of energy. My steps seem lighter. Breathing is less strained. As I forge on, hope joins doubt and me.

Further ahead, I see a large olive-colored snake winding along the trail. As the snake gets closer, I am relieved to realize that it is seven girl scouts, each in an olive-green scout uniform, each wearing a large, same colored backpack. All are whistling, a happy tune. Stepping in perfect cadence.

As I pass the first girl, the tune jumps into my head. When I pass the second, the tune goes from my head to my lips. By the time I pass the seventh girl, I too, am whistling a happy tune. I notice that hope is also whistling, and doubt is lagging behind. They, like the other people I encounter on the trail, come from where I now go. Their tune and lively steps lift my spirit.

Whistling, with renewed energy and a lively cadence to my step, I come upon a young man resting against a rock. I can tell from his countenance that doubt has found him, his energy is spent, and he is confused about what to do next. Whistling the happy tune, I walk by him. Our eyes meet. I give him a big wink, nodding my head in his direction as I do. He nods back. Then sits up. In this moment, I feel the commonality of our respective journeys. Understand that he is me. Our struggles are the same.

pay-it-forward-images-003Walking on, I look at the majestic mountains. Catch a glimpse of Lake Odessa, far below the trail, in amongst the trees. Listen to the roar of a nearby stream. Let the shimmering leaves of the aspens mesmerize me.

A strange, warm feeling—unlike anything I have ever felt before—arises from deep within me. It permeates my being, rejuvenates my legs, relaxes my mind, soothes my lips and eyes, and helps me see clearly. I look around. Doubt is gone. And hope is heading back up the trail toward the young man whom I just left.

From this point on, every hiker I encounter along the final stretch of the trail gets a smile, nod, or kind word—sometimes, all three—from me. I have learned the lesson of this trail. I now see that each gesture, however small, is a conveyance of hope, an antidote to doubt, a soulful balm. Each encounter is part of an intricate, yet ever-expanding web of positive energy. All fuel the warm feeling within me.

I understand that a nod received leads to a nod given. A smile begets other smiles. On it goes, endlessly, hopefully. What you need, give. What you get, pay forward.

Driving away from the trailhead, I look at Flattop Mountain in the rearview mirror. I think about the mountains I am meant to climb. That many of them are within me. The trails to their peaks often wind through valleys of despair, across streams of struggle, and have dark clouds of doubt. Having learned the lesson of the trail, I now understand that while my mountains are unique, my struggles are not. Struggle is common. It is, when we connect others, where we find hope. Let’s pay that forward.

Mark 


Note: This is the 15th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LET GO, SET YOURSELF FREE – The Learning Lessons Series

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“Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” Roshi asks. I am in morning dokusan with him. It is day two of a seven-day period of intensive meditation that, in this Zen monastery, we call sesshin. My immediate thought upon hearing the question is, “Oh sh#t”. So I hesitate. When my mouth does open to respond, Roshi rings the bell. We bow. I return to the meditation hall.

There, I bow to my mat. Next, I position myself on the zafu that sits on the mat. When comfortable, I resume my practice—watching breath…in, out. If thoughts arise, there is only in and out. For the remainder of the day, there is just in, out. As I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep I strive to do my practice.

Periodically, “take away a cripple’s crutch” invades the peaceful space that my practice creates for me. The invader disrupts my breathing. Hardens the mat. Makes my back and knees ache more than normal. Peace gives way to thoughts about who is the cripple? What is a crutch? How could its removal ever be appropriate?

If I try to ignore the question, it persists. When I yield to it and seek its answer, the question iterates itself. Only when I acknowledge the question, let it float by, and make no attachment to it, does the peace of breathing in, out return.

On the morning of day three, I report to dokusan. There, bows done, seated before him, Roshi asks, “Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I hesitate. Then, with my mouth ready to open, ring-ring-ring goes Roshi’s little bell. We bow. I return to my mat and zafu. Where, yet again, I breathe in and out and do battle with the question about crutch.

Days 4 and five go much the same as did days 2 and 3. There is morning dokusan—bows, the question, a quick bell, and bows—then more in and out as I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep. On day six, I awake ready. Sesshin ends tomorrow. Today, in dokusan, I will answer the question. When, the time arrives, alas there is no dokusan. Dejected, I sit on the zafu that sits on the mat and breathe in, out. If the crutch question surfaces I try my best to acknowledge, but not attach to it.

Morning passes to afternoon, and afternoon passes to evening. As they pass, I sit incredibly still, breath coming in and out. The question about the crutch is a distance presence in my mind. Suddenly, on my shoulder a gentle tap pulls me back. Report to dokusan!

Roshi and I bow to each other. I sit before him. He asks, ““So Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I say, “Yes.” He nods approvingly, but seems to want more. So I say, “When doing so helps the cripple walk.” Again, he nods. Sitting perfectly still, I look at him as he looks at me. Both sets of eyes become one. Then none. Time stops. In this vast quiet place, Roshi’s gentle, barely audible voice says, “Mark, how long? How long must you hold on?”

With those words, every failure, indignity, disappointment, loss, and insecurity of my life sweeps over me. The dreams that died painful deaths, relationships that fell apart, and botched up ventures, they all are here now. I am a cripple. These are my crutches. My attachment to them, and the pain and suffering they represent, is a feeble attempt to avoid new pain and additional suffering.

“Let go, Mark. Let go of your crutches!” Roshi says. “Time to move on. You have contributions to make.” At that moment I see how my attachments to the past, the crutches that I lean on to avoid pain, are keeping me out of the game of life. Getting off the sidelines, into the game, necessitates that I walk without crutches. I ache to join in, quit watching, to play again.

As the crutches—people, drama, power, and pain—fall away, tears flow freely. Emotions overwhelm me. I feel alive. I see the crutches for what they are, understand how I lean on them, and call each by its true name. Each, as I do, goes away. When all are gone, I breathe in and out effortlessly.

Stepping back, there are four things to know about crutches. There are times when crutches are necessary. For instance, when a crutch enables a man with incurable paralysis to be upright and mobile or a child with a disability to learn. Also, there are times when we need a temporary crutch, as in the case of a sprained ankle or death of a friend. When injury heals and pain subsides, the need for a crutch ends. Sometimes, when crutches are no longer necessary or needed, but still used, they limit growth or healing. Lastly, people, needs, and crutches must match. When they do not, new pains result or existing pains deflect elsewhere, perhaps surfacing as an addiction or other disorder. In these ways, crutches that do not fit, or are no longer needed, slow us down.

This lesson, while about crutches, is also about my skillful teacher. Who, when, I, on my own, could not detach from my crutches showed me where to look but not what to see. He asked the question, but did not provide the answer. He forced me to face myself, confront the things that I let hold me back, and in this uncomfortable place to find my way forward. When I looked where he pointed me, I saw that I relied on the crutches, hated the sideline, and was ready to walk on to the field. Moreover, my true practice is more than breathing in and out, it is doing so while dealing with the pain and suffering of my life.

I invite you to take up the question that my beloved Roshi would not let me ignore—Is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple? Go where the question takes you. Engage with the cripple that you find there. Look deeply at the crutches that keep the cripple there. What you see, will set you free.

Mark 


Note: This is the 14th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

COURAGE TO ACT – The Learning Lesson Series

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Near a stream that runs by the temple, a woman sits on a putuan. Back straight, legs folded, arms loose, hands barely touching, and a slight smile on her face, she seems at home with the rugged surroundings of the northern mountains. A ray of afternoon sun, sneaking past a cloud, shines on her weathered, but gentle face and short-cropped hair. Both eyes twinkle ever so slightly as it does.

Across from the woman, a man, back slouched and legs crumpled, also sits on a putuan. Uncomfortable, he fidgets. Warm, he wipes his brow to prevent sweat from smearing the Ray Bans he wears as protection from the sun. He has a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other.

“Really, really,” says the man. “You’ve been doing this for the past 34 years?”

The man, a freelance reporter, is researching an article about women and monastic life. He and the woman have been talking for over two hours. Information about the rituals, routines, and roles of the temple fill the pages of his notebook.

“Yes,” she says. “Here, with great intentionality, I live my life as it is, with all of its beauty, hardship, joy and sorrow.”

Earlier, when a pesky fly lands on her unclothed arm and she gently brushes it aside, the man takes notice. “So you do not harm any sentient beings, correct?” he says.

The man takes copious notes as the woman describes living harmoniously with the birds, fish, other wildlife, and plants that populate the area around the temple. Nodding knowingly, he captures her comments about the vegan diet on which she subsists. Smiling he records that human waste replenishes fields and forests. As she tells about filtering the water she uses for cooking, drinking and bathing so as to not kill organisms, he looks up, with astonishment.

As he does, the fly, again, lands on the woman’s arm. Only to fly away, when once again, ever so softly, she brushes it aside. The man, again, notices the careful and loving way she treats the pesky fly. So, when the fly lands on his arm, he does likewise.

The additional questions he asks are about temple life—early morning gongs followed by prayers, daily chores, meditation, sutras, interactions among practitioners, love, romance, and so on. Each question, the woman answers clearly, concisely, completely, and with care. Never does she rush. She takes every one in stride. The man impatiently fidgets and sweats as she does.

The fly, flies around the man’s head. Goes up and down the contours of his body. Having done this it then, once again, lands on the woman’s arm. Swiftly and decisively she smacks it dead…right there on her arm. Carefully she picks it off her flesh. Then casts it onto a big, lush clump of grass.

Startled, the man falls off the putuan on which he is indelicately perched. Unable to contain himself, he says, “You killed the fly!” Then goes off on a rant about the fly being a sentient being. Next, he furiously makes some notes. The woman sits quietly as he does all this. When composed, the man asks, “How could you do that? What were you thinking?” The woman, back straight, legs folded, arms loose, hands barely touching, eyes on the man, says, “I did the fly a favor.”

Okay, what is the lesson of this story? There are many. The interactions of the woman, man, and fly are rich with meaning.

Certainly one lesson pertains to the cycle of life. How everything and everyone is interconnected, each dependent on all others. In this case, the woman helps the reporter get his story. He, in turn, spotlights her and life within and outside the temple. The fly helps both by offering itself up in a way that illustrates the woman’s intentionality and provides the man with must-read-fodder that countless people will read.

There is also a lesson about contrast. How the woman lives intentionally—observing the beauty, joy, pain, and sorrow around her. Seeking to be whole, she is harmonious and deliberate. In contrast, the fly appears devoid of purpose. Monotonous and empty, it wanders aimlessly. The reporter, uncomfortable and fidgeting, is out of his element. He gets the basics but does not truly understand the woman and the fly.

That the fly lands twice, is brushed away twice, but swatted upon landing a third time points to a lesson about persistence. On first encounter the pesky fly appears purposeless. But when the fly perseverates, the woman notes its persistence. Some might say it speaks to her. The woman watches, waits, and then acts as if it does.

Stepping back, I see the story is a poignant parable about the peskiness of life—the painful things that we keep hidden, want to avoid, and oftentimes enable. When we ignore these things, their peskiness persists and bugs us wherever we are, whatever we do, and whomever we are with. They demand that we address them.

The woman has come to understand this on many levels. So when the time for dealing with the pesky fly arrives, she acts. Her action, a result of deep insight and intense contemplation, requires great courage on her part because it is out of character for her. But she is confident that killing the fly, although counterintuitive to the reporter, is the best thing for it, him, and her. The compassion and decisiveness she brings to the act, does them all a favor.

Mark


Note: This is the 13th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

FIND THE GOOD AND PRAISE IT – The Learning Lesson Series

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A large red, white, and blue shuttle bus sits at the Nashville International Airport, its diesel engine idling noisily. The notes on my lap are for the speech I will give later today. Now, rather than preparing for the speech, I watch people scurry about the bus loading area. Every one of them is from somewhere. They all have places to go. Each is unique yet similar, a story waiting to be told.

I am here as part of Governor Lamar Alexander’s Tennessee Homecoming 1986, a series of events at which the stories of Tennesseans are told. Thousands of people have come to Opryland USA, home of American music, for the largest homecoming event of the year. I am proud to be an invited speaker.

Unfortunately, I missed the event’s opening day due to a flight delay. Today, with most folks already at the event, it is just the driver and I on the shuttle bus to Opryland. Pushing a dashboard button, the driver closes the bus’ doors. Shifting from park to drive, she jerks the bus forward.

“Wait, wait,” yells a man rushing toward the bus. “Don’t leave without me.” A tap on the brakes brings the bus to a quick stop. A button push opens its doors. A man—sixtyish, with short grey hair and round glasses—boards the bus. A nod, a smile, he settles into the seat next to mine. With a button-push, then a shift, the 12-mile trip to Opryland begins.

“You here for business?” says the man.

“Yes,” say I. Then without missing a beat, I tell him about my job at the National Conference of State Legislatures, the reason for the trip delay from Denver, my professional trajectory—teacher, counselor, association president, and program director. My mouth running faster than the turning wheels of the bus, I even mention the speech that I am going to give later this morning. He listens intently. Graciously, he inquires about each. When he asks about my speech, I offer up its title—The Public In Education—the major points I intend to make, a joke I will tell, and summarize the conclusion.

Twelve miles covered, Opryland in sight, up the long driveway goes the bus. When we disembark at a covered landing, the man insists that I disembark first. My luggage, he insists on helping me carry. On the landing he shakes my hand and gives me a business card. I shove his into the right pocket of my suit pants then give him mine. He holds it between the index and thumbs of both his hands. Gives my card a good long look. Then looking me square in the eyes, he says, “Mark, you’ll give a fine speech.” I give him a smug “of-course-I-will” nod, turn, and head to the assigned conference room where a podium and 125 people await me.

Speech done, applause received, hands shaken, and time to spare before returning to the airport, I go to Grand Auditorium II where the featured keynote is about to begin. As I walk in, Governor Alexander is finishing a story about Minnie Pearl and her lifetime of service to the people of Tennessee. When he presents Minnie with a plaque, 3,104 people stand as one for a rousing ovation.

Presentation complete, Governor Alexander begins introducing the keynote speaker. As he does, I settle into a back row seat. I can only hear some of what he says—Henning, Tennessee, Coast Guard, interviews of Miles Davis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After which he says, “Please give a big Tennessee Homecoming welcome to Alex Haley.”

Much to my surprise the man from the shuttle bus steps up to the podium. As he does, my hand goes into my pants pocket, hurriedly seeking the business card I received a few hours ago. Holding it between the index fingers and thumbs of both my hands, I give it the good long look—Alex Haley, Writer—that it deserved when I received it.

In a rich voice, with a steady cadence, Haley recounts his life. Telling stories about people, places, and lessons learned. After one story, he says, “Either you deal with what is the reality, or you can be sure that the reality is going to deal with you.”

As Haley continues talking about dealing with reality, he mentions that family is the link to our past and bridge to our future. I consider the reality of the man I met on the bus. How he reached out to me. The familial way he inquired about my reality. How he listened intently, despite my rambling response, after asking about my speech. His intentionality made me feel like my speech mattered—my reality mattered. Yet, when I did not ask about him, he seemed not to take offense. Then at our destination, he halved my load as we left the bus and ever so respectfully received my business card even though I snubbed his.

Later, I am thunderstruck when Haley says, “Find the good, and praise it.” I think about how, on the bus, I was too self-absorbed to see the distinguished teacher who, through a twist of fate and delayed flight, had stepped in my life. Unbent by great accomplishment and fame, the teacher was approachable, humble, and curious. Even though I was not. He sought to understand my reality, and hear my story, yet I did not reciprocate. These heartfelt acts of praise kicked awake the good that was asleep within me.

The good within me burns brightest when my approachability, listening, and inquiring give praise to the people I encounter and situations I face. My flame of goodness is further fanned by the gold stars, quotes/pictures, and blog posts that I send forth via social media. Each pays homage to teachers I have had, to those whom I have yet to meet, and every person who teaches. The good within me, that Alex Haley travelled a lifetime to ignite, stays bright through my praise of others. Find the good and praise it.

Mark


Note: This is the 12th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

DEAR KEVIN – The Learning Lessons Series

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Dear Kevin,

Much time has passed and many miles have been travelled since the occasion of your high school graduation. I still fondly recall you beaming with pride as you walked across the stage to receive your diploma and shake hands with superintendent MacDonald. Oh the relief you must have felt, diploma in hand and goal achieved. Afterwards, what a good reason you had for celebrating with your parents, family, and friends.

In route to becoming the Class of 1980, my heart was warmed each time you and your classmates overcame a challenge. The private victories that propelled each of you toward commencement were well known to me, as were the defeats. That is why I, a first time school counselor with his first graduating class, was so elated when every member of your class graduated on time.

I vividly remember the first time you came to my office. It was early September of your ninth grade year—1976. Your teachers and classmates had mentioned you—a gentle, friendly, tall, and somewhat effeminate boy—to me as someone to keep an eye on. So that day, when you crossed my office door, I was ready (sort of). You had just failed an Algebra 1 exam. With tears flowing, you said, “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, provided comfort, and helped you regroup. The few Kleenex I had—I was not ready—went fast.

Soon, my office became your frequent destination. To each visit, you brought tears and I provided a friendly ear, reassuring words, and Kleenex (by the case). When you failed tests, tears flowed. Bullied or teased, tears flowed. Every visit had a “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, nodded, and doled out Kleenex

Your life changed, when, late in the first semester of your sophomore year, the humiliating incident in the locker room occurred. Legal action was swiftly taken and protections provided. But listening, nodding, and reassurances I knew would no longer suffice. The damage from the incident would linger and had to be dealt with. That is why during one of the many meetings that your parents, you, and I were having, I proposed referring you for psychological services and home study. For the first time, an “I don’t fit in here” accompanied your all too familiar, “I try, I really do.” Your parents and I agreed with both statements.

Well Kevin, you know the story. From that point on, you did more than try. With the help of psychological services, you came to terms with the incident. Soon after, when we formed a team to look at your academic and social functioning, your cooperation led to several breakthrough insights—dyslexia, poor emotional regulation, limited coping strategies, and inadequate adaptation skills for academic subjects. The team determined you to be bright and capable but lacking certain skills. Armed with those insights, the home study that I thought could be a waste of time, turned out to be a godsend. Accommodations were made, necessary skills mastered, course content learned, and exams passed. The following Fall, when school began, academic successes soon followed.

From then on, your visits to my office became more about strategies, tactics, and problem solving. Favorable progress reports replaced tears; portfolio items with passing grades replaced Kleenex. Your action-plan and the accommodations it made possible for you to really try to fit in—somewhat but enough.

Yes Kevin, your path to graduation had more challenges than the paths taken by your classmates. Your path had more lessons to learn. That is why, as you walked across the stage to get your diploma, the sense of accomplishment, relief, and celebration you felt were so sweet. Your classmates and teacher who honored your accomplish with a heartfelt applause would have benefited from some Kleenex, but the only Kleenex I had were soaking up the tears of admiration flowing down my cheeks.

Kevin, I am proud beyond words of what you did. This letter is testament to that fact. However, as you will now read, it is but part of the story.

Your life changes changed my life. Watching you encounter and overcome your challenges, made me aware of how difficult school can be for students. After seeing your difficulties, everywhere I looked were students struggling to overcome equally daunting challenges. Most of them, unlike you, do not succeed. I did what I could, but it was not enough. My conclusion? The educational system we have only works well for some students and teachers. Moreover, the system is impervious to change. So attempts to make the system work for more students and teachers will inevitably find friction, frustration, and failure.

This understanding has been my constant companion and source of passion since our time together. I carried it with me to nearly every state capitol, Washington DC, three-dozen countries, two technology companies, and several universities. As I did, every day I woke up thinking about you and other students for whom the educational system does not work. I spent my days working to create an education system in which all teachers are empowered and all students are educated well. Each night, before I go to sleep I reflect on what I did that day to make this dream come true.

Kevin, when I needed a teacher, you were mine. You taught me that trying, really trying might help a student survive, but if the student does not fit the system of which he is a part, then his path will be a tearful one. Kevin, I pledge to keep working to create a system that fits all students and works for all teachers. As I do, memories of you are in my heart.

With respect and gratitude,

Mark


Note: This is the 11th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

LIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES – The Learning Lessons Series

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Look at the students in your classroom. Some have faces with beaming smiles. Others have faces with oozing pimples, festering frowns, or haunting hollowness. Each face tells a deep and personal story about its wearer. Each reflects a mind that comes to your classroom to learn the lesson of the day but must multitask on issues and concerns of other days and places.

Each face, story, and reflection is a reminder that a classroom of students is like a box of chocolates. “You never know what you are going to get,” as Forrest Gump so aptly says. Outwardly, the chocolates may look the same, but inside they vary and are diverse. Sometimes the box has a map with brief descriptors for each piece. Some pieces delight more than others. Some are eaten early and often, others later, and a few never.

At this point in the school year your students no longer appear similar. You are well into discovering what resides under the chocolate-like façade. You savor each student like you savor a chocolate in an assortment, taking the time and making the effort to discover its uniqueness. When you see a beaming smile, you appreciate it; a festering frown or haunting look, you understand.

Sometimes savoring the uniqueness of a student can cause apprehension. Perhaps, there are troublesome descriptors about a student in files and reports. Possibly prior experiences with a student may be cause for concern. It could be anecdotes from students or colleagues send up red flags. Other times savoring involves a student with special challenges that make learning difficult, accommodations necessary, and instruction tedious. Whatever and whenever apprehensions arise, pause to reflect:Maxwell quote

“Sounds good,” you say. “But what about the ones who aren’t successful. What do I do?”

Begin by recognizing that homework, test scores, and discussions about who is and is not gifted do not matter. What matters to a student is what we must understand and act upon. Understanding what matters is the foundation on which to build powerful instruction, high levels of learning, performance goals, and curricular standards that are accessible for all students, even the ones about which you are apprehensive. Quite likely, many such students lack the requisite skills for being successful. They need you, or someone like you, to help them through the challenge. This means meeting students where they are—inattentive, hyperactive, dyslexic, blind, deaf, abused, hungry, and on and on. This also means being in tune with the social-emotional needs of your students

“How to make this happen?” you ask.

On the foundation of understanding, convene a team. Connect with teachers who share your apprehensions. Engage school counselors. Consult school and district specialists. Ask your principal to allocate time for you to collaborate and support each other. Over time, patterns emerge. They reveal the squeezing of round-peg students into the square academic holes of an educational paradigm incapable of serving them.

Here, you must make a choice. Either keep pushing students into holes they will never fit, or start creating holes that fit them. Creating holes that fit students, involves teaching—that is what teachers do. Teach students how to cope, self-regulate, and resolve challenges and do so as subjects, much like their English, Mathematics, and Science counterparts, with scheduled classes and qualified teachers. In this way, safe places take shape where students can learn, grow, change, and fit in. Where their emotional, mental, and physical needs are paramount.

A good friend of mine, teaches The Zones of Self-Regulation to groups of her students. They discuss emotions and learn calm breathing techniques. Afterwards, she uses the Zones as a class check in. A student who is blue is bored or sad. Green signifies a student is calm and ready to learn. Yellow, the student is agitated and red, ready to fight or flee, not learn. My friend gives her greatest attention to students in the non-green zones. Sometimes she uses the zones to monitor a student throughout the day, intervening if the student falls out of the green zone.

“Okay, I get it,” you say. “But I am worn out.”

Of course you are exhausted. Teaching the students you have, the way you do, takes all your time and energy but fails to meet the educational needs of your students and you. You are in an all-in but going no-where situation that creates debilitating dissonance. Hit the pause button. Reflect, engage in self-care, clear out the clutter, and regroup. Remember that when in an airplane that is in trouble put on your oxygen mask before helping others.

“So what to do?” you say.

Start where you are, even if it is a lonely, solitary place. Work on yourself. Draw strength from your conviction. Do what you can with what you have to help your students. Grow from there. Seek feedback about your efforts. Make refinements, corrections, innovations, and experiments. Keep moving forward. As you do, teachers will be attracted to you because they understand the difference you are making. When teachers show up and want to join your team, tell them that empathy drives your interactions with students. Then say, “The students I have, are the ones I want to have. I understand that students who require the most love, often ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

Mark


Note: This is the tenth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS OF LEARNING – The Learning Lessons Series

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In Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, Alice leaps into a topsy-turvy, alternate world. A giant chessboard with fields for squares and chess pieces as characters, across which Alice, herself a pawn, must journey to become a Queen and wake up at home again. Along Alice’s journey, the experiences she has and characters—including Humpty Dumpty, March Hare, and Hatter—she meets blow her mind. Teachers who step through the looking glass of technology find a wonderland of education, as mind-blowing as the world Alice encounters.

Thanks to computers, software, and the Internet, educational priorities, values, and roles are upside down and inside out. Cookie-cutter classrooms are no more.

Classrooms that were once places are now processes. Workstations and computer labs are gone, portable devices with wireless access have taken their place. Instead of the once standard school-day-week-year with corresponding courses, bells, and periods there is anywhere anytime learning.

In these classrooms, teachers jettison one-size-fits-all stand-and-deliver instruction that they once relied on. Replacing it with personalized and authentic learning approaches. They give and receive timely feedback—frequently. They use data from the feedback to refine, differentiate, compensate, and enrich their teaching. No longer recitation taskmasters here they are guides for students and partners in learning. Groupthink is unthinkable, collaboration the norm.

On this side of the looking glass every student from Ottawa, Ontario to Ankeny, Iowa and Yuma,  Arizona is one click away from most every resource necessary for learning most everything. Roles and functions blur so students and teacher are learners. Technologically enabled and instructionally empowered, students morph from capitulators of facts into synthesizers of information and creators of knowledge. They use easy-to-use software to show their mastery of concepts, topics, and skills. The artifacts of their learning—images, videos, recordings, documents, and more—reside in digital portfolios that document their mastery and progress. Not surprisingly, here all students learn at high levels all the time.

Parents? On this side of the glass parents are active participants in their children’s learning and instruction. Through their child’s portfolio, parents monitor their child’s progress and communicate with teachers and other parents. They use it to provide and receive regular feedback, early warnings should things go awry, and accelerate should opportunities afford.

After stepping through, Alice struggles. She is an innocent child in a nonsensical adult world. She finds thinking and reasoning to be quite different here. To survive, Alice must adapt —play by new rules, learn a new language, and engage with a new, seemingly senseless, and oftentimes unpredictable order.

Much like Alice, teachers who step, fall, or are pushed through struggle to understand their new and apparently nonsensical world. Calm, quiet, and peaceful yet rapidly spinning to and fro from the changes wrought by technology, it is a seemingly absurd and surprisingly logical place.

What to do? Where to begin? Let’s ask Alice.

The way forward, as Alice discovers, involves awareness and adaptation. Finding herself in new surroundings, Alice adjusts to it in the “head”. She begins by rethinking her identity. Because, as she says, “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” The same happens to a teacher who identifies as a teacher but once through the looking glass must adjust to being a student and partner too.

As Alice shows, rethinking leads to growth and maturation. But, as she also shows, rethinking can be confusing and uncomfortable. Being ten feet tall was not comfortable, Jabberwocky with its bright colors and gibberish words calming. Problems familiar and solvable on one-side of the glass are, on the other side, puzzling and logic defying. That is why Alice, upon stepping through, feels directionless and tremendously alone. She has no support system, does not speak the language, and is unfamiliar with the terrain.

A teacher stepping into the high-tech world of education feels the same. If you are a teacher who has stepped through you know this to be true. You also know that, as does Alice, lacking direction and being lonely are temporary conditions.

Curiosity pulls Alice through the looking glass. Curiosity moves her forward and brings her back out. With a questioning and open mind, Alice greets various characters. Learning a lesson from each that enables her to move across the chessboard, Alice becomes a Queen, and wakes up at home.

Those of us who have met the characters, learned the lessons, successfully navigated the high-tech wonderland of education do not need to go back through the looking glass, as Alice did, to stay. Rather we must go back and come through again and again, each time bringing with us a teacher or two. By showing them the way through and sharing lessons about what to do once there, we enable the teaching profession and the field of education to grow and mature. This is the wonderland of learning each of us seeks.

Mark


Note: This is the seventh post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.

GO IN TO GET OUT – The Learning Lessons Series

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I am hot. The pit I’m in is deep, dark, dank, and depressing. Its walls are steep. Looking up, a light, a way out taunts me. To escape this painful place I must reach the light. I claw and climb to get there.

The pit is where I struggle with myself to change my behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and values. Three years ago, after a barrage of holiday ads, articles, and new fad products, as well as the admonitions of family, friends, and Santa to “be good” I invited weight-loss to join me in the pit. My New Year`s Resolution became shedding 45 pounds, my post-athletic paunch. Four months or sooner I proudly proclaim I will attain the goal.

With well wishes from family, friends, and co-workers into the pit go weight-loss and I. Week 1 down a pound, week 2 up one, week 3 lost two, and week 4 gained two. A month in the pit, lots of clawing, weight-loss and I are even. If you have ever tried to lose weight, you know the helpless feeling I am experiencing.

Weary, but undeterred, I figure, “There must be some trick.” So I seek advice from people who have beaten weight-loss. The trick they say, “Join a program”.

Join a reputable program I do. After one month of meetings every Saturday at 8:30 AM, meal suggestions, dietary guidelines, daily point totals—I am 12 pounds down. Another month and I am down 11 more pounds. One more month, another 9 pounds lost. It seems the trick to climbing the wall is working the program. The next month, down 7 pounds, my goal is in sight.

The light is mere inches away when my fingers fail (Actually, too long deprived, my fingers are tired from stuffing my mouth full of glazed doughnuts, peanut butter cookies, ice-cream with chocolate sauce, burgers, fries, and much more). Slipping, sliding, calories adding up, I tumble back into the pit. Thirty pounds later, back in my big boy suit, I put down the fork and regroup.

Again I claw and climb—attend meetings, track what I eat, drink plenty of water, exercise—I work the program. Steadily I scale the wall. I want out of this pit. Twelve weeks pass, 26 pounds lost (re-lost), the bright light of my weight-loss goal is enticingly close. Goodbye weight-loss, hello good life.

A Friday pizza party turns into a night on the town. A weeklong spat with a co-worker and subsequent binges follow. Then the market goes into a tailspin, munch, munch. Oh no! My grip loosens. To the bottom I slide, the pit darker and deeper than ever. Up 10 pounds, lying at the bottom of my pit, I stare at the light. It laughs. Then weight-loss spits in my face.

Weary, embarrassed, and humbled I wonder, “Is this worth it? Should I give up?” At this moment, with weight-loss unattained and me grounded in the pit I realize that the lesson of this place is not about working a program or acknowledging and altering the gluttonous behaviors that enabled me to add 45 pounds. The lesson is that self-change is difficult, I am hardwired to resist, and that developing the habits of mind to change one behavior sets the stage to changing other behaviors. Struggle is how I grow and mature as a human being. While my behavior de jour is weight-loss, a limitless list of behaviors—negativity, abuse, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, ignorance, and so on—are waiting to join me in the pit. All are eager to spur my growth each is ready to be my next teacher.

As appealing as I may find no more points-to-count, meetings to attend, or weigh-ins to be, my penultimate question is not about weight-loss. It is about self-growth. Giving up, settling in the pit, perhaps even redecorating it, is a no-growth option. Same pit, same me, same dead-end.

Giving up is not for me. My way forward—achieving my weight loss goal and learning how to become a better person in the process—involves embracing the struggle that the pit represents. Letting each claw, slide, tumble, escape, and return teach me what I need to know about myself. Armed with this insight, I re-engage with weight-loss. We grapple for another month. After which I deftly scale the wall of the pit. Give the light a big kiss, and offer a grateful thanks to my teacher—Weight-Loss—for my learning. I stand ready and eager for my next teacher, 45-pounds lighter.

Are you pit bound? Weary and want to give up? Do not waste time seeking tricks and gimmicks. Confront the behavior you seek to change. Ask it, “Why are we stuck here?” The answer you receive—face yourself as a human being—is the way out of your pit-a-full-ness. This is the lesson of the pit. Learn it well.

Mark


Note: This is the sixth post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.