Kindness Challenge Week 2: Self-Compassion

This week I’ve been engaged in growth exercises from two different sources that—at first—seem almost directly opposed to each other.

The first assignment was to notice areas of my life where I have become resigned and justified to the “way it is”.  Places where I have given up.  Places where I have no hope.  Places where I justify my lack of action, lack of growth, and lack of responsibility.

Bleak stuff, this.  It is challenging to look at this stuff.  Challenging to admit it to myself—all the areas where I push my awareness away and say, “Not today.  Not tomorrow.  And maybe not ever.”  But it is even more challenging to say it out loud.  To share it with others.  To be authentic about how often and in how many places I let myself go numb and pretend not to care because I don’t want to do what it would take to make a difference.

The list is long: politics, the environment, homelessness, poverty, my weight, my health, my finances, relationships, my house, procrastination, my debt.  The weight of all these things—when I allow myself to get present to them—feels heavy and overwhelming.

 

And that is where the second exercise comes in.

 

This week I am also practicing self-compassion as part of Niki Meadows’ 2017 Kindness Challenge.

“Having compassion for others entails sympathy or empathy for their discomfort and suffering. This week we’re going to work on showing ourselves compassion. For some of us that might mean not being so hard on ourselves, not holding ourselves up to standards of perfection, or easing up on the negative self-talk. Many struggle with being their own worst critic, this week we are going to strive to be warm, understanding, and encouraging with ourselves.”

I am bringing that warmth, understanding, and encouragement to myself as I allow myself to get present to places where I’ve previously been numb.  I am bringing compassion for myself for the fact that I have allowed myself to go numb.  I am telling myself that, while going numb may not be the most empowering place to be—and I am grateful for the push to get present to all that I actually care about—going numb is not bad or wrong.  It is not a failing.  It does not make me a loser.  It is natural.  It is human.

Bringing this compassion to the practice of getting present eases the burden.  It allows me to look more deeply because the urge to push the “bad stuff” away is lessened.  I do not have to expect perfection from myself.  I do not have to regret the time I have wasted in justification and inaction.  I do not have to accept responsibility for all that is wrong in the world or even in my own life.

I am human.  I am flawed.  I procrastinate.  I owe.  I avoid.

And… I am amazing.  I love.  I act.  I share.  I create.  I wonder.  I appreciate.  I contribute.

Practicing self-compassion does not mean that I have to stay stuck in my flaws or in my numbness.  It means that I do not castigate myself for those flaws or that numbness.  I love myself in all of my flawed amazingly beautiful humanity and continue to strive to grow and learn.

Can You “Learn” Your Way to Health?

How Viewing Being Healthy as a Skill Can Transform Your Life

In high school, I used to listen to the skinny girls in the bathroom complain about gaining a pound and how fat they were.  I’d slink my extra-fifty pounds past them and wonder why they weren’t more grateful for their current state of health and beauty.  How I longed to be like them—thin, vibrant, beautiful, healthy—but that vision seemed like an out-of-reach dream—something impossible in my current body and current life.

I didn’t consciously subscribe to a philosophy of gene-driven body shape and health, but those girls seemed like a different species than me.  They had something I did not have and did not know how to get.

 

Over the years, my obesity has persisted despite many attempts to shift my eating and exercising habits.  Eventually, I grew extremely resigned.  Whatever it took to be thin—I didn’t have it.

I pushed my dreams of health and vitality to the back of my mind and focused my energies on other matters—like training myself in the science of learning and the growth mindset.

 

Funny thing, that.  Once you start adopting a growth mindset in one area, you start to want to apply it to all areas of your life.  If I acknowledge that I am capable of learning and growing in math and science, how can I not acknowledge that I am capable of learning and growing in the area of health and well-being?

I also started to see that some aspects of health that just seem natural and inherent—like sleeping—are actually skills (now that we live in a modern culture). 

Turns out, sleep is something you can get better at!

And, it turns out, getting better at sleeping is a big step in getting better at having a healthy weight and metabolism. 

 

I discovered this by accident when I had a hysterectomy.  After the surgery, the nurses kept waking me up and telling me to breath.  I found this extremely irritating.

Turns out, that I had sleep apnea.  And I had a pretty severe case of it.  I checked with my husband and he said that I regularly quit breathing every night.  I had no clue.

I started doing research.  Research which initially was very discouraging.  Sleep apnea is frequently caused by obesity.  And, not sleeping well often leads to greater obesity.  It also can cause all kinds of other health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

I started picturing my future as a fat lady on a scooter.

 

But I decided to try some other remedies first.

I got a C-PAP machine.  This is a machine that one wears while sleeping.  It delivers a constant stream of pressurized air into the nose.

 

The results were immediate.

For the first time in years, I slept through the night without having to get up four or five times to go to the bathroom!

And over the next nine months, I lost 65 lbs.

 

That is a pretty significant result and I am very pleased.

 

But, I am not done.

I am just beginning to learn how to get better at sleeping.  I am reading Shawn Stevenson’s book, Sleep Smarter, and my husband and I are embarking on a journey of getting better at sleeping.

Here are some of the things I have learned so far:

·         Turn off the screens.  Our brains respond to blue light by producing more daytime hormones which interfere with the quality of our sleep.  Shawn recommends turning off our devices at least an hour before our bedtime.

·         Maintain consistent sleep and waking times.  Even changing your sleep schedule on the weekends can have significant impacts on your health.

·         Sleep cool.  Shawn states that the optimal room temperature for sleeping is around 60° to 68°.

 

My husband and I will have to engage in some serious habit transformation to incorporate these suggestions into our lives, but I believe the effort is worth it.  And—adopting a growth mindset for areas of health—I believe I can learn how to make these changes work in our lives.

 

But, I am still not done.

I am bringing a growth mindset to the arena of nutrition and how to eat well.

 

I’ve struggled with this my entire life.  I’ve tried all sorts of programs and diets.  They either didn’t work or I couldn’t maintain them long term.

Again, this led to extreme resignation.  Whatever other people had that allowed them to change their diets and lose weight and keep it off, I didn’t seem to have.

 

But, I’m bringing a growth mindset to this as well.

 

It turns out, in our modern world, eating well is a skill.  We’ve been told that all we need to do to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.

That has never seemed to work for me.

And, it turns out, it is something that isn’t working for a lot of other people as well.  Gary Taubes lays out a lot of the research about how (and why) the common approach—eat less and exercise more—isn’t working for so many of us.

Perhaps there is a better way.

 

So, I am embarking on a learning journey on how to become excellent at eating to sustain energy, health, and vitality.

My journey has just begun.  Here are some of the people I am turning to for information to light my path:

·         Shawn Stevenson:  The Model Health Show

·         Robb Wolf:  Wired to Eat: Turn Off Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods That Work for You

·         Gary Taubes:  Why We Get Fat:  And What to Do About It

·         Robynne Chutkan:  The Microbiome Solution:  A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out

 

Shawn Stevenson talks about the stages of getting better at a skill or habit.  They are:

1.       Unconscious incompetence—when you’re doing something wrong and you don’t know you’re doing it wrong

2.       Conscious incompetence—when you’re doing something wrong and you know you’re doing it wrong

3.       Conscious competence—when you’re doing something right but you have to consciously focus on doing it the right way

4.       Unconscious competence—when you’re doing something right and you don’t have to think about it.

In terms of getting better at sleeping and eating, I am hovering between stages one and two for a variety of different habits.  In some areas, I know what changes I need to make, but haven’t yet figured out how to make them—like not using electronic devices for an hour before sleeping or ensuring that we go to sleep on a consistent schedule—and in other areas, I haven’t yet figured out what exactly I’m doing “wrong”.  I have a feeling that a big part of the secret to achieving health is discovering how to achieve (and maintain) a healthy gut biome, but I don’t yet know enough about it to determine the changes I need to make in my diet.

But, hey.  Like I tell my nephew, I have a super-hero brain and I can learn anything I really want to.

 

Discovering the Difference between Self-Love and Self-Indulgence

Kindness Challenge Week 1:  Self-Love

Sometimes in life, the Universe seems to bombard me with the same message over and over again.  It has been like that this week.  First, I stumbled upon Niki Meadows’ blog, The Richness of a Simple Life, and her 2017 Kindness Challenge.

I’ve never participated in a social media challenge, but this looked like exactly the topics my husband Tim and I have been delving into lately, and I happily signed on even though I was late to the party (the first week began May 7).

The topic for Week 1 was self-love.

A little bit of a coincidence, that.  I’d just finished listening to James Altucher on Shawn Stevens’ podcast, The Model Health Show.  They were discussing James’ book, The Power of No, and how important it was to put yourself first—even if what you are up to is contributing to others.  How putting yourself first is actually necessary in order to have the health and energy to contribute to others.  It is similar to putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

Tim and I have also been engaged in some pretty deep conversations about shifts we’re wanting to make in our habits to improve our health and well-being.  We’re getting ready to launch our Year of Sobriety experiment—giving up both processed foods and alcohol for a year.  We’re also taking on getting ourselves into a regular sleep routine and building capacity for daily exercise.  All big projects that promise to take a lot of intentionality and creativity to fulfill on and that offer big rewards in well-being.

Finally, in my Landmark Education seminar, Causing the Miraculous, I am engaged in practicing “being not deserving”.  Practicing being not deserving may seem counter to practicing self-love, but I think they actually go hand in hand.  Practicing being not deserving is about seeing life as a gift not as something we have to earn or that is owed to us.

Okay, Universe, your message is clear, it is time to ponder the meaning of self-love.  It is time to figure out what is my personal version of an oxygen mask.  What do I need to take care of first, before I can contribute to others?

Oxygen mask

I have never been one of those selfless persons who is always sacrificing herself to ensure others’ happiness.  Not that I don’t care about others or that I’m selfish, but I have always seemed pretty capable of putting myself first.

It’s just that, honestly, the way I’ve put myself first hasn’t always put myself first.

I’ve become pretty adept at putting my self-in-the-moment ahead of my self-in-the-future.

I hit the snooze alarm and don’t get up and go on my walk.  I let myself put off unpleasant tasks.  I have dessert because “I’ve been so good and I deserve it.”  I watch too much TV or play games for hours.  All of these things feel good—in the moment.  But they don’t leave me feeling vital, alive, and connected to the wonder of life.

I think it is time to say no to myself more often.  No to eating foods that leave me feeling sluggish and acidic.  No to choosing inactivity over movement.  No to staying up too late.  No to binge television watching.  No to binge game playing.  Saying no unhealthy self-indulgences is saying yes to a future of health, vitality, community, and contribution.  Saying no is an act of self-love.

 

 

 

 

A New View of the Learning Curve

Quite some time ago, I found myself holding back tears of frustration and embarrassment as I failed to keep up in a Zumba class [Zumba, in case any of you don’t know, is the twenty-first century version of aerobics.]  I wasn’t even trying to master what the rest of class was doing with their arms—I was only trying to match what they were doing with their feet.  I couldn’t do it.  Not even close.

By the time I had a little bit of a handle on what the steps were, the instructor cheerfully called out the name of another move that I didn’t know how to do.  I was turning left when the rest of the class was turning right.  I was grapevining—in my awkward arms-at-my-side fashion—while they were all doing the box step.  I was out-of-sync and out-of-my-league and very, very much, out of my comfort zone.

I have not been back for another class.

And that was not the first time I have given up in a learning environment that felt threatening.

I could blame this failure on my lack of a growth mindset at the time—and indeed I do remember saying something to myself like, “This sucks!  I just can’t do dance classes because I suck!”

But now I have a new understanding of why that learning environment did not work for me and what I could do in the future that would allow me to box-step and grapevine with the best of them.

Now I have a better understanding of the learning curve

Now I have some compassion for myself when I am struggling to learn something, but I also have some powerful new tools that I can use to help myself to persist when learning is slow and painful.

 

Introducing the Learning Curve

When I first started teaching people about how to get better at reading, I thought of learning to read as a straight line with non-readers at one end and excellent readers at the other.  I would draw the line, point to some place in the middle, and say to students, “You started here, and we are working to move you up the line closer to here.”

Reading Line

 

Then, I saw an interview with a musician who talked about learning music and how learning worked on a curve. He drew an s-like curve and explained that when you first start learning a new skill, learning is hard and slow.  There is too much to learn at once and you have to really focus your attention.  As you master the skill, the pace picks up and you learn faster.  Practicing becomes more fun and fulfilling since you can see your progress and it actually resembles real music.  Eventually, however, your pace of learning slows down as you approach excellence.  Each new bit of learning is subtle and hard for your brain to figure out.  He said that top level musicians approach excellence, yet never quite arrive.  They are always striving for new learning and ever increasing skill.

[Note:  I didn’t realize at the time how significant this interview would be to my thinking and learning—I didn’t pay attention to the artist or interviewer and have never been able to find it again.  If anyone sees something like this, please forward me a copy.]

This interview changed the way I think about learning to read.  I started talking to students and teachers about learning to read from the perspective of a learning curve rather than a learning line.  I talked about approaching excellence, rather than arriving.

Reading Curve

This shifted how the teachers I was training went about working with their students, and the conversations they engaged in when helping students to understand what it means to develop excellence in reading.  I believe this distinction and way of looking at learning to read has made us more effective at creating powerful learning environments and developing growth mindsets.

The real power of this way of looking at learning, however, came about as I broadened my perspective from a focus on reading to a focus on all learning and a growing understanding of the brain science that underpins learning.   I am beginning to see that the brain needs different kinds of practices for different parts of the learning curve.

 

The Lowest, Slowest Part of the Learning Curve

When a person is first learning a complex new skill, the learning is slow and laborious.  The brain doesn’t readily release dopamine during this stage of the learning process as it is filled with far more failures than successes.   It is also the stage of learning that is most likely to trigger what some scientists call our “reptilian brain”—the part of our brain that is ever alert to threat—and cause us to experience feelings of something being wrong.

Zaretta L. Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, calls this triggering an “amygdala hijack” due to the brain’s action of releasing cortisol to prepare us for a fight or flight response.

“The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep inside the limbic layer of the brain.  It is the seat of our fear system that is involved in emotional processing.  It is designed to react in less than a second at the very hint of a social or physical threat.  It has the “authority” to bypass the brain’s communication dispatch hub in the thalamus and send distress signals directly to the lizard brain in the form of the stress hormone cortisol.  We call this bypass an amygdala hijack.  When the amygdala sounds its alarm with cortisol, all other cognitive functions such as learning, problem solving, or creative thinking stop.  An amygdala hijack leads to our natural “fight, flight, freeze, or appease” responses.”

 

The amygdala hijack is why I have never made it past the beginning stages of any class that called for coordinated movement—be it ballet, aerobics, or Zumba.  Without an understanding of the learning curve, I just naturally compared myself to others, and felt like an imbecile.  Everyone else always seemed to “get it” so much faster than I could.  Not liking that feeling, I would high tail it out of there and go back to pursuits where I was more “gifted” and learning was not so hard or embarrassing.  (Ahh!  Don’t I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her a thing or two.)

 

Tools for Learning When Learning is Hard

So here are some tools for getting better if you (or your students) are at the low end of the learning curve.

Stop comparing yourself to others.  All people learn at different rates and come into any learning environment with different prior experiences.  If you notice yourself getting anxious because someone else is better than you, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that that is perfectly natural.

 

Build positive social relationships.  Zaretta Hammond points to the polyvagal nerve as one key to calming the amygdala.  Building trust in the learning environment helps our brains stay calm and fell less threatened.

“This nerve is part of our “social engagement system” and is focused on keeping us connected to others…It encourages social bonding through the release of hormones such as oxytocin when we are in the presence of others.  Social activities such as laughing, talking, and even hugging release oxytocin, the bonding hormone.  When we feel safe in the presence of another, our breath comes easily, our heartbeat is regulated, we don’t sweat nervously, our thinking is clear, and we feel open expansive, and in sync.  Oxytocin is the brain’s “stand down” signal to the amygdala.”

Too often in schools we feel pressure to get through the curriculum and can feel that taking time for building social relationships is a luxury we do not have.  However, especially if we are working with students that have not been successful in previous learning situations, taking that time can make a big difference in their ability to engage and learn.

 

Engage in deliberate practice of small “chunks” of learning.  Deliberate practice, according to psychologist Anders Ericsson, is repeated practice of small chunks (how small depends on your current skill level) with a focus on finding and fixing mistakes.

This is where Zumba failed me.  The instructor moved on way too fast for my personal learning curve.  I needed to practice each individual move over and over until it could become fluid and natural.  Only then could I put the moves together into a functioning routine.

 

Progress at your own pace.  If your learning environment allows it, do not increase the complexity of what you are working on until you have achieved a level of mastery.

Unfortunately, this is hard to accomplish in group learning situations. (Except in places where they are reinventing the paradigm by developing personalized learning models that allow students to progress at their own pace.)  However, with the advent of technology it is becoming more and more possible.

My new gym has a system where an individual can pull up Zumba routines to practice solo without the pressure of a class.  Now, I have the opportunity to practice the moves as many times as I need to on my own.

Zumba

So, armed with a new understanding of brain science and the learning curve, I am ready to head back to the gym and get dancing again.

 

Mr. Secretary, Please Don’t Roll Back the Healthy Lunch Program

I was in a school cafeteria recently, watching with dismay as kids threw fresh fruits and salads in the garbage.  I asked one of the teachers I was working with about it, and she said that the school had been mandated to include healthy foods, but that most kids still weren’t eating those foods and were going for pizza and burgers instead.

Now President Trump’s Agriculture Secretary, George Perdue, is talking about rolling back Michelle Obama’s Healthy Schools Initiative for just such a reason.  “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program,” Perdue stated at an elementary school in Virginia.

While I am not a fan of waste—or of mandates—I think a rollback is a mistake.  Just because our first attempt at shifting eating patterns in American schools is not working does not mean we have to throw our hands up in defeat and declare that it can’t be done.

It can be done.  I have seen it—and tasted it—in action, in real life, in a real school.

The Village School in Eugene, Oregon has been serving meals cooked from scratch using mostly whole, organic and local foods for years.  This food ends up in student and staff bellies—not the garbage can.  While I haven’t conducted any scientific surveys to discover if these kids are happy to be eating this food and not to be eating the processed foods offered to them by other schools in the district, I have seen a lot of happy faces in their cafeteria and seen trays piled high with fresh fruits and vegies from their salad bar.

The Village School’s path to a healthy vibrant scratch-cooked lunch program was not easy.  It took years and lots of volunteer hours from dedicated parents and staff to establish their program.  They needed to build the community infrastructure to ensure that local, organic foods were available and affordable.  This took enrolling a lot of people into contributing to the school and donating food resources. It is proof, however, that it can be done.

It is possible to convince American children to forgo pizza and hamburgers in favor of Yumm bowls (a beans, rice, and vegie bowl with Eugene-based Café Yumm sauce on top) and to get them to eat more fruits and vegetables.

It is even possible to convince myself to eat that way.

I am a classic example of the failure of the standard American diet to produce health and vitality.

I have been struggling with my weight and with food issues since I entered puberty.  The rest of the members of my family were thin.  I ate what they ate and became obese.

Like my family, I assumed this was because I ate more than they did and exercised less.  They urged me to eat less and exercise more.  Their comments only served to make me feel that there was something wrong with me, a feeling that I often chose to mask through eating.

I have tried repeatedly throughout the years to remedy this situation either through increasing exercise or decreasing food consumption.

I haven’t successfully sustained either strategy.

It was only when I quit eating refined carbohydrates that I was able to lose weight and keep it off.  I felt like I had discovered the secret to the universe and reveled in my increased health and decreasing waistline.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to sustain a diet that did not include processed foods when the rest of my world kept eating them.

I am now in the process of getting back into the game of learning to be healthy and eating in a way that produces health, vitality, and wellbeing.  I am clear that this means learning to okay with eating very differently than my colleagues, friends, and family.

I have spent years throwing up my hands in defeat and feeling like it was just too hard to change my habits.  But it is time to put my belief in the power of learning into action and learn my way to health.

There is so much more information about how food works in the body that wasn’t available even a few years ago.  I am finding that the more I immerse myself in the science of digestion and in the neural control of appetite, the more excited I am to develop a way of eating that does not include processed foods and is different than the way my friends eat.

There was a time when I couldn’t envision a future without ice cream.  Now, such a future is beginning to seem brighter than one with it—because I am recognizing the cost I am paying for that indulgence.

 

So what do the success of the Village School and my own struggles to develop healthy eating habits have to do with Secretary Perdue’s decision that we shouldn’t move forward with our mandate to ensure that the foods we provide to school children in America are actually good for them?

Both cases serve to highlight the power of learning and the power of culture to influence what goes into people’s mouths.  Eating is a highly social activity.  What we eat is usually strongly influenced (often at a subconscious level) by what those around us eat. 

You cannot mandate good food choices.  Simply telling people to eat better doesn’t usually work.  It certainly did not work for me. 

But that doesn’t mean we just give up and let the food industry have full sway in our school cafeterias.  Instead, we can empower our school communities to continue engaging in the process of attempt-fail-analyze-adjust-and attempt again in a journey to creating cultures that value health over convenience.

The Village School accomplished this through bringing the whole school community on board in their process to develop their school lunch program.

I am accomplishing it through educating myself and conducting experiments in my own life to determine what actually works and what eating habits I can sustain long-term.

If the government says that schools are not mandated to provide healthy foods for their students, then it is time for school communities and leadership teams to take up the baton and work as professional learning communities to figure out how to help students develop the knowledge and life skills to take charge of their health and make life-sustaining choices for themselves.

Language That Sets You Free

Martin Pistororius was 12 years old when he fell ill.  His parents and his doctors did not know what was wrong with him, but he grew sicker and sicker until he finally fell into a vegetative state.  His doctors recommended that his family put him into a full-time care facility and wait for him to die.

But, they didn’t do that.

And Martin did not die.

For eight years his family cared for him.  Taking him to a care facility during the day and picking him up in the evenings.  Waking up to turn him over every two hours so he wouldn’t develop bed sores.  Feeding him and making him drink.

All of this for a young man who wasn’t aware.  A young man in a vegetative state.  A young man who, as far as they knew, wasn’t there.

Except he was.

About two years after he fell ill, Martin started coming back to himself.  He regained his consciousness.  He regained the ability to notice his surroundings and hear what people were saying around him.  He could understand their conversations and even clue in to their emotional states.

And no one noticed.

 

“They’d been told long ago that I was severely brain damaged, so when the young man with sticklike limbs, empty eyes and drool running down his chin occasionally lifted his head, that’s what they saw.  And so, I was cared for, fed and watered, wiped and cleaned, but never really noticed.  Again and again I’d ask my unruly limbs to make a sign and show someone I was still there, but they would never do as I asked.

I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life as powerlessly as I lived each present day and eventually I didn’t try to respond or react, but stared at the world with a blank expression.

To other people, I resembled a potted plant—something to be given water and left in the corner.  Everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn’t notice when I began to be present again.  I’d been put into a box long before after all.  Each of us has.  Are you the difficult child or the histrionic lover, the argumentative sibling or the longsuffering spouse? 

Boxes make us easier to understand.  But they also imprison us because people don’t see past them.  We all have fixed ideas of each other, even though the truth can be far removed from what we think we see.

That is why no one asked what it might mean when I started to improve enough to answer simple questions like, “Would you like tea?” with a turn of my head or a smile.”

 

Jimmy Santiago Baca was also imprisoned in a box.  He was imprisoned in a box of lack of expectations, lack of opportunity, and lack of love.

Jimmy was thirteen years old when he was first locked up.  His parents had abandoned him to an orphanage when he was seven, and after repeated attempts to escape to rejoin his family, the state finally placed him in a detention center.

Jimmy was a young man looking for a home and a place to belong.  He was crying out for love and attention.

And no one noticed.

Six years later, after numerous bouts in and out of jail, he was sentenced to hard time for his part in a drug bust where an FBI agent was killed.  Jimmy entered prison illiterate and youthfully innocent, he left it toughened and a man of words.

Here are some of his words:

“But if prison was the place of my downfall, a place where my humanity was cloaked by the rough fabric of the most primitive manhood, it was also the place of my ascent.  I became a different man, not because prison was good for me, but in spite of its destructive forces.  In prison I learned to believe in myself and to dream for a better life.

You make use of what is available and near at hand, no matter what your circumstances.  I did what I had to do to survive.  But I also determined not to become what in my heart I knew I was not:  I was not going to let them make me into a ward of the state.  I was lucky, too.  For in that place where life and death are waging war every day and the right choice is often the most difficult one, I was able to reach out and find a finger hold on the fragile ledge of hope.  Hope didn’t support me all the time, and wouldn’t have supported others in quite the same way, but it served well enough for me to slowly pull myself up.  Very simply, I learned to read and write.”

 

I read these two men’s stories at different times while traveling for my job on my way to school sites—and a prison—to help spread the power of reading.

They were two such different men and came from different kinds of families, yet both personified the amazing power of the human spirit and the amazing power of language to uplift and empower.

Martin escaped from his prison of silence and isolation when a care provider noticed his awareness and urged his family to get him tested.  He learned to communicate with a computer and—once given a voice—taught himself to read and fix computers.  With the hope that language gave him, he was able to retrain his body and regain movement that no one thought was possible.  He still cannot walk or speak out loud, but he is married and living a full life.

Jimmy was denied the opportunity to attend school while in prison and endured long months in isolation when he refused to work in protest.  While still under lock and key, he escaped his prison by teaching himself to read and write.

“Language gave me a way to keep the chaos of prison at bay and prevent it from devouring me; it was a resource that allowed me to confront and understand my past, even to wring from it some compelling truths, and it opened the way toward a future that was not based on fear or bitterness or apathy but on compassionate involvement and a belief that I belonged.”

One thing that resonated in both men’s stories is how hard they pushed themselves to learn once they had hope that learning was possible.  Their learning was not casual, easy, or fun.  It was fierce!  They fought for all that learning!  They sweated.  They pushed themselves and went beyond what was comfortable.

Another common note is that both men’s journey toward self-realization began with another human believing in them and expressing that belief. 

Martin might still be locked in silence if not for a woman who noticed that he smiled in response to what was happening to him.  Jimmy might still be locked in a life of crime and punishment if not for a man who sent him a letter and patiently wrote back to his first poorly written replies.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had that kind of impact, but I am determined to see—fully see—all those who come before me in moments of learning.  I am determined to see the beauty of their humanity and the amazing power of their brains to learn and grow.  I am determined to keep sharing the astounding power of words and offering the gift of literacy in any capacity that I can to whomever I am privileged to work with.

The Death Knoll for the Bell Curve

In 2004, as a fairly new teacher, I sat in a room and listened to district leaders explain President Bush’s plan to improve education—the now defunct, but then new law—No Child Left Behind.  They put some charts up on a screen and explained that by 2014, 100% of America’s children were expected to reach proficiency in reading and math.

I remember thinking at the time that President Bush was insane and had no clue about mathematics.  Hadn’t he ever heard of the bell curve?  Didn’t he know that it was impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency?

We have always had winners and losers in American schools.  I did not see how just setting a goal for 100% proficiency would be able to change that paradigm or change the ways our schools were operating.  

I left that meeting feeling depressed about the future of education.  I was deeply afraid that pushing for better test scores was not just impossible, but likely to cause extreme damage to the way that schools worked.  I envisioned a narrowing of the curriculum and a move towards “teaching to the test”.  I envisioned shaming of teachers who were working with some of the toughest kids in some of the toughest schools.

Those who have been involved in education since 2004 will know that a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test did indeed occur in many American schools.  In fact, some schools resorted to cheating as a response to high stakes testing.  Many districts cut programs—like art and music—that were not being tested.  Public shaming of teachers happened.  Newspapers published lists of teachers and schools who were not doing well at raising test scores.  

A lot of damage to education was indeed done in the name of No Child Left Behind.

However, something kind of wonderful happened as well.

Teachers started talking more.  We started looking at data in new ways.  We started asking questions about students that weren’t learning.  We started getting more inventive—if our leaders empowered us—and looking beyond the letter of the law.

The professional learning community (PLC) movement became stronger and schools and districts began giving time and resources to enable teachers to work together and get better at the art and science of teaching.

In the 13 years since that day, I have learned a lot about teaching and learning.  I have been training myself in the science of learning—both from a psychological perspective and from a neurological perspective—and I am now ready to throw out my unhelpful story that it is impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency.

I am ready to declare the death knoll for the bell curve.

I now believe that the bell curve is a product of expecting all students to learn at the same rate.  It is a product of expecting that all students can be sorted by age level and are equally ready to learn.  It is a product of expecting that all students in a grade must be studying the same things at the same time.

Although I don’t know of any school or district that has yet achieved a system that has truly killed the bell curve, I know of many (and more joining them every year) that are well on their way towards creating personalized learning systems that harness the natural power of human brains to learn.

I recently discovered Competency Works—an organization that posts daily doses of inspiration about what schools, districts, and entire states around the country are doing to shift the model of American education from a grade-level based (what some have called a factory) model to a personalized model that allows students more “choice and voice” in their learning.

Here is just a brief snippet from a post by Karla Esparza-Phillips and Ace Parsi.

“In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose describes how a faulty belief in the idea of an average student has led to the design of one-size-fits all systems.  Rose state that “there can never be equal opportunity on average.  Only equal fit creates equal opportunity.”

This is the premise of personalized learning—designing systems flexible and responsive enough to address students’ needs as well as build on their strengths and interest, thus recognizing what every parent and teacher has always known—that every child is different.

Our hope is that personalized learning may present the opportunity to flip the traditional model upside down.  Or better yet, put it right side up.”

The work these schools have done to empower teachers, administrators, parents, and students is awe inspiring and fills me with deep wells of hope for public education.

I can now envision a time when American educators have been empowered so much that they are able to give each brain exactly what it needs to learn

I can now envision a time when all students are empowered enough to see themselves as powerful learners who are fully capable of mastery of anything.

I can now envision a time when I no longer hear students saying things like “I hate math.” or “Reading is stupid.”  

I can now envision a time when 100% of students in a school are excellent readers.

I can now envision a time when we shake our heads at people who believed that the bell curve was a reflection of natural intelligence much the same way we shake our heads at people who believed the shapes of our skulls indicated our intellectual potential.