Revising Guiding Principles

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll recognize that I’ve adopted some guiding principles over the last few years. Most of these principles have come from my interactions with colleagues and students and from reading and listening to people who are way smarter than I am. While scholars like Brené Brown, Parker Palmer, and Stephen Brookfield have informed these principles, I also credit some really thoughtful colleagues who have led me through courageous conversations about what it means to be a supportive teacher to struggling students. I’ve distilled some of these into blog posts stretching back before the pandemic, but I leaned really heavily into these principles during the pandemic. Emotions like empathy, grace, and hospitality pepper these posts and were distilled into practices like “assume positive intent” and “lead with empathy” and “offer grace.” But I’ve cycled back to these recently and I’m starting to wonder whether they may need a little revising. I’ll get to that, but first… a story.

During the Spring 2020 semester, I was working with a graduate student named Rebecca (not her real name). At the time, Rebecca was a teacher in a neighboring school, but she was also enrolled in the capstone course of her graduate program. Since the program offers advanced credentials for practicing teachers, the capstone course involves a pretty intensive action research project that graduate students must incorporate into their classrooms. The beginning part of the semester involves a lot of planning and literature reviewing which eventually culminates in a research-based examination into their own teaching.

You can probably see where this is going. Just as the action research portion of the semester was about to begin, the pandemic hit, and schools shut down. At the time, we didn’t have a clear idea of how things were going to play out, so I reorganized the project to allow for alternate means of examination and reflection. The graduate students in the class were still able to complete an action research project of sorts and were able to graduate on time. Well, almost all of them.

When the pandemic hit, Rebecca disappeared. Despite multiple attempts, she didn’t respond to my emails or return my calls. It didn’t feel right failing a student in the middle of a pandemic, so I gave Rebecca an incomplete. From my perspective, I was leading with empathy, assuming positive intent, and trying to offer grace to someone who may need it.

Weeks after the semester ended, Rebecca resurfaced by sending me a long, emotional email. In the email, she detailed some mental health issues she had been experiencing. She thanked me for the incomplete. She also promised that she just needed a few weeks to get things back together. She’d be ready to jump back into her course work once she got into a better place emotionally.

I bumped into Rebecca later that summer on a walking trail near my neighborhood. She said she was doing better and ready to reengage with the project. She asked that I send her an email detailing what she would need to do to complete the project and ultimately graduate. Later that afternoon, I sent Rebecca that email.

I just checked my inbox to verify the date. It was July 2020. And I still haven’t heard from Rebecca.
If you’ve gotten to this point of the post, you may be expecting me to toss out this grace and empathy business. After all, I’m revising my guiding principles. Looking back at the email I sent Rebecca in July 2020, it still feels like I did the right thing. I led with empathy. I offered grace. I communicated my support when she was in a troubled place. And all of that still feels right.

If there’s a revision that needs to occur, however, it’s that I need to adopt an additional guiding principle: set clear boundaries and expectations. As I reread that email, I realize I didn’t set any clear deadlines. While I communicated my expectations for the work that needed to be done, I didn’t include any time frame for its completion. I didn’t even require that she responded. Sure, I asked that she “stay in touch and reach out if she needed assistance,” but I wasn’t clear with any other details. So, while I’m sitting here, upset that Rebecca still hasn’t engaged, there wasn’t any clear deadline for Rebecca to engage. And that’s on me.

While I’m not quite ready to drop the grace, empathy and positive intent stuff, it’s probably time that I start communicating more clearly in terms of my boundaries and expectations.

The Four Energies

Last week, a colleague sent me a link to a post from Austin Kleon’s blog. If you’re not familiar with Kleon, he describes himself as a “writer who draws.” He’s also the bestselling author of Steal Like An Artist and other books. While I’m relatively new to Kleon’s awesomeness, I totally understand why my colleague sent me the link. He’s an awesome writer. And artist.

The post that my colleague sent referred to “The Four Energies” that authors tap into when they write. Kleon’s post actually references a Jane Friedman newsletter who pulled the concept from a book by Bill O’Hanlon. In his post, Kleon shares this quote from O’Hanlon:

“In my view, there are four main energies you can tap into when you write your book. The main writing energy you discover may be just one or you may find that you have a combination of more than one of these energies that fuels your writing endeavors. The four energies are Blissed, Blessed, Pissed, and Dissed. The first two represent the positive energies; the last two, the negative.”

According to O’Hanlon, we’re motivated to write by what we love and by what upsets us. Our inspiration is derived from some combination of Blissed, Blessed, Pissed and Dissed energies. On his post, Kleon describes each of these energies:

  • “Blissed” energy comes from what you’re on fire for and can’t stop doing.
  • “Blessed” means you’ve been gifted something that you feel compelled to share.
  • “Pissed” means you’re pissed off or angry about something.
  • “Dissed” means you feel “dissatisfied or disrespected.”

My colleague sent me the post with the simple message, “When I read your blog, I usually know which energies are motivating you.”

But I wonder whether everyone can. So, let me unpack the energies from last week’s post. Reading that post, one could probably divine that I was angry over something that was happening (I was!). While I wouldn’t go as far to say that I also felt dissatisfied or disrespected, there was a slight undercurrent of being “dissed.” The personal reflection of my earliest political demonstration probably emanated from a mixture of feeling blissed and feeling blessed, but I can’t say for sure. Sometimes, I’m in the moment and things connect in my head and I just go with it. It’s hard to conjure up those same energies a week or two out.

I also wonder whether these same energies apply to other forms of writing. I spent a good portion of this morning sending emails, and I can say with confidence that a handful were definitely derived from the “pissed” and “dissed” energies. Recognizing that, I should probably put some more positive energy into the world today. For what it’s worth, this post definitely originated from a “blessed” energy. It’s always cool to learn something new and to feel seen by those around you.

Making trouble.

A few years ago, my cousin Erik was cleaning out his parents’ home. His father (my uncle) had passed away and my cousins were charged with cleaning out their family home. As they went through closets of old clothing and boxes of stuff, Erik set aside an article his parents had clipped from a newspaper from the 1970s. Erik knew the clipping would be something I’d want to keep, and he mailed it to me.

The article tells the story of a fifth-grade boy who was helping to lead a lunch boycott at his elementary school. The district had raised lunch prices and the students were angry. The school cafeteria didn’t have a working kitchen at the time, so food was brought from a neighboring school. Because of this challenge, meals were often served cold, and the school couldn’t always count on having enough milk for all of its students. The increase in prices pushed the student body to its breaking point and several students decided to organize a school-wide lunch boycott. As one of organizers of the boycott, the fifth grader called the news to alert them of the protest. And when the Saturday paper featured the article on its front page, it created a whirlwind of controversy for the school and the student demonstrators.

“Pupils protest ‘lousy’ school lunches,” read the headline. But only one student was named in the article, the fifth-grade boy.

I was that fifth grader.

I apologize for taking this short stroll down memory lane, but I was reminded of my first foray into trouble making recently. As an educator, I often find myself having to advocate for the students I serve. But sometimes, like the story about the school lunch boycott, that advocacy can land me in hot water with others. Back then, that newspaper article landed me in the principal’s office. I remember being escorted to his office Monday morning where I met with the principal and the district superintendent. Now, I just receive an angrily worded email or a stern confrontation. That’s the result of trouble making, sometimes.

I think if I could travel back in time, I’d stop that little fifth grader on his way to school that fateful Monday morning. I’d explain that he had a difficult morning ahead, but he needed to keep his head up. I’d also share with him the wisdom that Representative John Lewis tweeted in June 2018. While Lewis was tweeting about a different movement, I think that little guy would find comfort in his words.

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” – Rep. John Lewis

You’ll have to forgive me if this post is a little short, though. I’m off to make some trouble.

A Politicized Space?

I began teaching in the Fall of 1992. If you were around then, you probably remember how politically charged that presidential election was. Bill Clinton was facing off against the incumbent George H. W. Bush and the daily news was filled with stories about their respective campaigns. Like today, each political party was setting up their camps. At the time, almost everyone was either for Clinton or for Bush and people were actively showing their support for “their guy.” I was teaching in a relatively conservative area of Western Pennsylvania and many of my high school students were wearing Bush t-shirts or pins to class. Before class one day, a student asked, “Mr. Dreon, who are you planned to vote for?” I paused for a minute, before stumbling through my response. “I’m still deciding,” I awkwardly said.

It was a total lie. And to this day, I don’t regret that decision. In fact, I’ve probably lied dozens of times when faced with similar questions about my political affiliations or my support of individual candidates. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by my political background or ashamed to admit the candidates I support. From early in my career, I’ve simply chosen to remain politically neutral in my classroom. While I know that some of my colleagues who are steeped in Freirian perspectives would argue that being neutral is taking a side (and maybe the wrong one), I’m looking at the individual impacts of my teaching role and the campus culture that I’m attempting to create. I’m trying to create an inclusive space for ALL learners, even the ones that don’t share my political affiliation or my opinions. And I worry that saying that I support this candidate or this movement in my classroom would undermine that goal.  And while our classrooms and schools are becoming increasingly more politicized, I still think that’s the wisest of decisions. And there might be some research to back me up.

This morning, I was listening to an episode of Hidden Brain titled “Group Think.” The episode examines how our group loyalties affect us more than we may realize and how they can even impact how we see the world around us. Throughout the episode, researcher Jay Van Bavel shares a bunch of different studies to demonstrate the impact of our “partisan brain.” For example, in one clever study, researchers from the United Kingdom studied how school affiliations could impact an individual’s smell. During the study, researchers introduced sweaty t-shirts to groups of students. Students smelled shirts with logos from their home institutions (which researchers labeled as the “ingroup”), shirts with logos from a rival school (which researchers labeled as the “outgroup.”) and shirts without any logo (which researchers identified as an “ambivalent group.”) To measure students’ disgust, the researchers relied both on self-reported data as well as more concrete measures (walking time to wash hands and pumps of soap used). Looking at the self-reported data, students’ disgust was lower for in the ingroup condition than the other conditions studied. After examining the other sources of data, researchers wrote:

“Participants went to wash their hands more quickly and used more soap after smelling a t-shirt that was associated with a member of another group than when it was associated with an ingroup member. We did not obtain significant results on how long they spent washing their hands. However, this may be simply because once participants had got to the point of applying sufficient soap, they felt decontaminated and had no need to apply more.” (Reicher et al, 2016).

I know this is a pretty random (and cool) study, but it highlights the concerns I have. Depending on the situation, a teacher who outwardly shares their political affiliation or the candidates they support can be in the “ingroup” or the “outgroup” for individual students. And I worry that those identity dynamics will impact how students view the teacher, which ultimately may negatively impact the students’ ability and willingness to learn from the teacher. If I’m interested in supporting ALL of my students, even the ones who don’t agree with me politically, I need to check some of my political beliefs at the classroom door and appear neutral within the classroom space.

I feel like I need to offer some caveats to this neutrality. If I want to create truly inclusive spaces, I need to advocate for broader principles such as democracy, justice, equity, equality, and freedom. I don’t see these principles as being owned by a single political party. But I do recognize that how they may be manifested in a classroom space is often interpreted differently by the “team” one is on. And maybe that’s where I show my political “cards” a little more regularly, but I don’t know. To me, it’s more important to be thought of as a supportive and effective educator or as a Democratic or Republican one. And I worry that identifying as either a Democrat or a Republican within the classroom space would undermine my ability to be supportive and effective to all of my students.

Pacing and Timing

If you’re teaching in a face-to-face classroom again, I wonder whether you’re experiencing the same sort of dissonance that I am. After spending an academic year navigating online synchronous spaces, I’m back to figuring out how to teach in a physical one again. And I’m finding there is some relearning that’s been required. Let me explain.

Last fall, like many other educators, I was asked to move courses that I traditionally have taught in a face-to-face format online. And there were some growing pains. Since I already knew how to use most of the tools for online instruction, most of the technical aspects were easy. The challenge really came from my pacing and timing. I found that some activities that would take 30 minutes in a face-to-face classroom, now took a fraction of that time online. And some face-to-face activities that would take a few minutes of time, now took a lot longer. I know I’m speaking in general terms, so let me give an example. One strategy I use regularly in my face-to-face classroom is “think-pair-share.” If you haven’t heard of the strategy, the name basically describes it. A student turns to a partner. They spend a minute or two discussing a question or topic. After their discussion, one of the partners shares their conversation with the whole class or with another group. This is a quick active learning strategy that helps to engage students in the learning process and can foster larger discussions on course content.

While “think-pair-shares” are easy to implement in a face-to-face classroom, they’re harder to do in Zoom and much more time consuming. You have to set up the groups within Zoom and then send students to their groups. After a few classes of small group discussions, I learned that I couldn’t always depend on pairs of students to have rich conversations online without support. After some experimentation and discussions with colleagues, I found that students in small group, online settings worked better in groups of three and four, instead of in pairs. I also found that a lot of these discussions worked better if the students had to produce a collaborative artifact. So I started using Google Slides and Padlet for students to collaboratively author a document while they were engaged in their small group discussions. Which just added to the length of time this conversation would take. So, while a “think-pair-share” may take a few moments in a face-to-face class, they usually took five or ten minutes online.  If you’re interested, I wrote about some of my learning journey last fall in a post titled Learning about Active Learning Online.

Jump ahead to this fall and I’m back in a face-to-face classroom. I’m finding that the year of synchronous online instruction has really messed with my timing. A few weeks ago, I only got through about 60% of what I had planned for one class. In another class last week, an activity that I had estimated would take students twenty or thirty minutes to complete actually took the class less than fifteen minutes to complete. It’s still early in the semester and I’ll know I’ll get better with my timing and pacing. For now, I’m doing my best to learn and relearn. I just worry that if our institution needs to pivot back to online delivery due to increased COVID-19 infections that I’ll have to readjust again.

When I was first starting out teaching decades ago, a mentor told me that teaching was all about “monitoring and adjusting.” It became her mantra for me as I navigated the first few years of teaching. “Monitor and adjust. Monitor and adjust,” she’d say. I guess I never anticipated that I’d still be embracing those actions after decades of teaching.