The experiment

Today is the last day of winter vacation. Tomorrow (Saturday), we go back to school. The students show up Monday and it may be we will have a series of presentations for them, not all of which I will need to deliver myself. The workload is not that heavy for the first week, but it has its own frustrations. It’s tiring, even if there is not much to do. Certainly, the rhythm of daily life will change: it’s time to reflect and to make a course correction as needed.

The experiment I refer to is French. In August, I had the idea of studying language in my spare time. I’m not trying to write novels anymore–I’ve given that up. I don’t have kids living in my house. I do have time–if not always energy–for things that interest me.

I began by putting time into several languages. French only got 20 minutes a day. I did some research on how many hours it takes to learn a language to some kind of basic level (typically) and I began to realize 20 minutes a day would mean waiting a very long time to see results. This would be all right except that it’s hard to evaluate your methods. It’s like therapy: is this just a long process or is my approach actually not working? How would you even know?

So I switched it up. I think at first I spent an hour a day. It might have been two. When regular classes ended and we just had exams to deal with, I went for three. For part of the vacation, I spent six hours or more on it.

I studied French because it seemed like I had the best chance of success: it’s the easiest language for an English speaker to learn and I already had some background. I mentioned before I felt I had something to prove to myself, partly about being able to learn, partly about being able to pursue a goal and succeed in it. In the process, I learned some things about myself as well as about learning.

I almost succeeded, I should also say. Initially, I had the goal of being able to understand ordinary conversation to a reasonable degree, the kind of thing you hear on TV. I thought it would be great to be able to watch a French TV show and follow the plot well enough to enjoy it. Yesterday, I didn’t think I was anywhere close to that, but then I watched something today and I understood very clearly maybe a third of the time. At other times, I was floundering still or scanning the action carefully for clues. So I didn’t reach my goal in 6 months, but I may get there in another few weeks. That’s pretty good, in my view, and I feel proud of what I was able to do.

It changes how I see myself in ways I haven’t digested yet. They may not stick. It’s sometimes hard for me to tell the difference between a mood and a paradigm shift. I’ll let you know.

(I didn’t finish the post. It’s Sunday now. I had a stressful morning for complicated reasons, couldn’t understand anything and don’t feel the same kind of pride. It may come back…I’m just not sure what I accomplished.)

At a simple level, since I’m a teacher it interested me to observe the balancing act of challenge. Too much challenge, and we don’t enjoy learning and aren’t able to stick with it–we may not even learn. Too easy and we lose out on a sense of accomplishment. We did it, but what we did has no meaning. I’m sure this varies from person, and also perhaps from day to day, but everyone has a sweet spot where effort pays off in meaningful ways. I learned to expect this kind of variation. On some days, more challenge felt good and was productive. On others, I couldn’t hack it.

I had some observations about myself as a learner. Some of it may be true for other people. Some of it is probably about being gifted and some is about trauma.

The hallmark of giftedness is uneven development and a need for complexity to sustain interest. I once had a gifted student who couldn’t solve simple equations accurately, but he was much more competent if they were long and difficult. I’m sure he got bored and his mind wandered. So I worked at the highest level of challenge I could sustain, and not where I actually was. It means I sometimes lack foundation. There are gaps and holes in what I know. But you have to keep wanting to learn. And I accepted I am like this.

My performance from day to day is not consistent either. This is probably about trauma. It’s hard for me to keep my brain working well. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost ground. In my life, this is my single greatest frustration. More than most people, sometimes I am great at things. Sometimes I am really not great at those same things. It’s not just a matter of perspective.

But I can learn.


C has been asking about her school tuition recently. Will I be able to pay them? Where will the money come from? I have explained to her in brief that I will and where the money will come from, and it seemed to satisfy her.

Then yesterday she started her journey back to her parent’s place and she sent some messages in chat about not wanting me to pay her fees. I explained in more detail why this issue is important to me and later, talking on the phone, she said she understood.

Then her aunt messaged me yesterday and said the family does not want me to pay. I explained a few of my reasons, but in less detail, and she said that C could not tell this to me, because she didn’t want me to be hurt.

Which made me think, Ok, so you understand this might be hurtful, but you’re up for it…

Many things went through my head, a lot of them not particularly reasonable, and I thought somewhat vaguely, “The mind seeks coherence. These thoughts are biased towards readings of the situation which maintain coherence.” This did not appreciably alter the thoughts.

One thought was that I have failed at everything which had meaning for me. This may not entirely be true. I was at one point really set on finishing a novel and getting it published, and that had meaning for me, and then I decided it actually was not very good and I had no other ideas and then there were also all of these kids who couldn’t do any math and desperately needed help. And also needed socks. I didn’t seem to have time to think of other ideas.

I didn’t want Nata to die, and she died.

I wanted to teach and I am, in my opinion, an acceptable teacher, but not a great one.

And I wanted to send C to school and also teach her something about how to be trustworthy, and I can’t, because her family has decided this is not an important lesson for young people to learn.

My mind reminded me that my failures may have something to do with striving for very difficult things. It also reminded me that the other part of the goal with C was to make a statement of some kind about her worth and potential as a human being, and if her family has decided they are on board with that, it’s not a bad thing.

My mind also reminded me this should not be about my ego.

The thoughts also wandered off to the track of, “No one wants me. I should just be quiet.” These were very despairing thoughts. I had no response to that one, except to ponder the idea that despair makes it hard to pack, and I could probably sort through this one if life didn’t demand responses in a more timely manner.

I thought some more and I came around to feeling unheard. I explained the reasons it was important to me, but they did not carry any weight with anyone. The fact is that no one actually has to care about what I am trying to do or why I am trying to do it. I’m sad about this, but it’s the reality. It’s lonely.

A plea for Galay

At the risk of my world’s colliding (I try to keep my work life and my personal life a bit separate for obvious reasons), I am venturing a plea on Galay’s behalf.

He wants to keep going to school. He’s in 10th grade and has exams that determine his whole future. Which he won’t fail, but he won’t make the cut to get to go on for another 2 years. (I’ve seen his grades before. I am afraid that’s the hard truth.)

11th grade is a pretty small dream.

He would like to go to private school, which will take him, but costs money. If you have an extra 5 bucks lying around that you won’t miss, can you help him?

Please share the link widely, but not my blog post, if you don’t mind.

Send Galay to 11th grade.


galay in class2

You Think Too Much

overthinking“Don’t go internal.”

“It doesn’t help to obsess.”

“We start ruminating…”

I wonder sometimes what we have against thinking. It seems almost unfair. Thinking is fun. Isn’t it?

Apparently not. Apparently, many of us don’t find thinking fun at all. It makes some people feel bad about themselves, or depressed, or hopeless about the future, or they think about things that only add to their sense of powerlessness in the world–like how to fix someone else’s problems instead of your own.

What do people do with their positive thoughts? Do they kill them? Were they born without them? It's another conundrum.
What do people do with their positive thoughts? Do they kill them? Were they born without them? It’s another conundrum.

Thinking is, evidently, not a form of recreation for some people. It isn’t a replacement for TV and social networking media. It isn’t something to do while you’re waiting for the doctor or in line for a coffee or during a 24 hour flight.

Thinking is handy that way because it’s completely free: yes, you do need to keep adding new information, or you will start running in place like a hamster in a wheel–but these days that’s easy. Anyway, all you really need to do is look around. Other people are always a rich source of information.

Those dire warnings at the top of the page? Those are statements you make to people whose thinking is unhelpful. Stop thinking. It doesn’t help.

But not only can thinking help, it can also be rewarding and entertaining. How do we make thinking fun?

Chocolate Cake

I was thinking about Sir Ken Robinson on the bus on the way to get a TDaP vaccine, focused mainly on how tremendously ironic I think it is that a man who hales from the 2nd most individualistic culture in the world and (I think) currently lives in the most individualistic culture believes our schools are forcing too many square pegs into round holes.

I believe this is a classroom in Shanghai. China is not outperforming the US in education, by any measure, but other Asian countries who have very similarly designed classrooms are in math and science--fields that require a high degree of creative thinking.
I believe this is a classroom in Shanghai. China is not outperforming the US in education, by any measure, but other Asian countries who have very similarly designed classrooms are in math and science–fields that require a high degree of creative thinking.

The man has clearly entered very few classrooms outside of his own culture and has no idea how much rote learning and conformity goes on in schools elsewhere. He seems so without perspective that he makes me laugh.

He is really telling us we need to be more what we most love to do. And we love him for it. It is like going to church and having the priest tell you to sin more or going to the doctor and having her recommend you eat more chocolate cake.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Individualism is our form of excess. It has not made us happier and it may or may not be making us more successful. It may be giving rise to increasing rates of suicide among Baby Boomers, and it may be contributing to a variety of stress-related diseases especially among older people–who have had more years to develop them.

He also seems to have no clue that people are not, in fact, distributed randomly across the country or around the world. We tend to cluster in various ways–we gravitate towards one another when we have shared interests or values, and we also tend to adopt one another’s habits and behaviors over time.

In the above video, he uses a map of the country to drive home the point that the rising rates of ADHD are figments of our imagination. But it is based on this idea that people are distributed randomly across the continent. There is no reason to think that we would be.

When you consider that, first of all, the US is almost entirely composed of people who rather recently (a few generations ago) left their homes, underwent a risky and uncertain journey, and began a new life in a far-off and unfamiliar place,you should probably expect that the people who live here might be substantially different from people back in their home countries. Because most sensible people would stay home.

Even in the face of economic and political adversity, there is still a safety in “the devil you know.” Americans have mostly embraced the devil they didn’t know. That isn’t quite unique, but it’s not usual.

Temperamentally, it seems completely reasonable to expect that Americans would be weighted towards certain behaviors: either merely culturally or because of some process in genetics. You would expect to see more risk-taking, more willingness to try new things, more restlessness, and less contentment with the status quo than those immigrants have left behind.

And while every country has its immigrants, some of the former British colonies are rather unique in being composed almost entirely of people who arrived there only within the last few hundred years. So, It does not in the slightest surprise me that the US has higher rates of ADHD diagnosis than Europe, even though most Americans come from European stock. Americans should certainly be more “something.”

But impulsive, hyperactive, and craving high degrees of stimulation and activity would be among them.

Certainly, if I had ADHD, and I were alive around the time my own immigrant great-grandparents arrived in this country, fleeing to a brand-new, largely unknown country might be the first thing I ever really wanted to do. And along with me, I would be bringing my ADHD genes.

It also does not surprise me that the United States would have different rates of diagnosis in different parts of the country. We cluster, we share, and we become like the others near us, and therefore different from those further away. And these differences affect all kinds of things: how willing we much we trust doctors and how willing we are to have our kids labeled, among them.


It may be that everyone with impulsive, hyperactive genes decided to move to Louisiana at some point. Or it may be that Westerners resist having their kids labeled even if that label might help their children be successful and have positive self-esteems. We don’t know, do we?

The map does mean something, but there are so many factors at work, it’s hard to say what

It certainly doesn’t mean we are simply intolerant of difference.

Although we don’t really know what causes ADHD, even if it does seem to have a genetic basis, there are other factors that seem to affect our genes. It wasn’t long ago when we realized that having an older father seemed to contribute to the risk of being born with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There is no reason to think that behavior–like waiting longer to have children–is evenly distributed either. In fact, some behaviors most definitely are not: Americans are much less careful with our food than our European counterparts. We allow far more hormones into our meats, for example. We are less cautious with GMOs. But we smoke less.

So when I get to that portion of Sir Ken’s speech, I can’t help but laugh. And not because of the absurdity of thinking that there may, in fact, be real genetic differences (on average) in populations living in different parts of the world or the country. But because the number of assumptions he is making in forming the arguments are so many and so great that the whole cloth of what he is saying is absurd.

In fact, Sir Ken is quite wrong on one point he makes; he claims we are anesthetizing children. And yet what we give those children who are diagnosed with ADHD are not sedatives. They are most often stimulants. We are, just as he urges, trying to wake them up.

His arguments are not only lacking in logic, but simply wrong.

And yet we love him.  Because he tells us what we want to hear. We want to be told how unique and creative we could be if only we had the chance. We want to be told we are special, that we have these unique and wonderful innate capacities. We want to be told we could have been geniuses if we hadn’t been spoiled by our second-grade teacher making us color within the lines.

And we value creativity and individuality, so we think those things will solve everything. It may be killing us, but we like it anyway.

I think I’ll get some chocolate cake.

Why We Hate Middle Age

graduationEvery year, I participate in some kind of commencement ceremony. I have done this for the last 14 years. This year’s ceremony is over and done with, but it still lingers at the edge of my mind.

I hate these events generally. They have a deadening quality of sameness.

I also find them full of offensive, propagandistic lies.

This year’s I found a bit more pleasant. I couldn’t hear it.

But I can imagine what the speakers probably all said, or some version of it:

1) You can do anything if you want it badly enough.

2) Aim high.

3) Do great things. Make us proud.

I wish what we told young people at graduations was something more like this:

1) Be a decent person.

2) Make a modest contribution to your community, understanding that that is probably all that you want to make and all that will be expected of you.

3) Be realistic in your goals. Look for that sweet spot of success where what you are capable of, what you want, and what the opportunities out there for you meet. That is where real satisfaction lies.

4) Greatness requires more sacrifice than all but a few people are really willing to make. You don’t need to be great to live a satisfying, meaningful life. Instead, draw out of your ordinary life as much satisfaction as it can. Remember that satisfaction is not synonymous with excitement. In all likelihood, your life will not be exciting. If you have an exciting life, it is more than likely it will all come crashing down around your ears and stop being exciting anyway. Appreciate what you have.

I think we do young people a real disservice in what we tell them to aim for. We keep doing this because it takes 20 or 30 years for our promises and exhortations to wear thin. And by then it’s too late. The next generation has already begun to repeat them.

And we also don’t know what else to say.

But the end result is discontent, broken relationships, and a sense that life and us have been nothing but disappointments. The lies we were told, if we believed them too much, take all the fun out of middle age.

Can We Agree to a New Approach to School Improvement?

“Reformers, please reconsider your assumption that teachers must be defeated before schools can be improve.” All I want to do every day is teach well. Whenever I don’t teach well, the students suffer. I’m not sure why the assumption is that students aren’t learning because teachers don’t want to see students succeed. What else do we show up to work for?