Archives for the month of: October, 2013
This only applies if you're all on the same track and headed in the same direction.

This only applies if you’re all on the same track and headed in the same direction.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this topic recently.  You’d think from the way many talk, especially those involved with education, that competition is an unalloyed boon to education.

But this is a dangerous misunderstanding.  Or an outright lie.

If you stand as I do at the front of a room of nearly thirty post-adolescents and look at them carefully, you’ll see one who wants to be a physical therapist, one who wants to be a theatrical makeup artist, one who wants to animate cartoons, one who wants to be a chemical engineer, and so on.  It stands to reason that they all could benefit from learning to read and write beautifully and the world will be better off if they do, but how are they bringing the same skills to my class, and how are they needing to take the same skills or insights from it?  They don’t.  They’re all different, and that’s not only just a fact we must accept, but a marvelous, helpful thing.  As my parents used to say, it takes all types.

So why must we pit them against one another for grades?  Why even consider plotting them on a bell curve?  They look over their shoulders to see who’s gaining on them, endlessly compare one to another, look at their grades and suffer if they’re falling behind, and why?  They’re headed in all different directions, every point of the compass.  One’s attainment means nothing to the next one.

This competition exaggerates during college application season, and again, for no good reason.  So this one applies here and that one applies there and somehow they believe the kid who gets into the more selective (read: competitive) school has a brighter future.  I ask them:  do you think everybody who goes to Harvard is joyously happy and fulfilled and everyone who goes to community college leads a blighted existence?  They don’t, but the frenzy continues unabated and unexamined.

Competition, it appears to me, lies deep in our brains to help us survive a famine or apocalypse.  We’d be willing and able to fight another group of humans for the last scraps of food, so we and our family would survive and we’d let our rivals die.  Not noble, not kind, but at intervals necessary.

This default isn’t going anywhere:  it’s deep in the brain, along with loving babies and desiring sex.  Some people have a lot more of it than others and they, being fresh out of famines and apocalypses, sublimate it into sports and business.  But let’s not forget:  it’s at its heart a mean instinct, a hostile and unevolved scarcity mindset.  As long as the spoils are few, I’ll grab them for myself, depriving you.

Competition is devastating and toxic, in the wrong zone, like within the family or in a friendship.  Where we want creativity and affection to flourish, competition poisons the air and water.

If we care about the flourishing of each kid, we must help them quit comparing themselves to others.  Rather than narrowing themselves so as to fit on a two dimensional spectrum, either above or below others, we must help them create a buffer of space around them so they can occupy all three dimensions, and bring their own unique gifts to bear.

Forget “No Child Left Behind” (behind what?  The other kids?) or “Race to the Top”  (why are we racing?  Why can’t we make steady progress?  Top of what?  The heap of others?  Who are we racing against?).  What about Each Child Fulfills His/Her Highest Potential?

EC: HP.  You would be amazed how motivated and human kids become when you put it to them in these terms.

You don't get results like this when you're trying to beat someone else.  This is about developing your own uniqueness.

You don’t get results like this when you’re trying to beat someone else. This is about developing your own uniqueness.

And while we’re on the topic of compasses, John Donne, the poem I teach every year, and general thoughtfulness, here’s a shout-out to the darling who gave me the compass.  I had been teaching the poem with a couple of rulers pinched between my fingers, but someone saw and noticed, and at the end of the year, brought me a proper compass with the relevant stanza inked on the top.  To my mind, the perfect gift:  very little money, but trillions of units of thought.  You can bet, my dear, that I think of you every time  I use it.


And on the same subject, here is my nod to the three sweet girls who, so enamored of the poem, determined to memorize it.  It took a while, many halting attempts practiced in class, but they got it and gave me a photo of the three of them to commemorate the achievement.


Teachers don’t seek more money, but we do like to know that what we do matters.  That can’t be faked– or at least, most of the time nobody would even care about faking it.  I thank my former students for these gestures of respect.  To bring them Donne:  what higher calling?

I taught Donne’s poem today, using the compass a former student gave me.  It looks something like this:

I'm really looking forward to when I can take these pictures myself.

I’m really looking forward to when I can take these pictures myself.

Both classes asked:  Did Anne Donne know what it said?  Or did John have to teach it to her, as I had to teach it to them?  I don’t know the answer to that question.  Anyway, here’s the poem:

by John Donne

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”

So let us melt, and make no noise,                                       5
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;                              10
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove                                     15
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.                           20

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so                                          25
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,                                30
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,                                    35
And makes me end where I begun.

Oh, so beautiful.  Such a privilege, to bring this to teenagers each year.  It’s like giving them nourishment that they can eat as much as they need but never devour, and it will never spoil or diminish.

Here is someone else weighing in on the flawed model of Teach For America:

Why I stopped writing recommendation letters for Teach For America by Catherine Michna.

Her arguments are excellent and they also suggest that merit pay is a bad idea.  She is herself a TFA alum, but stayed on for two more years.

What I wish to say is that I am now in about my 18th year of teaching, depending on how you reckon it, and I feel that this year, finally, I have figured out how to bring my best to my classes.  Mind you, the kids still stump me on occasion.  Stuff happens I haven’t met before and I need to figure out a new solution, so even now I don’t feel I’ve seen it all and have it all nailed down.  But I’m on my game now.  I know what I have to give and how to give it, mostly, much of the time.

To imagine that a 2 year teacher is going to close the achievement gap sound to me like willful self-delusion.

Follow Catherine MIchna's blog here:

Catherine MIchna lives in New Orleans.

You can follow her blog here:

Reading good literature broadens the mind and deepens the heart.  Thank you, New York Times, for writing about a study that proves this:


For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov


I teach teenagers.  I don’t know about you, but when I was 15, 16, 17, I was preoccupied with defining mySELF.  It was all about me.  I rated each book on whether I liked it or not, whether I could relate to it or not, whether it spoke to me or not.  .  . And I hear the same remarks from my wonderful students. And why not?  When you’re coming out of puberty, you’ve got a lot to figure out about yourself and your place in this world, and your doubts are magnified by the material culture, so they can sell to your insecurities.  Harsh, but longstanding.


But when you read a book, particularly an old book (like before 1940), you leap off a time/place cliff and vault into the vortex of human experience, most definitely not your own.  At first this seems useless.  Why would you spend one minute of a waking day living as if you were anybody but your own self?  But then the magic works on you, you feel the boundaries dissolve, your heart, like the Grinch’s, grows three sizes, and BAM! you are Elie Wiesel in a concentration camp or Jane Eyre behind the curtain in the window seat escaping through a book or Odysseus trying to get home and life is never quite the same again.  You get it:  no matter what, you can always get outta here, bail on “reality”, jump ship to another world, connect with someone you will never meet, who never existed, yet who lives in the minds of thousands, forEVER.  You don’t have to live your own, small, sometimes annoying life:  you could be anybody.


And when you’ve done that a few times with your whole heart, it becomes difficult ever to wall yourself off from anybody.  They’re all characters trying to get along in the world, just as you are.


I read once that if you’ve had a trauma, it can help you come to terms with it to describe it as if it happened to someone else.  Put it in the third person.  “And then, she turned and saw the gun.  .  . ”  You can become a character in a story, your own story.  Things happen.  We live to see another day.


So literature helps us reframe our own experience and connect with others’ reframing of theirs.  Lit is the human hot tub, where we sink into the water and dissolve the boundaries, opening to one another’s truths.


Lit says, "Come on in!  The water's fine."

Lit says, “Come on in! The water’s fine.”

Metta is the Buddhist meditation on loving-kindness, as the word is frequently translated.  That sounds very sweet and darling, downright flowery, in English and, as I understand it, the Pali doesn’t have that connotation.  As I understand it, it’s an open-hearted warmth toward living things, the polar opposite of judgment.  All beings are as they are, and with metta, we accept them fully and warmly.  We wish the best for them.  We open to them rather than turning from them.  We send them our friendliness.

But what about our enemies, you might ask?  Why would we open to them and extend to them our good wishes?

Metta doesn’t bestow success.  If you have a murderer next door, offering metta doesn’t grant him license to continue to harm.   Metta depends upon the understanding that if your murdering neighbor were safe and protected, healthy and strong, peaceful and happy, knowing ease of well-being and accepting all the conditions of this world, he or she wouldn’t be murdering.  It’s out of illness and discord that violence grows.  Wishing our enemies peace of mind is another way of wishing the world free from pain and sorrow.

Metta begins with ourselves.  Why not?  You can’t breathe out all the time– there has to be a breathing in, too.  It makes such sense that we need to express that kind of acceptance, warmth, and friendship to ourselves first:  you can’t give what you don’t have.

So here is metta’s first step:

May I be safe and protected.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I know ease of wellbeing and accept all the conditions of this world.

Say it before bed, on rising, and at intervals during the day.  An expression of unselfishness, metta prepares us to extend the same love, compassion, warmth, tenderness, understanding, acceptance to all sentient beings.

It’s pretty neat.  Try it.

100 Day Journey

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Katherine Good

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