Thursday, February 20, 2014

Don't Forget to Breathe!

On the mornings when my AP Econ and Government class meets, we (almost always) take time to breathe.  We pledge allegiance and then we breathe for three minutes.  I tell my students to stop what they're doing, close their computers, put their cellphones away, stop eating and just stop and do nothing more than breathe and think.  They can think about whatever they want.  They can focus on their breathing like yoga breathing, they can plan their day, they can go blank and space out, they can close their eyes and relax.  The idea is to get them to understand that they can stop in the middle of their busy days and they can disconnect in the middle of their busy senior years.  They don't have to always go, go, go.  When we stop breathing, they can get back to their hectic schedules and lives, but for three minutes it's OK to stop.
Our breathing is part of a greater scheme to help my high-flying students manage the pressure of their senior year and keep their lives in balance.  On another level, I have my students list their classes from most important to least important with no ties.  They need to make a choice of one over another before they have to make that choice during the high pressure times of mid terms, finals, or AP tests.  The idea is to stop (yes, it's that word again!) and examine what they do and how they do it.  We look at their lists from time to time and we rearrange their priorities depending on how their doing in their respective classes.  The bottom line that I constantly emphasize to my students is that we can't be all things to all people and we can't give 100% to all of our classes.  We need to choose what is most important and then give that level of commitment and effort to what is most important.  We also need to be good with the classes that are less than most important.  Some students can get A's in all their classes, but that doesn't mean that they give 100% to all their classes.  The classes that are most important get the most effort and those that are less important get less effort.
As a teacher, I have to be good with that.  My classes are not the most important classes in all my students's lives and schedules.  The question I ask my students who are not giving their all in my classes is, "are you doing well in the classes that you're giving more effort to?"  If the answer is, yes, then they've done a good job prioritizing and are getting the results they should.  If the answer is, no, then we have a conversation about what is important to the student's overall academic goals and we rearrange his/her prioritizes as needed.
I also have to be good to make sure to take the time out of MY hectic class schedule to make sure this gets done, because if we take some time early, we will save lots of time and angst later when the time gets shorter and the pressure gets higher.
We also work on prioritizing what are their favorite and least favorite classes and getting them to remember to take advantage of what's fun and enjoyable to them.  We also list their extracurricular and family and work activities to see where school fits in with the rest of their lives.  Once again, the idea is to get my students to look at their lives and understand where the different important activities fit among each other and that they get the results they want and know why they get those results.
Finally, this is another attempt to build a strong personal relationship with each student and help him/her learn how to get where he/she wants to go and to build strong life skills as he/she learns the academic concepts in my class.
Don't forget to breathe!  Think about whatever you want, but disconnect and breathe, because you ALWAYS have time!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Path of Least Resistance Rarely Leads to the Remarkable

Once upon a time, a friend of mine gave me a quote, "the path of least resistance rarely leads to the remarkable."  I've unsuccessfully tried to find the genesis of those words, but as it had been cut out of a magazine, I suspect that it may have been copy from an advertisement.  Regardless of their origin, these words have always given me an extra boost when I get rewarded for an accomplishment with more or harder work.  These words have also given me strength when I confronted the frustration and struggle that comes with every significant achievement.
Each time I've cleared another hurdle, it quickly becomes time to do more or harder work.  I see it in academics and athletics all the time.  Every time a kid moves up a grade, they are asked to read and write better and solve harder math problems and contemplate more sophisticated scientific systems and critically analyze  more complex human conditions.  All of this increased rigor and expectations will show once again that the student has grown and advanced another level in his/her abilities.  When a team wins a playoff game, they are asked to play better teams to win the next round and progress to the championship.  That's how teams and athletes can say they've gotten better or become the best or become champions.  However, at the same time, I've also heard some in both worlds bemoan their being "rewarded" by being asked to do more and harder schoolwork or being moved up into competition with tougher opponents.  Isn't this part of the constant learning and improvement process?  Shouldn't we embrace the greater and tougher challenge?
Long before I came across my inspirational words, my dad used to take my brother and I (and eventually my sister) skiing at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe.  About 10-20 years before we skied there, Squaw Valley had hosted the Winter Olympics for the greatest skiers in the world.  We loved to see the torch and Olympic rings every morning we arrived there!  My dad wasn't one to shrink from the challenge.  Every time my brother and I would master a slope or a run, we'd move up to the next hardest run.  We'd fall down and struggle and get frustrated and throw our ski poles, but my dad would wait and coax us down the hill and then we'd go again, each time getting better.  There were times when I'd be hating my dad for "making" us ski the hard runs, but eventually by the time we were 13-14 years old, we were skiing the advanced and expert runs and we really loved the speed, challenge and accomplishment of it all.
My son and daughter played under 8 soccer this fall as I was my school's head varsity football coach.  The contrasts between our levels could not have been starker.  As my football team was playing our games explicitly to win, neither my son's nor daughter's teams won a game between them.  My football boys started the season 0-3 and really hadn't had a chance in any of those games. We then played the eventual section champion and finally stepped up to the challenge and played a competitive game, which ended up as another loss, but turned into a win the following week and we finished the season 3-3 and won our last game.  Whew!
In the balance, we were 3-7, but we kept playing and learned how to play better and began to learn how to win games by maintaining a high effort and level of focus.  We learned to push through the frustration and struggles and get better in spite of the setbacks we experienced.  We would not have improved so much had our games not been played to win.  We needed the extra pressure and the expectations and ironically the losses to spur us to continue to compete to get better to the point where we could compete and win.  We needed to continue to push our way down the path of greater resistance in order to learn what we needed to learn.
This past week, I met with the seniors from our team and had them fill out a survey on how they viewed the season, their coaches, and what they had learned.  After a few months of reflection, they had criticism and good suggestions on how we need to get better as a program, but for the most part, they also realized that they had learned through their struggles and frustrations and had grown and improved as people and teammates.  Through their efforts, they were able to look back and give suggestions to their younger teammates that they never would have given at this time last year.
My son and daughter by contrast were just playing to learn their new sport and how to be on a team.  They kept score, but each kid was guaranteed to play and only sit out for a specific amount of time.  However, they continually got better as they practiced the skills required to play their sport well.  It was only recently that either of them really realized that neither of their teams had won a game.  It wasn't an "oh well" realization, it was more of an astonished realization.  They couldn't believe they'd played that many games and not won one!  At the same time, neither was ashamed nor angry at the losses, but realized that they needed to play better in order to win.  Throughout the season though, they hadn't quit or complained and had continually gotten better.  Through their improvement, they had had lots of fun, but just hadn't won any games.
In fact, just recently, my son asked as we drove to his "spring training" for Little League if they'd win a game and I assured him that he would.  He asked if baseball was different from soccer in terms of winning games.  I told him it wasn't really different, but that they'd win games.  He asked how I knew and I told him I just knew, I'd been here before, and if he kept playing and getting better, he and his teammates would win games and that he'd have fun regardless.
We're back on the path and we're pushing forward and as long as we keep pushing, we'll find ourselves somewhere remarkable, but it won't be easy...