Purpose and the Story We Tell Ourselves: Wayfinding our own Oceans.

the-seaIn 1995, the prolific warbler Neil Young (and members of Pearl Jam) released Mirror Ball.  The album featured one Young’s iconic declarations of independence, “I’m the Ocean.”  With a chorus declaring the title’s metaphysical conceit and lyrics probing smaller, stranger metaphysical comparisons (eg. “I’m an accident/I was driving way too fast), Young contrasts being a trivial, single thing (“I’m an aeorstar/I’m a Cutlass Supreme”) with being something as expansive, deep and meaning-full as the ocean itself.

Young’s song is, perhaps, a meditation on the 90s as the beginning of the fracturing of meaning and attention that has come to mark our contemporary existence.  But more so, it is an exercise in the utter necessity of always writing our selves into the present in ways that both extend our individuality and acknowledge the reality that we are part of something much larger.

This recognition, that we are all part of an ocean of humanity and that we all have a tidal power to extend ourselves out and back again, this is one of the great mysteries of existence: That our individual self floats and drifts and surges amidst all other selves in the world.  It makes us humble but also allows us to know the great power each of us has to change the world.

However, as Young’s lyrics reveal, developing a sense of ourself in this way is not an easy task.  Such wisdom is hard-won, the process of struggle, of loss as well as success, and of many, many hours spent reflecting, talking to/with ourself…a silent, internal sounding of our own depths.

And for as important as such knowledge is to our own mental health and sense of well-being, there is little in most students’ school careers that helps them meet the self by itself and the self within our larger communities.

For most of my career as a teacher, be it in middle or high school, I’d always known that students hungered to better understand themselves.  After all, what else is education for if not to better understand the self?   For years I addressed this through stories, through philosophy, and through metacognitive exercises, and while all those had some meaningful effect, they never felt focused or cohesive.

Image result for Students polynesian wayfinderAnd then, two years ago, I stumbled upon Project Wayfinder.  The focus of this unique curriculum on understanding the self at the individual and community level has been instrumental in helping me to provide deeper meaning to the purpose projects that drive the way we learn in NOVA Lab.  But more important, it has provided key experiences to recognize the critical role of community in our classroom.  When students are provided with an open and understanding environment in which the entire community is driving towards a common but unique goal (to better know ourselves), they learn how to develop empathy and communication flourishes.

Oh, I realize I am only seven lessons into this unique curriculum, but I know enough to know when the tenor of a classroom changes.  And even if some of the lessons in the year-long curriculum don’t work for all students, their belief in the importance of the overall goal of the project is, I think, strong enough to keep them focused on the need for others in the community to engage more deeply.

I’ve asked students to write blog posts reflecting on their work with Project Wayfinder so far.  Below I’ve culled a number of quotations from their writing so that their own words might speak to the power of the project itself.

“WayFinder has proved to be more beneficial than simply planning out my career path. I have learned more about my personality and strengths, and thus more about myself. By obtaining this knowledge, I believe it will help me in my future career and relationships.  —Emma C.

“[Wayfinder] Mondays are one of the best parts of our inNOVAtion Lab class, as they give me a time that I would not have otherwise had to think about my own desires and goals in life.  Especially as I’m now applying to college, recognizing my own strengths and goals in life gives me such a good base upon which to base my essays and interviews.” –Andrew D

“The idea of living beyond the simplicity of school work and the all-too-familiar monotony of the workweek has been planted in our minds.  The only way to really have direction in one’s life is to define what makes us tick–our purpose(s) and how we want to leave our mark.  Wayfinder has done this for me.” –Ethan F.

Project Wayfinder has slowly shifted my attention to parts of myself that before I wouldn’t share with people I didn’t know very well or even people I am very close with. It’s reinvigorated my passion in things that had been overtaken by other aspects of my life and brought them to the surface as bold as ever.” —Jane H.

“Project Wayfinder been a unique experience unrivaled by any other in my high school career. In school, we’re always working for a grade, molding ourselves to the machine in order to get to college and beyond. [In Wayfinder], we’ve had the ability to not only shape our minds and opinions but adapt our personalities and go on a path of self-discovery. Most teenagers don’t even consider who they want to be as a character in their story, but Wayfinder asks us to stare our future in the face and affords us the time to mold ourselves to our own personal goals. It’s been really inspiring to not only go through these activities but see how others have been impacted and adapted from the knowledge they gained during Wayfinder activities.”  –Glen R.

“Project Wayfinder offers us learning not covered in any other aspect of the school system. At times this can be challenging but overall it is a very beneficial process. This allows me to take time and reflect on what I have done, what I want to do, and why these things matter to me. I personally do not do these things on a frequent basis, but this course brings a healthy cleanse of my pent up mental strain. Focusing on my goals and feelings is a foreign concept to me but has proven important. The course could not have come at a better time due to how now is the time where so many, literally, life-changing events are coming up. Whether this be college or academic prospects.
–Ethan S.

“Project Wayfinder is less about the specific answers it provides than the process. Instead of blindly doing things because I’ve always done them that way, I now regularly consider what brings me joy, what kind of person I am, and more. The power of Wayfinder, at least the early portion of the curriculum, is not to define one’s lifelong purpose, but to encourage the careful consideration that will one day result in one.” –Matt T.

Students everywhere will tell you that the idea of curriculum is killing any sense of purpose they have, and Wayfinder knows this. So instead of trying to give you a book as a surefire method to find your purpose, they use the best tool available to anyone, other people. All the book does is give them better questions to ask. For example, instead of asking you for a definite answer to what you’d like to do, another person is prompted to ask you to tell a story about a time you’ve enjoyed doing something. Humans aren’t meant to spit out correct answers and know ourselves perfectly, we find ourselves through the stories we tell and the people we tell them to.” –Miles C.

“While Project Wayfinder is still a young product, I thoroughly enjoy it and think that it should be applied wherever it can. Not just innovation classes – other classes, other schools, workspaces; there is never a wrong time or place to find your North Star.” Valencia C.

“Project Wayfinder helps us succeed in the world rather than merely in the classroom. It shows us that no matter how different we are and how separated we are that we have a purpose and that our purpose is consequential to the world.” –Nicholette D.

“Project Wayfinder is a way to ask questions to yourself and find out who you are. Completing the exercises with integrity and wholeheartedness is vital to really discovering oneself and peeling back the layers to become more open and vulnerable. I thoroughly enjoy Project Wayfinder every week and figuring out more about who I am, little nuances about my personality, and how I can find my purpose.”–Aleesha P.

Being only seventeen years old, most of my life has been dominated by my time in school. Because of this, when I think of my identity, I think “student,” but Wayfinder purposely tries to leave school out of the activities. I’m interested to see what the next lessons will bring, and how I will think of my identity outside of being a student.”
–Brandon S.


Bill Lyon: An Homage, of Sorts.

cole-hamels-cubsI learned today of the passing of one of the great sportswriters of any time.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bill Lyon deserved far more accolades than he ever received.  In my estimation, he represented the tail end of the great sportswriters of the early to mid-twentieth century.

Though slowed in his later years by Alzheimer’s, Lyon’s work, even about his battle with “Al”, was a pure pleasure to read, and something I used many times in my English classroom.

Below is my homage to his skill, written in 2009 during the second year of the Phillies magical run at two pennants.

I will miss your talent, Bill.  They don’t make ’em like you anymore.


Bill Lyon (center) in the Inquirer newsroom, circa 1990  (from inquirer.com)

(*I wrote the following as an e-mail to my middle school colleagues.)

“You might remember last year when I sent around an e-mail regarding poetry in everyday language.  It would have been around this time (actually, it was 10/27/08), and I referenced a line from retired Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon.  Bill had described Cole Hamels’ delivery to the plate as “a lawn chair unfolding, a gangling tangle of loose limbs that flummox hitters.”

Cole’s chair is a bit rusty this year, but Cliff Lee?  Well that’s another story, and Bill’s written another entry for your “poetry in everyday language” folder.

“Tenderly he rakes the dirt with his cleats, windmills both arms three vigorous times, turns to face second base, and fires a phantom pitch there.

“Then, ritual complete, he turns around and sets about turning the Los Angeles Dodgers around.  Also, inside out.  And every which way but loose.

[Here’s the simile…you knew it was coming.]

“Cliff Lee pitches like a man late for a date.

“Get the ball.  Throw the ball. Swing and miss. Next.

“Rawboned and lanky, the hired lefthanded gun of the Phillies, on this gelid October evening is seeking to get his team halfway to the World Series, and they oblige by presenting him with four runs of Thunder Ball in their very first at-bats.”

Gelid?????  Come on!  When was the last time you saw that word in the sports section!  I wouldn’t be surprised if Lyon wasn’t chomping on cigars, filling out the box scores, and telegraphing in his story, like they did back in the day:  Grantland Rice, Red Barber, Bill Lyon—that’s his family tree.

And while I risk turning this simple, beautiful observation into a homily, I’ll say that what we can learn from baseball, Phillies baseball particularly, is that sometimes, all that effort, all that struggle, all the waiting, the slow pace of the game that so irks today’s “hit ‘em hard, play it fast” crowd… what we can learn is it all pays off in the end.  Just so with Mr. Lyon.  Slow down, take the time, enjoy the story.  There’s more to the game than the stats and the final score you get “tweeted” to your hip in bulleted points.  Attention to the craft, to the crafting of words … it’s the same as working a 3-2 count from an 0-2 start.  And once you’re there, Bill Lyon hits a homerun most every time.

What (Should) We Talk About When We Talk About Education(?): Freedom, Growth, and the Right Question.

I’ve been reading this morning an incredible overview of bell hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress. (Huge thank you to Chris McNutt at The Human Restoration Project (HRP)).  hooks should be required reading for all educators, for she persuasively reveals why structures that empower all students are crucial to the continued pursuit of education as a human endeavor in freedom and liberation, and, even more important, to our democracy itself.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 8.08.07 AMThe Human Restoration Project’s review of Teaching to Transgress summarizes part of hooks’ challenge to her readers as a call to change the system of education itself:  “To change education means to rebel against prevailing notions of what education means — to dismiss grading as an inauthentic means of communicating standing, to challenge content relevance and usage, to reinvigorate pedagogy that puts learning in the hands of students beyond faux choice, to create communities of compassion and tolerance by enlightening the prevailing oppressive narrative. ”

I have no problem with the understanding that content itself is important.  One cannot think creatively and critically if one has no knowledge to turn over, probe, question.  However, when students remain mere vessels to be filled and there are no structures to A) actuate the knowledge they attain  in uncertain, ambiguous scenarios, and B) question the nature and origin of that knowledge to begin with, we are in danger of falling into the type of passive and compliant schools we seek to escape with our rhetoric of student-centered/learner-centered-ness.  Mere lip service to these goals only perpetuates “the oppressive narrative.”

At least one major plotline in that oppressive narrative is that learning is actually an


Source: NYU

exercise in achievement.  That exercise manifests as the incessant striving to jump another hurdle or check off another box.  The oppression here perverts human life itself, turning us into creatures ever driven to get to the next checkbox.  “I’ll have time to live when I pass calculus” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get my masters” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I get that raise in salary” becomes “I’ll have time to live when I retire.” 

Many schools are beginning to shift their narratives to more learner-centered methods.  My own district’s shifts to #pvempowers and #pvsddoschooldifferent are a start in moving away from the oppressive narratives.   But they and all such efforts are mere digital rhetoric if we do not act within the spaces those terms create to truly honor the curiosity and voice of all learners.

For me, such action begins with questions:  two of them emblazon the wall in my classroom (see image below).  The first is a question that empowers students to inquiry:  “Why are things the way they are?”  I believe it should be the primary question in all classrooms.  It is certainly the primary question in the mind of a K—2 aged child.

The second question, “How can we make them better?,”  speaks to something we need to recognize more, and to which bell hooks is directly speaking:  agency.  All humans have agency, but schools, in the name of efficiency and normative measures, serve as obstacles to students exercise of that agency.  And as all learning initiates in questions, the greatest obstacle the system presents is the lack of student questioning.

Why are things the way they are...As a debate coach of 27 years, student questioning was central to my practice with the team and in my classroom.  But for most of those years, my classroom students’ questions were based upon free-form generation, tapping into their natural curiosity.  Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique.  The Right Question Institute tags itself as a “Catalyst for Microdemocracy” and it founds that democratic action in questions.

Little I’ve done in over 25 years in the classroom has the impact of the QFT.  It is built with simplicity and rigor and it delivers on both areas.  However, one should not believe this is as easy as, “Just let them ask questions.”   Its simplicity is deceptive, and any teacher employing the QFT needs to prepare and establish consistency for the technique to work.

But the results of proper implementation are immediate.  The students are engaged, deeply, in the work.  I’ve seen them lose themselves in developing questions, restating questions, and prioritizing questions, and the thing is, all these questions are coming from them.  Yes, the teacher must have a purpose for these questions, and that constraint helps guide the later parts of the generation process, but it does nothing to change the fact that the students are allowed to “linger at the point of wonder” and touch base with their curiosity in a way that honors every student’s ideas and direction.

While I’ve spoken mostly of the benefits of the QFT to students, make no mistake, the most crucial change the process brings about is within us, the “educators.”  In American public education, we are engaged in the creation of a liberally educated populous.  The word, “liberal,” however has acquired such a political charge that many turn away before understanding the history of the word itself.  Professor William Cronon does such justice to this adjective that I defer here to his brilliant words from the essay, “Only Connect,” which gives this blog its name.

Screen Shot 2019-11-09 at 7.54.47 AM
The worn but valid metaphor, then, is that educators are gardeners, nurturers of freedom and growth, for whom a liberal education is not a tool of some leftist conspiracy driven by trigger words like “social justice” and “white privilege” but rather the very basis for all the benefits of this, the world’s longest experiment in self-rule.  Thus, education is about liberation, about freedom, about empowering people to take charge of their lives rather than live them as dictated by others.  In other words, it is about questioning our educational systems, our roles in them, our part in forming them, and about narrating our own way out of the oppressive narratives of those self-same systems.

What the Right Question Institute and their Question Formulation Technique get so right is the power of questions within democratic structures.  They are not merely methods through which to learn information.  Questions are the main tool of growth, liberation, and freedom.  They probe for information to better inform the polity.  They expose corruption, unmask deception, and hold power accountable.

Could anything be more important in our wickedly complex world?


To What Avail…?


I was rereading the blog of Prof. Paul L. Thomas the other day when I came across the quotation below.  (But first, massive props for Prof. Thomas’ work with pre-service teachers.  We need more people like him in those positions.)



Thomas quotes Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

I’d not encountered/remembered this quotation from my previous readings of Dewey.  I wonder…is it problematic?  Does it merely draw attention to the war that’s been ongoing for so long around content and skills, between the conservative wings of pedagogy and the more romantic/progressive wings?

As well, Dewey seems to indicate that winning that information comes at the cost of losing one’s soul.  I wonder if it isn’t possible to gain information and yet retain the soul.  I sure as heck hope so.  Though, I suppose what Dewey’s reacting to is a system that so champions acquisition over meaning and human growth as to suck the soul out of the very natural act of learning itself.

I think about these kinds of situations a lot, especially now that I’m working on a class, inNOVAtion Lab, in which I’m employing a rhizomatic approach to learning, an approach that champions the community as the source of the curriculum.  I’m still navigating the difficulties of moving from a curriculum map to a community that maps the curriculum itself, but if your curriculum map is anything like the ones I have to deal with, I’d rather have the community map the curriculum any day.

I’m not sure what my point is here.  I’m drawn to the work of David Cormier around Rhizomatic Learning, as well as to the writings of Ira Socol around similar topics, and, though I find it far more prickly, the writings and ideas of Gary Stager that stick a knife deep into the concept of curriculum in general.

Certainly a first-world problem, though, given how old “learning” is when compared with “teaching” and the school system itself, maybe not so first-world after all.

Just add water–Is Instant Curriculum in Your Future?

Splash Water Glass Just Add WaterIt’s not an overstatement to note that most curricula in American Public High Schools are bloated.  There’s too much to learn and so our toxic love affair with memorization and regurgitation continues, and only those students who like to play the memorization game feel loved by the system, and those who don’t find themselves jilted or just plain lost.  And while I note that the AP system has made strides to move away from content cramming and into more concept-based classes, the notebooks I’ve seen from students in certain AP classes read like the copied pages of an encyclopedia.

Now, there’s something to be said for the ability to memorize and retrieve information.  Indeed, I’ve benefited to some extent from having such a mind. My two appearances on TV game shows and the infinite nights of bar trivia I’ve attended evidence at least one benefit.  And, of course, there is the cognitive benefit that the more one knows, the more one is capable of knowing.  

But as most every pundit of education has noted for better than 15 years, drowning the brains of captive children with information is a poor goal for education in the digital age.  With the world’s libraries and all their stores of information in our pockets and at our fingertips, information is (clichéd phrases coming…) “ubiquitous,” and that means it’s no longer “what you know, but what you can do with what you know” that matters.  It’s the compelling stories you can tell with the information that will matter more than the knowledge of the information itself. * 

This is, of course, not entirely true.  Doctors, politicians, plumbers, engineers…we would agree that possession of a standard body of knowledge is crucial for them (and us).  However, for most of us, knowing the process of mitosis by heart, or the economic deficiencies of a banana republic…for most of us, those things are not (and here I’ll adopt David Perkins’ standard from his book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World) “lifeworthy.” That is, they are not “likely to matter, in any meaningful way, in the lives learners are expected to live.”  

And so, when I read a recent article by Alden Wicker on Vox about the movement to remove water from many of the cosmetics and cleaning products we use (to reduce packaging, plastics, and shipping costs), I got to thinking, thanks to the musing of Paul Haluszczak of Education Reimagined, about how a concentrated curriculum (focused on vital competencies) could be reconstituted by each learner through his or her own liberal application of “water” which Haluszczak suggests might be learner agency or interest–a sort of “autodidacticism via starter formula,” if you will.  


This concept is reminiscent of an idea I encountered on the website of consultant Christian Talbot–Minimum Viable Curriculum.  An MVC is “centered on just enough content to empower learners to examine questions or pursue challenges with rigor.”  As they explore, they will invariably encounter spaces where they need more information, and so they will grow the curriculum, with teacher assistance, of course.

As such a model would have to be project-, design- or challenge-based, the learning would occur mostly on a “just in time” basis rather than following the “just in case” model we use to stuff so much irrelevant information into our children’s heads.   It would also help focus our pedagogy on the act of learning itself, rather than mere transmission of content.  I doubt there’s a teacher alive who wouldn’t admit that what they seek most for all their students is that they learn how to understand and best manage their own learning processes.  A model like what I (and many others) am scratching at here seems a reasonable and prosperous starting point for such a goal.

I’ll continue to add water to this idea and see what (re) constitutes.  Hopefully, more such posts will emerge.

*(Note here I’m not saying that there is less value in knowing things.  Only that flooding students with content at the expense of building skills in self-driven, self-determined learning is, anymore, little better than treading water in order to cross the English Channel.)