leveling up Aloth

Outside of the Black Hound Inn in Gilded Vale I met an elf named Aloth; a wizard. Happily, after helping him settle a misunderstanding with a group of locals, he agreed to join my party. One restful night in the inn later, each of the characters was ready to level up.

Choosing new skills for myself was easy; as a low-level monk there was not a wide selection.

But choosing new spells for Aloth was difficult.

It wasn’t just that the number of spells to choose from was overwhelming. It was the possibility that I could choose wrongly, and that choosing wrongly would make things too difficult or prevent my progress altogether later in the game. If I made the wrong choice now, why even bother playing?

I closed the game and then busied myself with some chores. I kept thinking about Aloth. I’ve played other CRPGs; would Aloth even stay in my party the whole game? Aren’t all his spells useful, given the right circumstances? He would level up again later and I could choose different, better spells then. It’s just a game! If I mess up I can load an earlier save. It would be a setback, and it would cost me some time, but I could use my mistakes to make even better choices a second or third time through. And the quickest way to lose the game would be not playing at all.

That’s life and learning in a nutshell. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and to disengage. It’s harder to accept failure as part of the process, but it gets you further.

I leveled up Aloth by choosing a couple support spells. I ended up adding two new members to my party before, while straying from the road to explore, we were all summarily slaughtered by a pack of wolves.

But I keep playing!

Stay virtuous everybody.


Teaching and the Trichotomy of Control

Epictetus said;

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.

There are things we can control, such as our opinions and desires and choices. There are things we cannot control, among which Epictetus includes our bodies and our reputations. Some more obvious examples would be time, the weather, gas prices, or cats. Basically anything except our own mind.

Will Irvine expands on this dichotomy by splitting the category of things that are not up to us into two; things over which we have no control, and things over which we have some but not complete control.

When it comes to our students’ learning we have very little control.

Stoic philosophers often used the metaphor of an archer to describe our attachment to external outcomes. An archer’s job is to line up the shot to the best of their ability. Of course they would like to hit their target, but they also have no control over the wind and many other variables that will effect the arrow’s flight. So, having shot their best, a Stoic archer is satisfied even if they do not hit their mark.

Like the archer, as teachers all we can do is perform our duties well and then hope for fortune’s favor.

It has been difficult for me to work in a profession where there is so little actual control over the results, especially when accountability measures want to judge teachers by something as probabilistic as their students’ standardized test scores. Try to extend the metaphor of the archer to a teacher and her students’ test scores. Much like the flight of an arrow, despite how well prepared the student is leading up to the test, how well that teacher lines up the shot, the teacher has no control over the other variables that can effect the student’s performance in that particular moment. Did the student eat breakfast that morning? Were the police called to their house the night before? Does the student care to do well on this test, today? And let’s not forget that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to line up over a dozen shots all at the same time!

It’s frustrating to think that we can only lead students toward learning, as a horse to water, and only hope that eventually, fortunately, they will drink. It’s also strangely liberating. If I choose and act rightly, I have done my duty as a teacher, regardless of any external outcomes. But as we can see this is at odds with current accountability measures, which assume that the classroom teacher has nearly complete control, and that would judge us by our students’ single performance on a standardized test.

Would we honestly accept the idea that any teacher, having inordinate control over their students’ learning, would nevertheless allow them to underachieve?

A perfect accountability system would somehow weigh the rationality of the thousands of choices a teacher makes because this is the sole element of education that is completely within their control.

And likewise I believe the best measure of the effectiveness of an education system is not the results of standardized tests of achievement but the quality of the choices its students make. If we changed our focus, we might even find that one follows from the other. Although we have no control over our students, I am suggesting that we can measure our impact by the amount of control students leave schools with over their selves.

What did Greg Graffin say? Oh right. “We have no controooooooooooooooooool“. Stay virtuous everybody!

A philosophy of life: my personal foundational texts

My life has been a bit of a mess. When I want to fix things, I read a book.

I started with some specific areas; depression, procrastination, countless books on teaching and learning thinking that if I read enough to achieve my career goals everything else would fall into place.

Then I moved on to general self help texts, starting with “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. I want to be effective! But apparently not the kind of effective Covey had in mind because I just couldn’t connect with it.

Finally I came to “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Philosophy. But surely philosophy has little to offer when it comes to happiness. I had studied philosophy in college and it was all logic and epistemology, and never practical. Irvine assures us that it was not always so. There was a time when philosophers dealt in philosophies of life.

And Irvine has this to say of philosophies of life:

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

And I may have found a philosophy of life in stoicism, a philosophy that plays on many of my strengths. And ultimately I can distill that philosophy down to just three words; virtue, tranquility, and fortune.

Below are the texts that have helped me understand each.


“How To Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie

Marcus teaches us that our purpose as human beings is to befriend each other, and that our duty is to our fellow man. Carnegie gives practical advice on how to practice fellowship, and a plethora of anecdotal evidence of the rewards.

“The Marshmallow Test”, Walter Mischel

Ancient philosophers practically worshiped the “rational principle” within each human being. Mischel explains the origin, function, and limitations of that rational principle.


“A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine.

This text provides an excellent introduction to stoicism, but focuses on methods Roman philosophers taught for maintaining tranquility. Those methods include negative visualization, internalization of goals, voluntary discomfort, and exercises in fatalism.

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg

“The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work”, Christine Carter

Noticing and managing my habits has done a lot to help me preserve my tranquility. The latter chapters of Duhigg’s work I did not find helpful, but the beginning does an excellent job of explaining the fundamentals of habit formation and change by way of the “habit loop” model. Carter references Duhigg’s work, and expands upon how to use habits to create peace of mind.


“The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives”, Leonard Mlodinow

I love probability and statistics. I was fascinated by Mlodinow’s account of how that mathematics has developed over time, but he also describes very well how large of a role Fortune plays in success and failure.

“Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman details our reactions to randomness; the heuristics and biases we use to make a coherent story out of a chaotic world. This text helps us understand how to be virtuous in the face of Fortune, or in Kahneman’s words to invoke our lazy System 2 when System 1 starts jumping to conclusions.

In defense of “IEP kids”

This is a post where I say things to a colleague that I couldn’t say in the moment when it would have really mattered..

Can we please not refer to students with disabilities as IEP kids? It is not right to speak as if they were one homogenous group. This is especially true when blanket statements like “IEP kids can’t read” are applied. Many students receiving IEP services have print disabilities, yes, and it is an especially high proportion out of the students with disabilities in our high school. But many does not mean all. Some of our students with disabilities read quite well. Some of our students with print disabilities read better than their non-disabled peers.

Whether or not you realize it, the tacit statement you are making is that you do not want students with learning disabilities in your English class. You’d have them educated separately. But you’re operating on a common myth about learning disabilities; that they can be cured. Learning disabilities are never outgrown and can never just go away. We are talking about people who will struggle with basic skills their entire life. We can continue to build on those skills and narrow the gap between them and their peers, but not at the expense having an opportunity to do grade-level work with their non-disabled peers. This is the entire purpose of IEP accommodations; to ensure that students with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment. Those IEP accommodations are not just nice suggestions either, they are legal requirements that I will hold you accountable for.

The difficulties with reading in our school are not even confined to students with disabilities. Our entire 7th grade struggles with reading. The number of students in our elementary Educational Support System who need additional reading instruction is staggering. What you are witnessing is the effect of trying to run a school without a curriculum, without systematic reading instruction, and with very few means of assessing whether its students are meeting grade-level standards. Do not make students with disabilities your scapegoat. The real problem is our dereliction of duty.

What happens when you assume

During a staff meeting a month or two ago we were asked to sum up our teaching persona in one word. The word that I chose was unassuming.

Not pretentious or arrogant;  modest:  “an unassuming and kindly man”.


modest – unpretentious – humble – unpretending – lowly

I thought this was accurate because I try to model inquiry all of the time. I’m always seeking independent confirmation when trying to work out the answer to tough questions, looking for multiple solutions to the same problem, or feigning ignorance in class to help demonstrate a process to students. I don’t really want students to look to me as some inexhaustible source of knowledge; I want them being critical and searching for answers themselves. My approach to misbehavior is also unassuming; I try not to base how I deal with students on preconceptions, stereotypes, or guesses. Instead I talk to students and really try to understand what is happening.

As unassuming as I am with students, I assume far too much in dealing with other teachers. And it’s becoming a serious problem.

Working with students, I never assume that they have background knowledge of what we’re discussing and I’m constantly checking for understanding. Talking to other teachers I assume what they know is consistent with what I know, and end up keeping important details to myself. If I delegate a task to someone else I assume they know exactly what to do, whereas I’d provide at least a semblance of directions to students. I assume both the best and the worst from my fellow teachers, and end up pleasantly or troublingly surprised after lengthy periods  without follow-up conversations. I trust my students to do their best but constantly seek confirmation.

COMMUNICATION is the theme in our three-person Sp. Ed. department, and there’s no room for assumptions in good communication. I feel that I’m definitely communicating more with other teachers than I have previously, so now it’s time to communicate more effectively. Eliminating assumptions seems like a good place to start.

How Smart Can We Get? 4 Takeaways for Students

A recent episode of NOVA scienceNOW tries to answer an interesting question: How Smart Can We Get? The human brain is an impressive organ that changes over time – here are four useful points for students interested in how they can develop their thinking skills..

  • Areas of the brain literally grow through training.

Size isn’t everything, but learning creates visible growth in the brain. A knob forms on the right motor cortex after just 15 months of training on a string instrument, and a similar knob forms on the left side through piano training. These are stark examples of the concept of brain plasticity; the ability of your brain to change and grow throughout your lifetime.

  • Your memory is more expansive than you think.

A memory champion can memorize 303 numbers, or the order of a deck of playing cards in just five minutes. An average person can memorize 60 random numbers or 40 random words in about ten minutes. How? A memorization technique called the Method of Loci. It’s a multi-sensory, location based approach.

Like every other one of our biological faculties, our memories evolved through a process of natural selection in an environment that was quite different from the one we live in today. And much as our taste for sugar and fat may have served us well in a world of scarce nutrition but is maladaptive in a world of ubiquitous fast-food joints, our memories aren’t perfectly suited for our contemporary information age. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. (NYT)

You’re wired to remember locations – use familiar places as an anchor for new information. By adding extra information like a stupid, novel image (bacon hands), sound, emotion, and movement, you create even more connections that increase the odds of remembering.

  • Intelligence can improve over time.

Your brain can grow over time, but bigger might not be better. The ‘grey matter’ of the brain is the outside nerve cells. Your brain also includes ‘white matter’; long nerve fibers connecting different regions of the brain to one another. New research suggests that these connections between specific regions might be one of the best indicators of intelligence; and you can do things to improve those connections, like learning to juggle! When it comes to your brain, you need to use it or lose it. Learning new skills builds connections within your brain and makes future learning easier.

  • Your emotions are important.

What happens in your brain when you choke during an exam? Activity in the hippocampus, specifically the amygdala which processes emotions including fear and anxiety, interrupts your prefontal cortext (where working memory is). Your emotions are talking over your rational brain, and you choke.

Break the cycle by journaling before a stressful task. In a psychological study, students who wrote about their feelings in a journal for 10 minutes before a test scored 1/2 a grade-point higher than those who didn’t. This suggests that taking time to get your feelings off your mind frees up cognitive resources, allowing you to perform just as well in a clutch as you would normally.

Your emotions are a central part of your thinking and affect your learning, memory, and performance in school.

Utility Player

Wikipedia tells us that “in baseball, a utility player is a player who can play several different positions”. My all-time favorite example is Bill Hall‘s 2010 season with the Boston Red Sox as a “super-utility” player, where he played all but two positions including an impressive outing as a closing pitcher who retired all three batters he faced armed only with a fastball.

These days I’m feeling a bit like a utilityman. As a special educator, I already perform the role of instructor, case-manager, paraprofessional supervisor, and advocate. I also perform all of my school’s basic psycho-educational testing. Add to that student adviser, and for the next 8 weeks- part-time classroom science teacher. When I lay it all down like that it seems overwhelming, but I know I’m not alone..

If you look at any teacher do they just play one position? Read about teacher roles and responsibilities anywhere and you’ll see that they fulfill many; instructor, assessor, manager, surrogate parent. I was told in teacher training that this career would be unlike any other but it’s only just hit me how true that that is.

Occupy! in education

Saturday I attended the Occupy! conference at Goddard College in Plainfield. The conference consisted of a keynote by author Les Leopold and three panel discussions, as well as a General Assembly held afterwards.

A lot of the discussion centered around the “non-oppressive” communication techniques used during General Assemblies, as well as how facilitators seek to recognize and resolve issues around “implied power”. Some of the panelists were actually defensive when commenters seemed to question the necessity of these tools of communication. A good summary of General Assembly guidelines and procedures can be found here via Occupy Los Angeles.

This video provides a decent look at how a GA plays out:

What I wonder is how these same non-oppressive tools of discussion can be used in the classroom. I think a lot of teachers are already doing “temperature checks” in one way or another. “Twinkles” are just one more low-tech way of checking for understanding/consensus. What about whole-class discussions using these procedures? Would it really help balance participation between timid students and those with strong personalities, the way it’s supposed to? I’m not sure. And I’d like to see how students respond to the gestures. Maybe it fills the need that young people increasingly have for instant feedback.

If you get a chance to try it out, let me know how it goes.