Friday, June 19, 2015

Vertical Learning and Constraints

[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]

To learn vertically, we need to be in a state of constant cognitive dissonance. To tolerate a state of constant cognitive dissonance, we need to experience continuous growth and increasing agency. That growth must occur along two parallel tracks: the psychological and the sociological. Without cognitive dissonance, Piaget would say that there is no learning. Without psychological and sociological growth, Dewey would say that there is no education. So, how do we implement vertical learning in today’s society, where most students are “educated” in public schools that impose roles and curriculum on students? If we act strategically, then we rebuild society to create the conditions that enable vertical learning to flourish. Right now, our ability to implement vertical learning is constrained, but as full members of society, it is within our power to change that.

While today’s public schools are not fertile ground for vertical learning, the conditions are not exactly hostile either. A strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making teacher can do a lot within present constraints while pushing against those constraints at the same time. Let’s address the curriculum first. In a public school, the curriculum is largely defined by society. This is now happening in the U.S. at the national level, but even when it was happening at the district or classroom level, it was almost always controlled by adults. Some reformers argue that schools can never be effective as long as students don’t control the curriculum, that students won’t learn unless the curriculum is relevant to them. So, what does that mean as we move to adopt Common Core Standards and even more high-stakes testing?

If we are going to implement vertical learning in schools, we need to expand our definitions of curriculum and relevance. Many conflate relevance with choice and intrinsic interest in content. But the middle school students I work with have outgrown the egocentric stage of development and are more concerned with their futures and finding their places in society. In Disrupting Class, Christensen found that students engage in schooling when they can hire schools to be successful. A vertical curriculum in a public school can’t offer much choice, but it can help you grow, prepare for the future, experience sense-making, feel capable, participate as a full member of a vertical learning community, and be your best possible self. Growing into a strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner is huge. Finding a community where you can be your best possible self is huge. The content of a course is one curriculum, but there is also the psychological curriculum where you learn about yourself and the sociological curriculum where you learn what a society can be and do. In my experience, those last two curricula are highly relevant to all students.

If you are only relying on intrinsic interest in content to make learning relevant, you won’t be very successful. You may engage students initially, but if learning doesn’t go vertical, there will not be psychological growth. The key is going vertical. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find curricula today that supports vertical learning. The Common Core Standards in math and the Next Generation Science Standards don’t support it. How can they? Most of us learn horizontally, so those standards have to support horizontal learning. But that ends up reinforcing horizontal learning and discouraging vertical learning. It is still possible to design a vertical curriculum that teaches to those standards, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. When I started teaching math in 1995, I had to meet a set of standards by the end of the year. When I became a science curriculum specialist, our department had to meet a set of standards by the end of a three-year grade span. While constrained, we were still able to design curricula within those constraints that went vertical. But as school districts move toward consistent instruction across classrooms, that flexibility is going away. It is hard to go vertical when you have to teach in lockstep with the horizontal classroom next door.

Another source of concern is the lack of headroom in the curriculum. I think it is possible to design a vertical curriculum that is aligned with standards over three years and that also meets a student’s growth requirements over three years. But, by year five, an independent, active, sense-making learner will have outgrown the standards. A sense-making learner will want to drill deeper and build higher, going well beyond the scope of the standards. An independent learner will want to leverage the learning skills they are developing inside of the classroom to study topics that interest them outside of the classroom. While these students would be capable of learning on their own, they would still benefit from a community that encourages cognitive dissonance, and they would still need support to grow into coherent learners. I functioned as coach and mentor for my students on my own time, but that was only possible because I dedicated the time and chose teaching positions where I never had more than sixty students at once.

As students are growing along the psychological track, they also need to grow along the sociological track. However, the sociological track does not have to be immediately apparent. Instead of presenting my classroom as an exercise in democratic education, I transparently designed systems and structures that made learning the priority. I did not solicit ideas and we did not vote on ideas, but if someone had an idea that would enhance learning, we implemented it. Students learned over time that they could change the design of the learning community as they grew to understand it and became invested in it. When enough students were engaged or major changes were being proposed, we opened things up for general discussion. This approach highlights the importance of Dewey’s parallel tracks.

Imagine that you start working at a company where employees vote on major decisions. Would you feel empowered? I might if the company had a strong culture and if this process had a proven track record. But if this was a new company with all new employees, I’d be worried and annoyed. Even with excellent protocols and facilitators in place, a democratic decision-making process is messy and rarely results in optimal solutions. And before enough people could even begin to learn how to communicate and work together, most people would disengage and stop caring. Now imagine that you start working at a company where the managers listen to and implement good ideas from their employees. At first, employees might be cautious and only submit ideas directly related to their job functions. But if managers truly listened and proved that they were capable of recognizing and implementing good ideas, then employees would get bolder and think bigger. Along the way, they would learn about the business and learn to evaluate ideas from a company-wide perspective. Basically, instead of running the company regardless of capability, you’d play a more active role in running the company as you grew in capability. I believe that this is a better and more authentic way to run a democratic company.

Here is a specific example of how psychological and sociological growth build on one another. In a vertical classroom, everyone is focused on learning and making sense of things because of the systems and structures that have been put in place. Because everyone is learning and making sense of things, everyone is able to contribute to the collective work and progress of the community. Students learn through experience that anyone can and will contribute a critical advance at any time, moving the entire community forward. So, when students work with each other, it is with an extraordinary level of mutual respect; and when students suggest changes to systems and structures in the classroom, it is important to them that those changes continue to enable everyone to participate and contribute fully. This does not come out of a sense of fairness, but from an internalized understanding that the community functions better when everyone has a voice and is encouraged to participate. Losing a voice means that the community is weaker, and decisions and progress will be suboptimal. Without that realization, our desire to find the best answer most efficiently is at odds with our sense of fairness. After that realization, those core values can be aligned and shared. We can’t build a better society until we grow into better individuals.

What happens when the students bump up against constraints not imposed by the teacher, but imposed by the school or society? Well, what happens when I bump against those same constraints myself? As these students grow along the sociological track, they will learn that they have the same power to change schooling and to change society that anyone else does. It’s not a matter of waiting for someone else to clear obstacles for you or to give you an opportunity to make a difference; it’s about growing into and exercising the power you already have. If I created a sandbox without constraints for students to play in sociologically, it wouldn’t be authentic and they’d never learn to be strategic. A sense-making learner understands constraints, a coherent learner understands how to work within constraints, and a strategic learner understands how to work around constraints. If going vertical is something that they care about, then they will work to figure out how to make that happen. It’s what I’m doing.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dewey, Society, and Cognitive Development

[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]

Dewey makes another critical point that I also brushed aside twenty years ago. He stresses that, for education to be effective, growth must occur along two parallel tracks: the sociological and the psychological. The sociological track is where we learn by participating in society, eventually contributing to society and rebuilding it as an individual. The psychological track is where we come into our own power, growing our capabilities as an individual. When we begin our education, we don’t and can’t know who we want to be or what we want society to be, yet. We need to grow to figure those things out, and we can’t grow psychologically if we don’t grow sociologically, and vice versa.

In Dewey and Society, I wrote that a strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner will want to rebuild all of the communities and relationships in his life, that he will want to change society. I’m sure that some of you balked at that: “Hey! Not everyone wants to change society. People have different interests, goals, and passions in life.” While that is true, it is also true that you cannot know all of your future interests, goals, and passions based on where you are right now. Are you happy with society as it presently exists? Is there anything you would change about society if you could?

Most of us feel as though we can’t, on our own, change society; we lack the capability. So, we don’t try. And to avoid any cognitive dissonance that might come from that decision, we tell ourselves that we aren’t that interested in changing society. But how can you know whether or not you want to change society if you haven’t even tried to envision what those changes might look like? Our sociological growth is limited by our individual capacity. We won’t consider trying to change society if we don’t think we have the capacity. And, if we can’t change society, we aren’t full members of society, so we hold back from participating and investing in society. But our psychological growth is also limited if we aren’t allowed to change society. If we aren’t allowed to change society, then we limit our aspirations to what society does allow. We dream smaller, and that limits our growth as individuals.

In My Pedagogic Creed, Dewey writes: “I believe that the psychological and social sides are organically related and that education cannot be regarded as a compromise between the two, or a superimposition of one upon the other.” He warns against letting one track take precedence over the other. I ignored that warning twenty years ago, and I ignored it again when I wrote An Introduction to Vertical Learning two months ago.

I define vertical learning as a process that takes us through a series of five developmental stages: from reluctant learner to strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner. I haven’t defined those stages yet (that will have to happen in a separate post), but those stages represent cognitive development, or what Dewey would describe as the psychological track, where we grow into our own power. In defining vertical learning, I didn’t discuss a parallel sociological track. That’s not because one doesn’t exist—my students wouldn’t have gone vertical unless I also nurtured their sociological growth—but because I didn’t recognize that psychological growth cannot occur without sociological growth. (By definition, a strategic thinker is operating in a social context and a full member of society.) I plan on rectifying this in the near future.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dewey and Society

[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]

When I read Dewey twenty years ago and he said that education is a social process, that made sense to me. While we can and do learn on our own, we learn more effectively when we interact with other people. It opens us up to new experiences and viewpoints that can generate cognitive dissonance, which causes us to revise our mental models and learn.

Consider the game Minecraft. Millions of people play Minecraft and learn from each other every day. Now, imagine that the social component of Minecraft did not exist: you could still play Minecraft, but you couldn’t share what you were doing or know what others were doing. People would still play Minecraft, but probably not as many. People would still learn to do new things in Minecraft, but again, probably not as many. Our education in Minecraft is dramatically enhanced when we are an active member of a larger community, even if that community is just one other person.

But Dewey took his thinking much farther than that. He didn’t just say that individuals learn by participating as members of a society; he said that individuals must also participate in creating that society. In My Pedagogic Creed, Dewey writes: “In sum, I believe that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass.” Educating ourselves to participate in a society that we cannot change is a pointless exercise. We aren’t full members of a society we cannot change.

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what to do with that line of reasoning. I couldn’t translate it into classroom practices, so I assimilated it and brushed it aside. Today, it makes sense to me. For learning to go vertical, you need to be in a state of constant cognitive dissonance. To tolerate a state of constant cognitive dissonance, you need to experience continuous growth and increasing agency. It takes a very special and a very rare community to support and nurture that. If you spend a lot of time with people who constantly make you think and help you grow and do, you notice. And if you are inquisitive, you wonder about it. What makes this community and these relationships different? Why aren’t all of my communities and relationships like this? How can I make all of my communities and relationships better?

Can we learn vertically if we aren’t members of a community that we can change? Of course. You can learn vertically on your own. You can learn vertically using a community as a resource, drawing from it what you need. But if you are participating as a member of a learning community that nurtures vertical learning, eventually you are going to want to change it… and society in general. When you are a reluctant learner, you may ignore the differences between the vertical learning community and the other communities in your life. But those differences will generate cognitive dissonance once you are an independent, active, sense-making learner; and you will want to rebuild your communities once you are a strategic, coherent, independent, active, sense-making learner. If you sense that changing the community is not an option, it places a ceiling on your potential growth and agency, and you won’t tolerate the state of constant cognitive dissonance required to go vertical. In fact, the community will cease being a vertical learning community at all.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance, Agency, and Growth

[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]

Consider cognitive dissonance for a moment. You have a theory that you think is accurate. But now you have to admit to being wrong: your theory is inaccurate. You may have held that theory for years. Other theories may be based on it. It may be central to your world view. It may have taken years for you to develop and you may be immensely proud of it. And now you have to let it go.

When Alec prompted me to reexamine Piaget and Dewey, and I realized that I needed to revise my understanding of their theories, I was happy. I’ve learned to recognize cognitive dissonance as an opportunity for growth and new learning. But that is a learned response. At a much deeper level, cognitive dissonance is still a powerful blow to the ego. Alec and I get together every few months, and I enjoy our conversations because he challenges me to think in new ways. But if he was challenging me daily or weekly, I might grow to resent it. I have resented it. I resent it when I feel like I’m not challenging him in the same way, or when I feel like revising my thinking isn’t enabling us to interact at a higher level. In other words, I resent it when I feel like a little kid learning at someone’s knee and I’m not making much progress.

Alec and I are peers, so that affects how I experience that relationship. Sarah has been my coach for two years. Even though there is no expectation that she will learn from me as I learn from her, it is important to me that she has. But more important is my sense that I’ve been able to internalize the things that I’ve learned, which enables us to take on work that has a much wider scope and impact.

When I first hired Sarah, I had concrete goals in mind. For example, I had the opportunity to pitch one of my ideas to a hundred people in the edtech community. I wasn’t that worried about the pitch itself, but I was scared of the networking that would follow. Sarah suggested that I take some time to think about who I wanted to be at the event and to visualize what that would look like. I then made a plan for myself. While the evening didn’t go exactly according to plan, it went well. At past networking events, I would try to decide what to do in the moment. As the wheels in my head spun, I probably looked like a deer in headlights. By developing a plan ahead of time, I took a lot of thinking (and second guessing) out of the equation and let my reflexes take over. I felt active instead of passive, and this carried over into the energy I brought to each interaction.

If all we had done is work through my concrete goals in a year, I would have considered my time with Sarah very well spent. But as we worked together, I was emboldened to stretch farther and farther, to goals that I had put on the back burner years ago and to goals that I had never even admitted to myself. After working through less than half of my concrete goals, I knew that I had the tools to finish those goals myself and I started setting my sights on bigger targets.

For decades, I have known that I’m at my best when I’m in the moment. I can be very analytical and tend to over think things, hampering my ability to act. When I can turn off that part of my brain for a little while and just be, I’m smarter and happier. There’s always been some tension between the spontaneous person I envision myself to be and the work that I’ve done with Sarah to be more intentional and to use pre-planning to break away from default patterns. I haven’t experienced cognitive dissonance because I’ve viewed this work as transitional: in the future, once I’ve broken old habits and established new ways of being, I’ll be present with myself enough to make all of my decisions in the moment. But recent experiences have made me question that.

It is hard to be in the moment when thinking about everything at the same time. It is hard to work on this blog post if I’m thinking about whether or not blogging is my best, most strategic use of time. And it’s probably not the best time to re-open that discussion when I’m in the midst of struggling with a difficult thought or passage. So how do I know what to think about when?

A week ago, Sarah gave me a little nudge that made me see things differently. What if it’s not about my conscious mind knowing when to plan and when to be in the moment? Maybe it’s about integrating the different parts of myself. At times, I feel like the different parts of myself are battling for dominance. This cacophony makes it hard to function and I rarely feel at peace with my decisions. I’m often happy with an experience after I’ve had it, but almost never happy going into it. This battling takes a huge toll on me. But maybe the parts of myself are battling because they don’t trust that they will get what they need when they need it? If I feed the parts of myself whenever they stand up, maybe they will be happy and learn to manage themselves. This is a new line of thinking for me, but it makes sense. I’m running some experiments to see how well my experiences fit this new mental model.

I wouldn’t have been receptive to Sarah’s nudge if we hadn’t built trust over the years. But I wouldn’t have trusted Sarah if I didn’t sense that she was capable of nudging me in the right places. Being in a state of constant cognitive dissonance is difficult, even when you know that it is good for you. I would say that it is impossible unless you can sense yourself growing and taking on more things. If there was any hint that I was dependent on Sarah and not growing, I would resent and reject her nudges, and our coaching relationship would break down. To be in a state of constant cognitive dissonance, we need to experience agency and growth.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Piaget and Cognitive Dissonance

[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]

One of the core principles of vertical learning is that we learn by constructing and revising mental models. This comes straight out of Piaget’s constructivist learning theory. When I entered the teaching profession in 1995, constructivism was all the rage. Well over half the math teachers I met self-identified as constructivists. But then TERC Investigations and CMP happened, igniting the math wars. The public backlash was enormous, and constructivism was an early casualty.

The failures of TERC Investigations and CMP had nothing to do with constructivism itself. Constructivist learning theory is a theory for how we learn, not a theory for how we should teach. We construct our own understanding whether we are playing with blocks or sitting in a lecture. One learning experience is not inherently superior to the other.

So, what does constructivist learning theory tell us?

  • We construct our own understanding by developing internal theories (mental models or schema) to explain our experiences.
  • Two people having the same experience may not use or develop the same mental models to explain it. We explain our experiences differently.
  • We force new experiences to fit into existing mental models using a process called assimilation.
  • We experience cognitive dissonance when we notice discrepancies between our experiences and our mental models.
  • If we experience cognitive dissonance, we attempt to revise our mental models to better fit our experiences using a process called accommodation.

Imagine that you have a friend who believes that Democrats always vote to increase the size and power of government. Now, imagine that this mental model is naive: your friend believes that there are no exceptions to his theory even though there are clear cases where his theory does not line up with reality. When your friend is confronted by a discrepancy, he can either deny the discrepancy (assimilation) or note the discrepancy and revise his theory (accommodation). If he is able to revise his mental model so that it fits better and explains more, then his mental model has become more sophisticated.

I believe that the primary role of a teacher is to encourage us to actively test our mental models as widely as possible, and to take note of discrepancies where they exist. If we experience cognitive dissonance, then we will feel compelled to revise and improve our own mental models. But do we need teachers in this equation at all? Can’t we test our models and find discrepancies on our own?

As we grow as learners, we get better at testing our models and detecting discrepancies. Where reluctant learners avoid cognitive dissonance, independent active learners seek out and embrace cognitive dissonance. But I don’t think we ever reach a point where we can see everything ourselves. We may not need a formal teacher, but we do need to interact with people who can point out our blind spots. For example, I thought I knew Piaget and Dewey well. It wasn’t until my friend Alec gave me a nudge that I questioned that belief and uncovered that I didn’t know Piaget and Dewey nearly as well as I thought. I don’t think I was being defensive and avoiding discrepancies; I just thought I was too busy to go back and double check every little thing. Now I’m glad that I did.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning

I had dinner with my friend Alec a few weeks ago. After reading An Introduction to Vertical Learning, he asked me how I saw vertical learning sitting relative to Piaget and Dewey. Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist and philosopher who believed that we generate meaning through the interaction of our experiences and ideas, and that cognitive development occurs through a series of stages. John Dewey was an American psychologist and philosopher who had a profound belief in democracy. He believed that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and that all students should take an active role in their own learning.

Vertical learning is firmly grounded in Piaget’s constructivist learning theory. It is designed to encourage students to become independent active learners by seeking out and embracing cognitive dissonance. Dewey’s influence on vertical learning is less direct. Like Dewey, I believe that the purpose of education is not to acquire a pre-determined set of skills, but to realize one’s full potential. On the surface it may have appeared as though my students were studying math and science, but they knew that they were actually building their capacity to learn in general. Without that sense of relevance, they would have never taken ownership of their own learning and gone vertical. You could say that I was using Piaget’s engine to drive us to Dewey’s destination.

Alec’s question prompted me to brush up on Piaget and Dewey. Ideas that I thought I knew well took on new meanings once I examined them again through twenty years of experience and a more sophisticated set of mental models. This cognitive dissonance is causing me to revise my own thinking once more. This is still a work in progress, but here are some of my recent thoughts on Piaget and Dewey.

Piaget and Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive Dissonance, Agency, and Growth
Dewey and Society
Dewey, Society, and Cognitive Development
Vertical Learning and Constraints

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On My Birthday

I celebrated my 46th birthday two weeks ago. I haven’t celebrated my birthday on my birthday in over ten years. I usually have dinner with my family on the weekend. We’ll have a cake, and my niece and nephew will make me cards, but my birthday is folded in with Mother’s Day and I am resolutely not the center of attention. I usually spend a day with my friend Kerry some time in May. Our birthdays are both in May, and we use the occasion to slow down, hang out, and catch up. But nothing on the day itself.

In the weeks leading up to my birthday, well-wishers inevitably ask me what I’m doing that day. I’ll deflect and say that I’m too old to celebrate my birthday, that getting one year older isn’t something that I want to celebrate. They’ll tell me that I’m being silly and that I should do something fun. I’ll smile and shake my head ruefully. But this year was a little different. Relatives flew into town for a graduation, and I don’t know if it’s because they grew up in Mississippi, but they were shockingly warm and caring. The number of people insisting that I do something special on my birthday doubled, and it must have had an impact on me because, when I went to bed the night before my birthday, I suddenly wanted to mark the occasion. How? I had no idea.

In the morning, I woke up to find a lengthy email from my sister Carol, and a half dozen birthday wishes posted on my Facebook wall. Over the course of the day, a few more emails and another half dozen Facebook posts came in. I also got a phone call from my parents. I had the second of two birthday cupcakes from my sister Lisa for breakfast. Then at around noon, I sat down to work at my computer. I had recently taken on two freelance projects, and both projects were coming down to the wire. Deadlines were tight and team members were depending on me. I worked until 7:50 PM, taking a few lengthy breaks for lunch, to go on a walk, and to clean my kitchen. After work, I had dinner, responded to everyone who had sent me birthday wishes, took a midnight stroll, and then wrote in my gratitude journal.

As I sat down to write in my gratitude journal, I felt a warm, radiating sensation in my body. I was glowing with happiness. When I tried to identify the source of my happiness, the first thought that popped into my head was that I felt “well-taken care of.” What did that even mean? As I probed deeper, a second thought popped into my head. This second thought was so far outside my normal way of being that I was reluctant to commit it to paper. But I did. I wrote that I felt “loved and well-connected.”

Let me tackle the second thought first. A few months ago, I reconnected with an old friend through Facebook. Zmira is Israeli. We worked together at the Jewish Community Day School and, even though she was the visitor in a foreign land, she sort of adopted me. The whole community at JCDS sort of adopted me. I was constantly being invited over to Shabbat dinner by people whom I barely even knew as work friends. But when Zmira returned to Israel and I left JCDS, we fell out of touch and I disconnected from the JCDS community. Reconnecting with Zmira through Facebook restored this old network. And this old network didn’t know or care that I had stopped celebrating my birthday. Old friends just posted birthday wishes on my wall. But here’s the weird thing. Current friends who had stopped trying to send me birthday wishes over the years were suddenly posting on my wall, too. It was this sudden and completely unexpected outpouring that made me feel incredibly loved and well-connected.

Now back to the first thought. It is hard to reconcile feeling “well-taken care of” while working on my birthday, going through my regular routine, and not speaking to a soul all day other than my parents. When I woke up that morning, I was concerned that my little voice was going to throw a tantrum because I decided to mark my birthday the night before, but I had already committed to a full day of work in my weekly plan. My little voice was going to be upset no matter what I chose to do. So, I woke up that morning determined to be extra kind and attentive to my little voice. I let him know that his needs took priority. I planned to work, but we would spend time together doing a few special things, and I was prepared to ditch work at a moment’s notice.

I am normally a bit dismissive and disdainful of my little voice. He shows up to nag me at the worst possible times. So, my concern and attentiveness must have been disarming because he agreed that working made sense as long as I took frequent breaks and promised to stop working by 8:00 PM. Together, we outlined some of the special things that we would do together. The top priority was responding to each birthday wish with warmth and gratitude. We really looked forward to it. We also planned an extra long midnight stroll and a special birthday dinner. My parents had given me spareribs and two beautiful fresh green peppers. I love green peppers, but hadn’t prepared them with black bean and garlic sauce in ages. It was the perfect comfort food for my birthday. With the day mapped out, my little voice was content, but I was still concerned. So I checked in on him constantly, maintaining a running dialogue with him as I worked. This made my little voice very happy. And I was happy, too. We both felt “well-taken care of.”

There are a few things that I took away from my birthday celebration. The first is that I’m rarely present with myself. I’m happiest and at my best when I’m present with other people, especially kids. But when I’m by myself, I associate being in the moment as getting lost in the moment and entering a flow state. When I started my midnight strolls, going for a walk at 3:00 AM on a warm summer night in a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals, I wrote about the serenity I feel as my senses open wide to take everything in. But I am there, too. Noting my own pleasure makes me smile and laugh inside. I need to be present with myself more often.

The second thing that I took away was the need to acknowledge the positive things that I have in my life. The love and connections represented by those birthday wishes didn’t just materialize out of thin air. They existed the day before my birthday, too. But I hadn’t acknowledge them until they manifested themselves in an unmistakable way on my birthday. What if I acknowledged and experienced that love and those connections on a daily basis?

My third takeaway is something that I’ve been working at for a long time, but I still have a long way to go. One of my daily practices is writing in my gratitude journal. For 15 minutes a day, I am present with myself as I acknowledge the things that make me grateful. I am grateful for many things, but I tend not to acknowledge the role that I play in any of it. I noticed that I was doing this again as I was writing the fifth paragraph of this blog post. I had a hand in creating those connections, too. Zmira and I adopted each other, and the JCDS community and I embraced each other. It wasn’t by accident that they decided to make the secular math teacher the 7th- and 8th-grade homeroom teacher for the school. I can be a bit odd, but I’m a good friend. Sometimes I need to acknowledge how awesome I am.

Happy birthday, kid! Be good to yourself and stop deflecting! :)