Chain, Chain, Chain

They say that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is true. But, they never tell you what to do with that link. Do you fortify it? Or, do you just shorten the chain? If you choose fortification, how much time, effort and resources do you allocate to this task? If you decide to do remove the link, do you do it right away or only after so many failed attempts at fortification? Which approach results in strongest most impactful chain?

I always thought that I was on the fortification side of things. I always imagined that if my students and I were being chased through the woods by zombies that I would run back to help the one clumsy son of a bitch that got his foot twisted up in a tree root. But, it turns out that I may not be that kind of guy after all.

Before diving into the discussion, let me set the stage. This past semester my students and I took a ropes course. We arrived with different level of experience, athletic abilities and tolerances for height. However, we moved from station to station as a unit. We moved together. When fear gripped one of us, the rest of us would pause, put our personal struggles on hold and focus our attention on our classmate. We encouraged. We assisted. We waited. And, when they started moving again, we applauded. No one was left behind.

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The Gridiron Teaching Academy

Ten days. Twenty practices. And, one scrimmage game. That was the length of my coaching career. I was junior in college when I was asked to coach the defensive backs of my high school football team. I had two weeks. After that, I was heading back to Earlham for my own two-a-days. It was a short coaching career. But, it left three indelible marks.

1. Great things happen when you blur the line between Coach and Player.

I did all the drills with my players. I tackled dummies. I pushed the sled. I ran suicides. It felt natural. I was preparing for my own season. And, since I was running alongside of them, I was in a better position to nudge, cajole and challenge them. When their heads were raised to the heavens gasping for air, I could say “I’m right there with you.” When they were unsure that they could continue, I could ask “Can you do one more?” And, since I was experiencing what they were experiencing, they could and they would. I earned every bead of their sweat with my sweat.

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Digging Ditches

holes“Do you want to be digging ditches for the rest of your life?” That question/threat sums up my college counseling experience. Fear of that prospect (and football) rather than a love of learning got me to enroll in college. The love of learning would emerge. But, why is digging so denigrated in our culture? Why do we refer to this occupation whenever we want to motivate young people to go to college?

It does not make sense to me. Moving a pile of dirt from point A to point B is one of the first things we did as humans. There is something timeless about this occupation. It is something we have always done. And, it is something we will always have to do. Digging into the Earth is one of the first things we do as kids. It is instinctual. It is like the Earth calls to us to dig. I know that I cannot wait to grab a spade and dig into the Earth on the weekends. When I am close to the Earth, I feel more centered and at ease. I feel more human. And, when I dig, I imagine all the other hands that have dug before me. I also image all the other hands that are currently digging with me. We are connected.  Every single human being has had their hands in the Earth. It is where we start and it is where return.

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Dear Students,

back-to-the-future-originalI know that we do not always see eye to eye. Let me be more specific. I know that your current self and I do not always see eye to eye. Your future self and I get along. She comes down to the house for dinner. We skype, g-chat, and talk on the phone. We reinforce each other.

It is not just me. Your current self does not always see eye to eye with your future self either. Indeed, you two can be at odds quite often. You two have different priorities. And, your interests are not always aligned. So, from the viewpoint of your future self, your current self can make some less than optimal decisions and miss out on some life-enhancing opportunities.

Now, this would not be such a big issue if you two could communicate. Alas, the fabric of time is fragile. Indeed, there are temporal prime directives. Your future self is not allowed to go back in time and talk to your current self. If she did, the damage to the space-time continuum would be unimaginable. So, your future self lacks a voice. She lacks representation. And, that is where I come in. I represent her interests. I am her agent.

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Scars, Stories and Students

Hunt down a wildebeest, frame a house, plow a field, tear down an engine block, and prepare a meal from scratch. There was a time when we were expected to know how to do these things. It was life of physical labor. It was a life that could leave a scar. Getting a scar is painful. Scars are visible manifestations of struggle, triumph, defeat, and sometimes mistakes. But, scars also embody stories. And, storytelling in one our most cherished and effective means of passing along knowledge and wisdom. Indeed, scars can be considered one of our oldest teaching tools. All a child, grandchild, or apprentice had to ask was “How did you get that scar?” With that simple request, a sleeve would be rolled up, a story shared, and a life lesson imparted.

Today, there is a relentless removal of the physical from our daily lives. Almost everything is pre-packaged and ready-made. We live a disposable lifestyle. If something breaks, most of us do not attempt to fix it. We dump it and go buy another one. We no longer need to know how to fix, harvest, chop, mill, and sew.  In turn, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to get scars. That is a good thing. However, are we losing something?

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Sometimes Grading has to be Personal

Stress was building up in my shoulders so I gave them a shrug, rolled my neck and took more than a couple of deep breaths. I settled into my chair, squared up the paper on the corner of my desk, and put on my game face. Staring blankly at the walls around me, I waited for the knock on the door. Then it came. “Come on in and have a seat” I said. “How are you?” I asked. “Fine” he said.

I rolled my chair out from behind my desk and closed the distance between us. My index finger was lightly tapping his paper. I set my eyes on his, selected my serious voice and said the words which none of us want to hear.

“This is not good enough.”

I have been on the receiving end of that comment before. It stings. I do not like saying it. Yet, I have sit-downs with students on a regular basis. Student reactions have varied over the years. Sometimes there is an acknowledgment of personal responsibility, a handshake and a renewed commitment to the task at hand. Other times (well, a lot of times), there is argument, flushed faces, tears, and going in circles as they grasp for external explanations (including me) for their lack of success.

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Resistance Training

We all have our demons. And, the battle against them is for keeps. Defeat can mean a life of mediocrity, regrets and missed opportunities. Victory, on the other hand, can mean a life worth living. This battle, however, is unending. Neither your age, income, nor the heights of your success matter. If you breathe, you must battle. But, there is no course, school or accredited program that teaches us how to outmaneuver, outflank, and outwit our demons. There are great books and role models (Steven Pressfield and Seth Godin). Yet, we know that the best way to learn something is to do that something. But, how do you teach your students to fight their demons by getting them to fight their demons? If you are intent on the fundamental transformation of your students, Tribal Teaching may be for you. It has four components (for now).

1. Choose a Big Project (No, bigger than that.)

Imagine the kind of world you want to live in, the kind of world you want your children to inherit, the kind of world that makes you proud to be a human being. Go for greatness. Change the conversation. Choose a project that when shared with others they say “Can you do that?” Or, even better “You cannot do that.”  Propose a project that is so monumental that it can only be accomplished through collective effort. You cannot do it alone. You students cannot do it alone. Neither of you have enough expertise, energy, enthusiasm, or time. The project cannot be accomplished in a semester, an academic year, or even before they graduate. It will not fit neatly into a syllabus. And, victory will be measured in inches. Who cares? You and your students are building a new world order.

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11 Promises of a Change-Making Animal

Each academic year I have to integrate a new cohort of students into my La Ceiba class. Yet, it is more than a class. It is more than a student-run microfinance institution with over 50 clients in Honduras. We are a tribe.

We are fiercely committed to our ethos, each other and our clients. We are a language. We are a walk. We are a way. We are a rite of passage, an act of transformation, a process of conversion. We gladly welcome anyone to try us on for size. However, we also know that we are not for everyone.

We take a number of steps to transmit our culture to the newest cohort. We enumerate a list of promises that we ask each new member of the tribe to uphold. Here they are:

1. I will hug.

All the best families do.

2. I will take the wheel.

No one is going to tell you what to do, when to do it or how to do it. There is no road-map. There is no text-book. There is no teaching assistant. This class is barely being taught. Make your own way.

3. I will bring on my wrecking ball.

Challenge the work of those who have come before you. Take on the status quo. Always ask “Why?” You know you want to knock down the Lego tower. Do it. We thrive on the creative destruction of each new cohort of students.

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Tribal Teaching

A mass of armed combatants oppose you in an open field. Screaming and gesticulating, clanging their weapons against their armored, merely clothed and painted naked bodies, they impatiently await battle. Their fearsome leader riles them to a fever pitch with his words.

You spin around assessing your environment. Mud surrounds you. Blackened trees puncture the darkened skies above you. And, as far as you can see, the ground is littered with the rotting remains of the dreams, passions, and ambitions you have had before. All of them struck down in their infancy. You have stepped onto this battlefield many times before. So, have I. We all have. This is where we come time and time again to reclaim ourselves. This is where we wage war against our demons.

With a raise of their leader’s sword and a bellowing roar, the horde charges forward to meet you. Alone, you feel naked, exposed, and vulnerable. The ground begins to shake as they draw nearer. You pat your legs, arms and chest in a futile search for something, anything to fight back with. All you carry is a backpack that contains your latest idea, initiative, or imagining. They are so close now that the smell of their stench takes your breath away. Wide-eyed, unsure and filling with fear, you hurriedly shake off the straps of your backpack, drop it to the ground, and run. You retreat. You withdraw. You give way.

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“Don’t Look up Dr. Humphrey.”

Of course, I did. And, my eyes widened as our taxi crossed over the dividing line into a sea of donkey-driven carts, cyclists carrying two and sometimes three passengers, mopeds, pedestrians, pick-up trucks loaded down with cargo, big yellow school buses tagged with Jesus stickers, transport vehicles carrying the national police, and brand new Mitsubishi SUVs with tinted windows. We were all vying for scarce space on a single stretch of tarmac not big enough to hold us all.

It was my first time to Honduras. It was my first time to a developing country. Going was a leap.

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