Category Archives: Education

Think You’re Too _____ to Change the World?

On Becoming an Anonymous Extraordinary

I was COMPLETELY inspired by Natalie Warne’s TEDxTeen talk! Rather than worrying about what limited her, she looked beyond the confusion and conformity of high school and realized her potential to combat social injustice.

The video is a great teaching tool for parents and educators who want to give kids an opportunity to engage positively in their community and in public policy.  It’s compelling proof that you don’t need to be Bill Gates, Oprah, or Leymah Gbowee to save the world.  Rather, Warne demonstrates it’s up to the anonymous extraordinaries, “people who work selflessly and vigorously for what they believe in,” “people who are motivated by conviction and not recognition.”

Clearly, all of us can strive to make a positive impact, no matter how fill in the blank we are!

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Can We Balance Our Brains?


In the RSAnimate video, The Divided BrainIain McGilchrist makes a fascinating argument that certain activities such as art, emotion and language aren’t uniquely left or right brain functions. Rather, his humorously narrated animation offers a more nuanced explanation for modes of thinking:  Our left hemisphere is concerned with narrowly focused attention while the right allows us to maintain sustained, broad alertness of surroundings.  Linda Verlee Williams relates this another way in her book Teaching for the Two-sided Mind: The left sifts out the parts that constitute a whole while the right combines those parts to create a whole.  Left hemisphere=fragmentation; right hemisphere=synthesis.  So what does this imbalance mean?

The more left brain dominant we become, the more we fragment reality so that it can be understood, quantified.  We emphasize critical thinking skills of analysis, logic, and accuracy over synthesis, creating, and relating.  McGilchrist argues this results in paradoxical conditions: we pursue happiness yet mental illness is skyrocketing.  We strive for freedom and technological advances but are weighed down by bureaucracy and  loss of privacy.  We strive for perfection, but end up feeling empty.

Can we tilt the cerebral scales in favor of more balance?  I googled “brain function balance” and was overwhelmed by info touting optimal brain functioning through hormone replacement, electric shock, and i-Phone games.  I’ll keep searching and share what I find.  In the meantime, I leave you with this from Thomas Merton, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”

A Roadmap for Social Change

"All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual." Albert Einstein

Since a perk of my work is learning what amazing non-profits are doing to help families survive these difficult economic times, I was thrilled to talk to Crittenton Women’s Union, an .org located in Boston, MA.  CWU provides direct services, conducts research, and advocates for public policy to better support low-income women in their journey to economic self-sufficiency.

The foundation of CWU’s work is a theory of change for what moves a family from poverty to self-sufficiency, Bridge to Self-Sufficiency.  This model not only provides strategy and internal structure for developing programs and measuring outcomes, it gives the CWU clients a tangible set of goals to strive for in the difficult journey from poverty to economic independence.

CWU has a keen focus on specific, relevant data such as their Economic Independence Calculator that determines the actual costs of living depending on family size and location. A single mom in Boston with an infant and school-aged child knows she’ll need earn almost $60K/yr (about $28/hr) to achieve economic independence.  This data is linked to Hot Jobs, “careers that require two years or less of post-secondary education or training, meet the Massachusetts Economic Independence Index income level for a single-parent family with two children, and currently post high-vacancy rates.”  CWU is giving a woman clear, meaningful data to develop a career path that offers opportunity for advancement and breaks the cycle of poverty for her children.

To see what your community’s livable wage is, visit the National Center for Childhood Poverty’s Basic Needs Budget Calculator.

What is your community doing to support upward economic mobility of disadvantaged families?  I’d love to share your story!

Should Occupiers Take a Stand or Keep Marching Along?

"Make Jobs Not War!"

First, let me say I support the #Occupy movement.  This country was established to be a fair and just society and it’s clear for 99% of us it is ceasing to be so.  As Nobel prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz pointed out,

“We have a social problem, not only an economic problem. We have this strange situation of a country where we have increasing numbers of homeless people and increasing numbers of vacant houses.”

Watching city parks across the US fill up with occupiers intent on tweeting grievances but no concrete ideas, I’m wondering if protesters have read the  American Jobs Act?

The AJA has several initiatives that would positively impact our economy.  Two in particular would provide relief to the unemployed: 1) Reauthorization of unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the year; and, 2) Establishing the “Pathways Back to Work Fund” to create jobs for low-income and unemployed youth.  The former is a given, or 6 million people might lose whatever economic stability they have left.  The latter is a proven success in states as diverse as Mississippi and Michigan.

So, occupiers, while you’re marching for jobs can you take the opportunity to help create some?

Make funny signs AND jobs!

Opportunity is Like a Cupcake…

…or is it?  UC Berkeley College Republicans think so.  Their “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” charged customers different prices based on race and gender in order to demonstrate opposition to California legislation SB 185, which would allow public universities in California to consider race and gender in university admissions policy.

Goodies were priced at $2 for Caucasian students, $1.5 for Asian and Asian Americans, $1 for Latinos,  $0.75 for African American students, and $0.25 for Native Americans. Women got a $0.25 discount.  “The pricing structure is meant to be discriminatory,” said Shawn Lewis, the group’s president.

Accordingly, Native American women qualified to pay nothing for the cookies which inspired some enterprising  individuals to don feather headdresses in order to get free cookies.

Satire? Oops! I thought we were going for irony!

If demonstrators meant to highlight opportunity gaps by race and gender wouldn’t they’d have used a more accurate pricing strategy? Regardless of whether the metaphor is a fair one (bake sale = opportunity via college education), the question remains: “Is legislating affirmative action an effective strategy for increasing access to opportunity?”

What Does a Great Teacher Look Like?

Research shows the most important factor determining the quality of education  a child receives is the quality of his or her teacher.

But what does a great teacher look like?

If you throw all the qualities of great teachers into an algorithm and ask it to define the most important characteristics, this is what it might look like:

Brain Bugs, Behavior & Boehner

In his book Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives neuroscientist Dean Buonomano gives some fascinating reasons for why our memory, beliefs and behavior are subject to serious flaws…even if we’re unaware of it.  Simply put, our brain evolved for a different time and place.  He uses the example of a skunk’s effective defense mechanism: When attacked they turn around, lift their tails and spray.  Very effective for scaring off a coyote, not so much against an oncoming car.

It’s somewhat comforting to know that there’s an evolutionary bias (i.e. I can’t help it) for eating naughty food and blowing my budget when I know these behaviors aren’t helpful.  So my brain’s operating system is outdated. Is there an upgrade?

Luckily there is: behavioral priming.  Buonomano cites an NYU study using word puzzles to illustrate how we create “behavior nodes”.  In the study,  subjects were asked to complete word puzzles.  Some had to come up with words associated with kindness while others had puzzles with words biased toward being rude.  After finishing this task, subjects were told to talk to a research assistance pretending to be on the phone.  In measuring how long each subject waited before interrupting the on-going phone conversation, it was found that those who completed puzzles using more rude words waited less time to interrupt the phone conversation.

If the words, images, and sounds surrounding us constantly influence our thoughts and actions,  what are we subjecting ourselves to on a regular basis?

How often are we bombarded with images of war, famine and Beohner?

More importantly, how do we prime our brains to turn it off without turning away?

Schools as a Brand

Just this week I noticed an interesting Next!: urban charter school start-ups leveraging a well-known brand, in these cases, famous athletes.

This leaves me wondering: Will schools be marketed to kids like cereal?  In their efforts to attract students will charter schools, already serving a disproportionate number of low-income students, fall into a de facto means of school segregation?

How to Grow Where You’re Planted

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”  Tao Te Ching

"Grow where you're planted!"

What do a real-estate agent, advertising exec, medical student, B&B owner, teacher, development consultant and non-profit professional have in common?  They’re all roles that at some point in my adult life I’ve assumed.  Each has taught me something valuable and helped me make the most of my life at a particular moment.  As my sister, a Navy wife, says, “Grow where you’re planted!” Aphorisms aside, how does one do this?  Or, as a newly-divorced, single-mom friend asked me, “How do I reinvent myself?”

Most of us will come to a transition point:  a change in location, family situation, or career opportunity.  Perhaps we want to to take an interest/hobby to a new level.  I’ve found this process goes more smoothly and produces better results if you know your strengths and use them in this new endeavor.  But how do you go about this?

Several years ago, I became intrigued with Dr. Martin Seligman‘s positive psychology theory.  I took his VIA Survey of Character Strengths which helped me identify key positive character traits.  (This is not to be confused with the Myers-Briggs test, also helpful, which identifies personality styles.)

The VIA Classification System’s goal is to identify what’s best about us and how we use those optimal characteristics to build our best lives.  Why is this important?  Well, research shows people enjoy their work and life more when they are using their strengths.

Success = Energy + forward momentum of strengths

So, are you ready to find out what your unique strengths are and put them in action?  If so, click here.  Please let me hear back from you once you’ve taken the survey to share what you found!  If you’re already using your unique strengths, please share how it’s going!

Simple exercise to improve your mood!

Years ago, my prankster grandfather put a plaque outside my bedroom door.  It read, “Warning!  My moods change without notice!”  Did I mention I was only 6?

This started an early awareness of my moods, what affected them and how to improve them.   I’ve followed, read, practiced and thrown out a lot of theories which, of course, put me in a bad mood.  However, I’ve been a devotee of Marty Seligman for years now since he pioneered the notion that psychologists focus too much on the pathology of disorders.  Seligman’s construct of Applied Positive Psychology has shown that cognitive exercises can help us overcome depression, anxiety, etc.  For more info, check out Penn’s Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology program or read his latest book, Flourish.

Now I implement simple exercises to improve my mood and feel happier.  Here’s one I use daily:  Write down three things that went well and why they went well, or why it means so much.  That’s it!

Here are some real-life examples to get you going:

1.  J got the job in NYC!  She moves this summer!  Why?  She’s so awesome and was really intentional about manifesting a more meaningful job for herself.

2.  Dinner tonight: wine and cheese with Jack.  Why?  Relaxing end to the day.

3.  A student told me today I was an “excellent teacher”!  Why?  Because I love my students and hope they feel I’m valuable to their success.

If you don’t have a journal, print this WhatWentWellExercise and put it next to your bed with a pen.

Teachers can use this as a “ticket out the door” exercise at the end of class or day.  Not only does this work on students’ metacognitive skills, it should improve the classroom environment.