Practicing Hope


I teach at a charter school which has recently adopted three core beliefs: [1] success breeds success, [2] all students can and deserve to perform at high levels, [3] the staff controls the conditions of success. Over the years of “sharing” these convictions, I have become well-acquainted with the limited impact that these written beliefs have on actual behavior. Despite these core beliefs, I have also repeatedly observed the tendency to assign the blame for the poor performance of students to a lack of motivation. The difficulty is that both beliefs are true. People can enter into a spiral of success or failure, and motivation often is the driving force.


Intrinsic motivation is basic to the human condition, though people often become less intrinsically motivated as they age (due to external social factors). For example, my ten-month-old spends hours everyday practicing her basic motor skills: she picks up and throws toys, she climbs on anything possible, and she walks even though crawling is still much faster. Presumably, she does all this for the shear joy of the task, and not out of the hope for future gains. This image stands in stark contrast to some of my students, who always inquire whether a particular skill or definition will show up on the test, and what they can do to raise their grade in class.


Stories and Societies

Reflection Theory

Imagine an anthropologist attempting to understand the lifestyle of the ancient Babylonians. She might begin by digging up artifacts at an excavation site, and drawing conclusions from what is found. The clay pot suggests that they cooked in ovens, and the drawings on it suggests a culture that values the arts. Now imagine that she found a book of Babylonian myths that were translatable. She reads these stories with interest, feeling like she is getting a first hand glimpse into the lifestyle of the ancients.

If we accept her ability to read a story to better understand a society, then we accept reflection theory. This theory postulates that literature reflects the society that birthed it.


Short-Circuiting the Brain

Emotions move us. What happens when we feel them strongly? Do we just move quicker?

Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at University of Virginia, researched the emotion that is the opposite of disgust (which causes us to withdraw and is usually caused by things associated with blood or poo). He came to term the emotion "elevation", which is the goose-bumps we get when we observe or participate in a great moral act. One thing I found intriguing was that when this emotion is most intense it can temporarily disable the part of the brain that monitors our physical boundaries (where our bits and pieces are in space), which causes the person to lose their sense of self and feel as if they have been absorbed into humanity and are intimately connected to all of mankind. Let's call this state ONENESS and define it as an intense feeling of elevation that causes us to lose our sense of self (and time?) so that we can become completely involved with humanity.


Learning and Emotion

Interest is an emotion. I don't think people tend to think of it as such. We say "such and such" is interesting, as if interest is something inherent to that thing. But some people find that thing interesting, others find it boring, some find it infuriating, others saddening. Whatever the case, that thing is sparking an emotion, and our emotions move us. Sadness moves you to change your environment, anger moves you to attack, boredom moves you to find an alternate activity, and interest moves you to explore.


The Parable of the Lofty Goals

There once was a girl who set herself a lofty goal: she would get all A’s or B’s on her next report card. She made an effort to pay more attention in class and to set aside more time for both homework and studying. For a time, her plan to attain the goal proved successful and she felt excited to be making progress in her academics; however, old habits die hard, and the girl soon found that she had multiple missed assignments with several projects due soon which she had been putting off. With the due date for a project fast approaching, the girl felt overwhelmed, and decided that desperate times call for desperate measures. She typed a phrase into a search engine and found some things that more or less fit the requirements for her project. She wrote down what she found (making sure to change a few words here and there), put her name on the paper, and turned it in to her teacher.



Willpower and the Brain

Our Prefrontal Cortex houses our Executive Functions, which essentially allow us to manage our behavior. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex is a part of this system - it is sometimes known as our conflict-monitoring system or reward-anticipation system. The ACC monitors our intentions and helps to inhibit behaviors that contradict them. You might say that it is where our willpower is located.

Your brain needs neurotransmitters to think. These are the electrical signals that jump from synapse to synapse. Your body creates neurotransmitters from the glucose stores in your blood. You get glucose from the calories you consume. Glucose is also necessary for a host of other bodily functions besides just thinking. When your glucose levels get too high or too low (watch out diabetics and hypoglycemics) your body must prioritize its glucose supplies. Typically it feeds essential automatic bodily functions first, then gives some to the parts of your brain that handle emotions (probably to make you more likely to go find something to eat), and then to other thought processes - like your executive functions. This means that when your glucose levels are down you feel heightened emotions and have less ability to regulate them. When your glucose levels are optimal your brain is good shape for producing willpower.


Reflection: On Meditation

One of my favorite bible verses is: "Be still and know that I AM God." When I was a teenager, I used to carry a business card sized picture with the above Psalm written across a serene garden.

Lucid Dreaming

When my family first got dial-up internet connection, I would spend time just surfing the net and reading things that caught my fancy. One day I encountered a site about Lucid Dreaming. The idea of consciously taking control of a dream would probably appeal to most teenagers, but I have a mind that wants to know both why and how. Lucid Dreaming is a discipline in mindfulness: stopping during the day and considering your surroundings and running through scripts to ensure you are awake. If you make a habit of these practices, eventually your dream self will do it too, and chances are you'll realize that you're dreaming. It's a discipline and takes will-power. I have yet to be successful in inducing my own lucid dreams, but discovering the practice was my first step in appreciating silence.


Meditation 1: On Hope

Have you ever tried to reduce your life down to a single word? Are you a noun? A verb? A modifier? For me: Hope. I hope. I have hope. I have built a hopeful life.

In the conclusion of Paul's thoughts on love: "Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). Why is that Paul meditates on love, defines and describes it, and then evokes faith and hope in the conclusion? Faith and hope must play a role in love. Maybe it's that our faith gives us a steadfast foundation for our hope to stand upon, and that hope then in turn allows us to transcend ourselves and experience true love. Or maybe faith establishes our reality, hope allows us to see beyond that reality to God and others, and love is the relationship that exists between us and the Person that we find looking back.



Flow comes from the research of the Hungarian turned American pyschologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He did a study in the eighties (I think) in which he gave some people a pager that would go off at random intervals, prompting them to write down what they were doing and feeling at the time.

The findings are intuitive, but instructive to see in words: when the challenge of the activity is low you may feel apathetic, bored, or relaxed depending upon your skill level. When the challenge is moderate you probably feel either worried or in-control depending upon your skill level. When the challenge is high, emotions vary from anxious, aroused, or "flow". Learning tends to occur in the state of arousal. Meaning tends to occur in the state of flow.



Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, has done extensive research into how a person's mindset impacts their ability to reach their full potential. Here are some of my thoughts (for free).

To paint the issue as black and white, there are fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. If you hold a fixed mindset, you believe that abilities, talents, and/or intelligence are innate. If you hold a growth mindset, you believe that abilities, talents, and/or intelligence are cultivated through effort. Putting it in those terms, it makes it seem obvious that a growth mindset is preferable, since it lacks the stench of prejudice and places value in hard work rather than good genes. By the way, you can hold different mindsets for different areas (for example: intelligence is fixed but athleticism is learned).

So why is it that the fixed mindset is so alluring?