Tag Archives: Dialogue

Three Men on a Bench

Last weekend I went for a walk in Central Park and had a fascinating encounter with three men on a bench. When I lived on the Upper East Side I used to run in the park almost daily, but never carried a camera (or phone . . . or MetroCard . . . or ID . . . wherever I run . . . at whatever time of day . . .). I often wished that I did, though, because Central Park is just beautiful. I always forget, however, that everything looks different in the winter because you can see through the trees. That means noticing all sorts of things that weren’t visible before, like skyscrapers.


Perhaps more compelling, however, was another human-made object: The sign in the picture below.


At first I grinned but walked by, not really sure if I wanted to engage in any sort of discussion with strangers. I’ve been trying really hard to meet people lately, but that still takes effort and I was feeling pretty good on my own. So I walked on by.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about that sign. Anyone? Anything? Really?

I turned around and asked the three gentlemen (yes, I know there are two pictured above) for permission to take a photo of them with their sign. After graciously posing, they asked if I wanted to sit and talk.

When I first moved to New York, my best friend told me that the best advice she could give me was to say yes to things. So I did.

For about 15 minutes, I sat between Sean on the left (or maybe it’s Shawn – apologies for not asking!) and Jared and chatted. Steve did some audio recording during our conversation to conduct a sound test for the web series they’re working on. One thing I do love about New York is that people are always up to something interesting. I always have a lot of questions about what’s happening and why, and was glad for the chance to ask some of them.

Jared asked what was on my mind and I mentioned politics because I’d been listening to a Sam Harris podcast on my way through the park. We chatted about that for a while and then our conversation switched to the experiences they’d been having when trying to engage people in discussion. We talked about how reluctant many people are to having a face-to-face conversation. People are very vocal about anything and everything on social media but talking in person is much more difficult. There’s a real vulnerability in sharing yourself with others. Despite how important authenticity is to me, which is one of the reasons I try to be pretty open on this blog, I probably would have walked away after taking my photo had these guys not said, “Want to have a seat and talk to us?”. Connecting with people requires a deeper level of engagement and commitment than a Facebook post, blog post, or tweet. It requires looking into someone’s eyes and saying what’s on your mind. That can be hard.

After my chat with Sean/Shawn, Jared, and Steve, I continued my Central Park walk with a feeling of buoyancy and euphoria. I had just sat on a park bench between two men I had never met and we’d had a perfectly lovely conversation about politics, the news, and the importance of being able to talk. I was glad to find openness and receptivity, which seem like scarce commodities in the often isolating world of New York City. The more I open up to people, however, the more I find that they do the same in return. So maybe that isolation is a shield, or a defense, for many of us. Maybe there’s a real desire for connection that isn’t being met because vulnerability is scary. Maybe the aloofness of many New Yorkers is just a mask.

I told Sean/Shawn, Jared, and Steve that I keep a blog and asked if they wanted me to share any contact information for them. So here it is! They mentioned that they were hoping someone would have a seat on the bench and just spill their heart out. So, gentle readers, if any of you want to talk to someone willing to listen, I can recommend three men on a bench in Central Park. I’m glad they asked me to stop and chat and I’m glad I said yes.

Gentlemen, thanks for making my day.


The Perfect School Day

It’s probably clear from this blog by now that education is very (dare I say “increasingly”?) important to me. I’ve written a lot about education in general, and more specifically on the purpose of education. Much of what prompted those posts came from reflection and discussion with a friend when I was working in Singapore. 

Here are some of my past writings on education:

We’ve also literally written thousands of unpublished words on the topic, including over 10,000 words in an unfinished e-book that has been on the back burner for months, but spurred on most of my education-related thinking over the past year or so. I’ve rethought a lot of what I “knew” about school, teachers, and students and I’m excited about the possibility of true education reform.

So with all the abstract philosophical thought on the topic and much reviewing of the educational literature, here is a complete “perfect day” of secondary school as my friend and I envision it.

The Daily Schedule
9:00 AM – Start of school. This isn’t super important, other than it isn’t super early. Many high school students naturally sleep in a bit later due to staying up later and there really isn’t any reason to begin at 7:00 AM.

9:00-10:30 AM – Reading. Ideally this is aimed at current local, national, international, or global problems with current events from the news or other texts. The goal is simply to be aware at the beginning of each day of the suffering that is taking place all around us. This is not done to instill pessimism, but to inspire compassion – the desire to alleviate suffering in others. Literature that deals with human created suffering such as Frankenstein make for good selections during this time as well.

Conversation. This is a time to discuss what’s been read and share what interests and engages us. There can be a specific topic for this first hour, say sex trafficking of women around the world, or more open-ended reading of current affairs and sharing issues of personal interests. The aim is simply to engage in meaningful conversation about the state of the world with the purpose of refining ever more acutely what causes suffering and understanding the variety of contexts that contribute to it.

Investigation. This is a time to investigate what solutions have been generated for the causes of suffering we’ve been reading and discussing and to figure out what we can do as individuals, a group, and a community (both locally and societally) to alleviate it. This should spur lots of insight and opportunities for the social entrepreneurship block to come later in the day as possible gaps are identified in current attempts to deal with issues. Students might investigate political, economic, social, or technological solutions that have been attempted to deal with world problems.

10:30-11:00 AM – Break. This is a time to simply relax, have a snack if needed and transition to the next phase of the day.

11:00 AM-12:30 PM  – Physical education. This is a time for strength training, cardiovascular training, mobility training, and other athletics. This is also an opportunity to meet in small groups or one-on-one to discuss nutrition, mental health, and emotional health in order to increase and monitor overall well-being. The aim is pragmatic, how do we take care of ourselves as humans?

12:30-1:10 PM – Lunch.

1:10-2:40 PM – Social entrepreneurship. This is a time to work collaboratively on projects that aim to alleviate suffering and improve the world. Creativity, service, design, innovation, STEM, and business skills are intermingled in order to develop projects and programs that would have the greatest possible impact in any particular area. All members of the school community spend this time actively engaged in social entrepreneurship work, which could also include supporting one another’s enterprises, meeting with community partners and facilitators, and working off campus. This is also an opportunity to attend roundtable discussions to present work completed so far and elicit feedback from others, as well as figure out collaborative partnerships.

2:40-3:00 PM – Break.

3:00-4:30 PM – Personal growth and well-being. This is a time to end the day on a positive note, examining personal strengths, goals, and psychological states. This is also time to follow individual passions, such as reading literature, playing music, learning languages, creative writing, playing sports, making videos, blogging, or simply relaxing. The rejuvenation that comes from this part of the day will help the following day to commence with similar excitement. Engagement and flow should occur often and students can leave for the day feeling charged and full of zeal.

A Day in the Life of a Student
“Air pollution increases amidst warnings.”
“Migrants face deportation.”
“Refugees seek urgent medical care”

Maia stretches and looks up. It’s nearly 9:30, the end of the half-hour reading block that begins the day. Maia, her peers, and their teachers have been together as a team for the past year and a half. While they don’t always agree on how to most effectively tackle the suffering in the world, they care for each other and about those around them.

Soon, there’s enough movement to indicate that the readers are ready to talk. They readjust themselves around the room, remaining comfortable, but better able to see and hear each other.

“I’ve been reading a lot about climate change today.” The comment comes from a student perched on an ottoman next to a stack of books with titles like The Age of Sustainable Development.

“Did you see the New York Times article on the summit?” Maia asks, still sitting against the wall. “There’s a picture of the Doomsday Clock in my head.”

“I thought Canada put up a particularly strong stance, actually, and that might push other countries to follow through with caps on emissions.” A student new to the group states, sitting at a desk.

“That’s pretty broad, though,” says a student on the floor near Maia. “Yesterday, I read a lot of this book on the Copenhagen Consensus and there are real proposals that real people are working on, but it’s hard to tell whether emission caps are actually more effective than other suggestions, like bioengineering. On the one hand, it’s an easier sell. So maybe that’s better than nothing.”

The conversation continues for about thirty minutes and covers a range of topics from climate change to micronutrient deficiencies in small children. As always, the focus is on understanding why suffering occurs. Gradually, students return to their laptops and put in headphones, ready to move on from discussion.

Feeling agency to act is important. Maia and several classmates have lately been investigating vaccination efforts in Africa. They read Half the Sky together earlier in the year, which prompted questions about sex trafficking due to poverty, leading to a foray into tropical diseases. When they come across a new report on Ebola, one group member calls over a teacher to ask about virus mutations while others gather around a YouTube video explaining the science.

After about thirty minutes, it’s time to stop. Maia has learned to monitor her body for fatigue and tries to pause in her work before reaching a point of frustration. While some stay to continue working, Maia needs a half-hour of relaxation and maybe some frisbee. She takes an apple out of her bag and joins a loud group of friends on their way outside.

Frisbee leaves Maia feeling warmed up and ready to keep moving. She has a meeting with a nutrition counselor at 11, the beginning of the physical education block. After a long exploration of ethics and sentience, Maia has decided to become a vegetarian and wants guidance on her new diet. If she can’t take care of herself, she can’t make the world a better place. A guidance counselor taught her that last year after she experienced a series of anxiety attacks. After her meeting, Maia joins a group of classmates for a trail run in the woods on the edges of campus.

When they get back to the gym, Maia heads straight to her favorite coach. She wants to add mobility training to keep her hips mobile for the barbell squats she already does with the hope of squatting one and a half times her own body weight. She found a series of exercises online and asks for help with her form. The gym begins to clear out around 12:30 as students freshen up before lunch.

The afternoon campus is unrecognizable from the calm of the morning. Teachers, students, and community members are everywhere, all working on a myriad of social entrepreneurship projects. Maia’s group is putting together an education campaign about vaccination. They’ve partnered with another group focusing on fundraising efforts to implement the campaign. Each group takes a turn updating the other on what they’ve accomplished since their last check-in two weeks earlier. A teacher joins the groups to ask whether they’ve contacted any humanitarian aid agencies, which Maia’s group adds to their task list. Across the room, a few students and teachers are gathered around a whiteboard with a series of questions: “How do we create vaccines? What are they? Are there vaccines we don’t have, but would like to have? What’s been done to create them? Can we try making one?” Pointing this out to her group members, Maia joins in the discussion. This could be another good partnership.

It’s 2:45 by the time Maia’s group decides to stop for the day. They have a “next steps” action plan that should get them through the rest of the week. Other groups have already paused in their social entrepreneurship work and gone back outside to take a break.

Maia returns to her locker for her yoga mat and makes her way to an open studio space. After learning about yoga and meditation from a friend last year, Maia started an afternoon yoga class during the personal growth block. At the beginning of class, she invites each person to check in with themselves and set an intention for their practice. They’ll be in this space for an hour so she encourages them to focus on altruism, approaching each person with the goal of enhancing their overall well-being in every interaction.

After class, Maia steps over a robot whizzing down the hallway and follows the sounds of yelling and cheering to a room at the end of the hall. Someone mentioned a new virtual reality video game and maybe these are the people to ask about it.

At 4:30, Maia joins the waves of students leaving campus. She feels content, optimistic about the work she’s doing, and already looking forward to meeting with her project group again tomorrow. She makes a mental note to see what the team of teachers has been working on; she hasn’t really talked with them this week. Maia flips through her phone to a podcast recorded daily by a group of students.

“Good afternoon,” the host begins. “Thanks for joining us on What to Be. Today’s special guest is the executive chef at a local restaurant that provides job training and childcare for mothers.”

Maia smiles. That chef is a friend who graduated two years ago. Cool.

Final Thoughts
The actual blocked timing of much of this day ought to be more flexible than is written out here. It’s important that students learn how to manage their time and what is important. If they are fully wrapped up in a project they are working on involving social entrepreneurship, it is in no way urgent that they stop so they can move onto the final chunk of the day focused on personal growth and well-being; they are almost certainly already feeling a sense of personal growth and well-being if they are truly engaged in the project and feel a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Let them continue on.

The shape of this day is designed so that students can be exposed to problems early, work hard on thinking about and reflecting on them, take a break to physically recharge with exercise and food, move onto solving problems and creating value in the world for others, and then finish with some personal “me” time that explores what gives each of us pleasure and a sense of well-being. They will be prepared to act as responsible citizens who can think critically and participate in civic debates while also being ready for employment that is purposeful and creative. When not acting as citizens or employees they will understand how to relax and enjoy themselves in personal activities that contribute to a sense of rejuvenation and flow.

Learn, exercise, connect, create, be. Do our students really need to focus on anything else?

Just a Number

Being You Isn’t Enough
I overheard a conversation between two young women in the subway earlier this week that provoked a reaction that was at once horror, heartache, and shock. The conversation went like this:

Girl A: How do I get nice skin like yours?
Girl B: Girl, you gotta wash your face twice a day. Do you do that?
Girl A: Ugh no. That’s so much work.
Girl B: But you’ve got to do it. Otherwise there’s no hope.
Girl A: Well, I think if he’s going to like me, he’s going to like me.
Girl B: Yeah, but you need to be realistic. I mean, if you’re a 7 shooting for 11 . . . you have to be realistic.
Girl A: Yeah, that’s true. I think I’m probably . . . well . . . what would you say I am?
Girl B: Haha um maybe 8?



As the girls got off the train, I was stunned. Since when do women refer to themselves not as people but as numbers on a rating scale, where 1 is presumably synonymous with “troll” and unattainable 10 isn’t even high enough if we’re suddenly including 11? (Not to mention that Girl B clearly needs friends who value all that lies below the surface, which is everything that actually makes a person beautiful.)

Exploring Language
I wonder how we’ve gone so wrong. Have we forgotten to tell our girls to care about who they are rather than what they look like? Have we forgotten to communicate that being a good person, whether male or female, is what actually matters?

Perhaps we have forgotten.

Perhaps we have been so caught up in trying to understand recent world events that we lost track of what’s happening right in front of us. Perhaps we need to take a step back, look at ourselves, and make changes to the ways we talk to and about each other, and interact with each other.

I wonder if this conversation would have taken place in such stark terms (“you’re probably an 8 so wash your face and maybe there’s hope that he’ll like you”) prior to Donald Trump’s election. I wonder if this conversation would have taken place if the popular vote actually decided the next president. There has been a steady devaluing of diversity in this country over the past few months. Reducing any person to a number is just one example.

As an educator, it is my responsibility to model behavior that I want my students to emulate. The way I talk about people matters. The way I talk about world events matters. I want my students to live in a world that is more peaceful than the world they have lived in thus far.

As 2016 draws to a close, I’m thinking about how much more work there is to do and how far we have to go. I’m comforted by the feeling of inclusiveness and community at my school and the way students rally around each other when difficult circumstances arise. Cultivating these behaviors will go a long way in a world that desperately needs a collective spirit.

We are, at the end of the day, all human. We are all responsible for the world we live in and the world we’re building.

Let’s make it a better one.