Conscious and Unconscious Planning

I’ve recently been given the opportunity to do something remarkable.  Starting next week, I will be teaching a new class, one that I’ve never been able to teach before, one that lies a bit outside my comfort zone, one that I’m sure will lead me down the path of inquiry, uncertainty, and exciting discovery. I’m going to teach a Maker class.

While the idea of making, tinkering, or design thinking are not necessarily new ideas to me, the idea of teaching an entire two-week class around this concept is.  At first, I scratched my head, but as I sit here, with a skeleton of plans ready for next Monday when my almost-twenty students will arrive excited for their summer session, I find myself feeling the thirst for the classroom that I start to feel every year at about this time.

Instructional Design

While my summer has been filled with curriculum development, collaboration with colleagues, and the oh-so important reflection time, planning for this class has helped me to remember what I love about the classroom: the dancing complexity of each and every variable, the thrill of predictive anticipation coupled with unknown and unreliable outcomes, the thought of collective excitement and subconscious energy bouncing off every surface.  But this time, it feels a little bit different.  It feels different, not just because it’s a short class, and not just because it is a new topic, but because I can feel my mind melting and molding, reshaping itself into this new context.

In fact, the most remarkable part of this process so far has been starting anew.  Up until now, a great deal of my planning and preparation has been more so academic focused.  My objectives have lied primarily within english, language arts, math, science, humanities, and social-emotional curriculum.  It has been a rare occasion that I have been able to focus so acutely on teaching my students the art of making, and as a result of this change in planning, it has allowed me the opportunity to be even more so metacognitive.  I now have the chance to really look at how I plan, not necessarily as a new teacher, but as a teacher learning something new.

I began my process as I usually do, brain-dumping thoughts out into a blank space, this time, on my living room window, since no whiteboard was available.  I listed out possible essential questions, refreshed my memory on the Design Thinking process, and began to wonder how I might structure the two weeks we had together through quantifiable objectives.  But I got a bit stuck.  Yes, I had my essential questions and a general understanding of what I wanted my students to know and be able to do at the end of the two weeks, but it all wasn’t quite as clear as it usually is — that is, when I plan a reading or math unit.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 8.01.50 AM

The start of my planning!

Backward Design

In the textbook version of backward-design planning, though, this is generally the route one is intended to take: begin with essential questions and enduring understandings, plot our essential outcomes, deconstruct them to create success criteria, and then plan your instruction accordingly.  This, however, didn’t feel that easy, even though I had followed many of these steps.  I came up with questions related to “change” and “impact,” and even decided I wanted to theme my class around the act of making to make a difference, in an effort to teach empathy and selflessness through making.  But it didn’t seem complete; my unconscious mind was telling me that something still wasn’t quite right.

I had few reference points on which to rely and few concrete experiences through which I could curate this new experience, but I had trouble plotting out my day-to-day objectives. I struggled to come up with anything entirely coherent.

So I Googled a few things, looked up design challenges, and allowed the magic of forced provocation to strike a chord somewhere in my brain.  I found some great activities, listed them in my notes, and even managed to loosely relate them to my theme, but something still felt absent, even after all of this work.  This planning process had never failed me before, but it seemed to be failing now.  Perhaps it was the presentation of such soft-skilled objectives like perseverance, tolerance of uncertainty, empathy, and perspective-taking, that made the outcomes so much less intangible.  Or maybe it was just that I needed a break.

So I stopped working for a bit, my notes living on the window in my apartment, thoughts swimming around in my subconscious while I made a bit of homemade pizza and sipped some rosé.

Conscious and Unconscious Planning

In David Brooks’s book, The Social Animal, he discusses the subconscious a great deal — its subversive power, its immeasurable abilities, its dark, passionate depths.  He conveys the power of the subconscious, not only through narratives of seemingly real human beings, but also through clever anecdotes that help readers realize just how much power the unconscious mind has over us.  Specifically, Brooks says, one of the reasons that people need to take breaks is because it gives the unconscious mind time to synthesize information behind the scenes.  Too much rational thought–too much intentional thinking, rational rethinking, and obsessive overthinking–can actually be counterproductive.  So it seemed that during that time, watching Scandal, eating pizza, and sipping pink wine, all of the rational pieces of my planning — the scope, sequence, goals, and objectives — were coagulating beneath the surface of rationality, swimming in the immeasurable, and sticking to each other, for just as I was about to go to bed, my subconscious rang a bell, and that moment of realization rang in my mind, illuminating my dark apartment and the notes that were scratched into my windows.

“ChangeMakers!” I thought.

While I had already decided I would combine the idea of making and social consciousness, I hadn’t at that point figured out how I would translate it to children, but when the word “ChangeMaker” came into my mind, I felt like I had struck gold, that I had “done it,” for lack of a better word.  The idea of being a “ChangeMaker” added personality to these plans; it added identity.  And that’s exactly what my little makers will need to see the relevance in this upcoming summer school session.

Interestingly enough, when I think about these plans and how they’re shaping, I’m seeing a parallel between the subconscious mind and the rational mind.  My plans, scattered about in lines and boxes, denote the rational piece of planning: the pieces that show linearity, sequentiality, and perhaps even predictability.  But the other piece of my planning represents the subconscious part of my mind, and the subconscious pulse of the classroom — the place where passion is stirred, where interaction is immeasurable, and where identity lies.

I think we all struggle with this.  This idea that our plans–what we have prepared to put in front of our children–never truly represents what we believe we can do with our kids.  It never actually shows all the nuances of our intentions, and it will never be capable of that.  Instead, a planning document is our best shot at translating our thoughts into something reproducible for someone else.  If nothing else, this process of starting anew, of taking on a project that lies outside my comfort zone, has shown me that the classroom is, in fact, a magical place, filled with boundless and incalculable variables.  At the end of the day, we need to do our best to prepare, but to also remember to trust the subconscious pulse that not only sits below the surface of each and every one of our brains, but beneath the surface of our classrooms.


What “Inside Out” May Be Saying About Gender

Pictured: JOY. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Pictured: JOY. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

I sat in the movie theater yesterday, my cheeks stained with dry tears, creating constantly flooding rivulets that soaked into the corners of my mouth.  My shoulders drooped, and I leaned my head back on my chair, trying to remember that little people don’t actually exist inside my head, and that Disney-Pixar’s latest “Inside Out” was just a fantasy, simply an allegorical story, intending to teach children about the complexity of emotion.

While I enjoyed the movie immensely, finding a plethora of relevant points for connection, I couldn’t help but feel an inner dissonance throughout the movie.  While there were moments where my connections were so visceral that I could feel the little people in my head screaming in Fear, overflowing with Joy, or drowning in Sadness, there were other points where I felt perplexed, confused, and wondering if this was, in fact, the most accurate depiction of what it’s truly like to feel and manage emotions. Was the movie trying to tell us that we are truly incapable of both controlling and responding to our emotions? Or did it simply normalize and unite emotions, meanwhile helping to enrich our understanding of personal growth and the human condition?  But even more than these important questions, I felt my dissonance burn when I began to wonder about gender.

The Boy Who Cried

Growing up, I was always the boy who cried a lot.  I cried when someone hurt my feelings, I cried when I was in trouble, and I cried when I got a bad grade.  My emotions were antonymous to masculinity, synonymous with femininity, and a source of shame.  And even today, I find myself still identifying with this feminine emotional stereotype and still talking myself out of the shame associated. And as a result, the gendered depiction of emotions within the movie were quite striking to me.

At first glance, it seemed that Riley, the little girl who houses all of these emotions, had a head mixed with male and female emotions, potentially sending the message that emotion itself is absent of gender. However, as the movie progressed, I noticed more.  I noticed Anger, guised as a short and stocky man with a deep, gravelly voice, constantly flying off the handle in the stereotypical male fashion. Similarly, Disgust, dressed in cute clothes and made up from head to toe, was reminiscent of your typical high school “mean girl,” sending strong messages about emotions in female adolescence.  Moreover, Fear, the wimpy and ninny-like skinny man, frequently served as comic relief.  And most notably, Joy and Sadness were personified as two markedly different types of women, capturing the idea that relentless optimism and sensitive empathy are synonymous with the female emotional condition.

inside out

Image: Courtesy of Forbes.

Were these the result of coincidence or conscious choice?  I wasn’t–and still am–not quite sure.  Because these are not represented as such in every character in the movie.

Gender and Emotion in Adulthood

The complexity of the interplay between gender and emotion became all-the-more apparent when we began to see the emotions of other characters, specifically the mother and the father.  Interestingly enough, these personified emotions clearly became gender unified in these two adults.  The mother had a team of dignified ladies controlling her responses to emotions, looking as though they were sitting at a book club gossiping, while the father had a posse of men running a militaristic command center.

While the depiction of their respective “command centers” is gender stereotypical enough, I found it interesting the contrast between Riley’s mixed-gender emotions and the adults’ same-gender emotions.  Was this sending the message that gender becomes fixed over time?  Or was it sending an alternative message, that we all, regardless of gender, are united by our emotions?  I’ve entertained this idea because in this part of the movie, the portrayal of each of the emotions is remarkably different than those of Riley.  In these instances, all emotions, including joy, sadness, and fear, were personified as both male and female; it just so happened that in adulthood the gender identity of the adult was aligned with the gender of each of the emotions.

Perhaps it’s possible that all of these choices were conscious, intended to show children that emotions are complex, an intricate mixture of both masculinity and femininity.  But I think it’s also possible that these were unconscious choices, filtered and distilled into this charming adventure story through the sieve of implicit cultural norms and gender stereotypes. Sure, I maybe overanalyzing, and I may be reading way too far into a rather innocent and well-intentioned movie.  And it may cause you to wonder: Is this even an important discussion?  Is it possible, Paul, that you are overthinking this?

Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m overthinking this.  But I’m overthinking it for a reason.

Gender and Emotion in the Classroom

Like I said before, I was one of those overly sensitive boys growing up, and today, I still am one of those overly sensitive men.  The only difference is now, as an adult, I see the power in my sensitivity.  It makes me whole, it makes me who I am, and it gives me superpowers in my classroom, as opposed to the defeating feelings that plagued me as a child and young man.  Now, as an adult and an educator, I want my students to feel the same superpowers I feel as an adult.  I want to normalize emotion, free it of its gender stereotypes, and show my students that feeling is a part of life, that Sadness should be valued just as much as Joy, and that through expressing emotion, we can provide ourselves the therapy, self-soothing, and validation we all desire as human beings.

No matter what, I think “Inside Out” is a social-emotional masterpiece, and I would not hesitate for a second to use this movie in my own classroom.  But with a more critical eye, it could help raise interesting questions about how we, as a society, can liberate ourselves and our emotions, regardless of gender or gender identity.

A Drought of the Conscious Mind


photo (35)

I am in a drought: a drought of words, a drought of coherent thought, and a drought of cohesive ideas. In fact, this drought was very concretely characterized for me today when I attended the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, where I saw the exhibit, “Listen to the Quiet Voice.”  It was this, and only this, that sparked just enough personal connection to help me even construct this post today.  Continue reading

The Right Side of History


I have a distant memory, so distant that I’m not entirely sure whether this image in my mind ever was real or just a dream.  Regardless, it feels real, it feels visceral, and it’s sat with me for the better part of 15 years now.  It was during P.E. in middle school, not only one of the most challenging developmental stages in any child’s life, but also one of the most sensitive times of the school day.  Making oneself vulnerable, especially in the context of sports and physical activity, is hard for lots of kids.  It visibly reveals weakness. It highlights insecurities.

Especially when you’re a boy.

Continue reading

What Spaghetti Sauce Has Taught Me About Curriculum

spaghetti sauce

Spaghetti sauce has become a staple in my family’s culture. My mom, my aunt, my grandma, and now even both my brother and I, make our own, homemade spaghetti sauce. Sure, it’s a bit more work than buying a jar of Prego at the grocery store, but the time we’ve lost by investing ourselves into our sauces has compounded into a rich family culture, a culture from where I get a lot of my childhood memories.

I always remember Mom’s two big pots of sauce, cooking for hours, filling the house with aromas of tangy tomato and smoked meatballs; I remember Grandma and Grandpa coming over to take care of my siblings and me, bringing fresh baked bread and Grandma’s version of spaghetti sauce–a bit lighter, but soaked with pieces of perfectly cooked ground beef. As I was making my own the other night, I reminisced on all that has come from a rather simple recipe, with rather simple ingredients, but has somehow evolved into these incredibly different versions of the same thing.

So what on earth does this have to do with teaching? Or with curriculum?
Continue reading

What’s the Difference Between Personalization and Differentiation?

In many ways, it’s been quite a radical change going from the public school environment to a personalized, private-school environment.  Never before have I had the opportunity to craft academic and social-emotional goals for each of my students, catering specifically to the needs of each child, nor have I been able to document so acutely to those specific needs.  And while it’s changed the way I operate in the classroom–to a certain degree–there have been ways in which going from public school to personalized learning hasn’t really changed me all that much.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 8.14.27 AMPerhaps it’s because I still view the classroom in a similar way.

In many ways, my philosophy has not changed over the past year, despite the fact that this radical change in environments has pushed my thinking and shaped me even more as an educator. Instead, it’s caused me to ask many questions, the biggest of which centering around the definition of personalization.  Even more specifically, I’ve wondered, what the difference is between differentiation and personalization. Is there even a difference?  And if there is, why doesn’t it feel that different than what I used to do?

In public school, I was raised in Carol Tomlinson’s philosophy of differentiation, which entailed differentiating for each learner by content, process, and product.  And this could look different in a variety of contexts.  Deconstructing standards, creating lessons with multiple entry points, and allowing students to interpret content in their own ways to make a variety of products were parts of my practice–ones that I feel I’ve only developed more in the personalized learning environment.  In fact, Tomlinson’s model even accounts for the more nuanced pieces of differentiation, including student interest, readiness, and learning profiles, all of which will contribute to the content, process, and product in any child’s learning path.

So then the question still stands: What’s the difference?

To me, the slight differences between personalization and differentiation lie in the humanism with which all teachers should approach their craft.  Differentiation, as a clinical or technical term, seems almost benign; somewhat removed and disconnected from the needs of students as humans.  On the other hand, the term personalization, coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) grounding its roots in the word “personal,” connotes connection and a recognition of the immeasurable individual.

When I reflect on my own practice and the changes I’ve made between these two environments, I feel most palpably this heightened sense for the recognition of the child as human.  For instance, in public school, I emphasized assessment criteria, “proper” pedagogy for these various learning styles, and a commitment to “covering the content.” And mostly out of worry.  I worried that my excellence would be judged, that my judgment would be questioned, and that questioning the norm would be more work than it was worth.

However, in the personalized learning environment, these worries are turned on their respective heads.  Instead of worrying about my excellence being judged based on content coverage and adherence to district initiatives and norms, I have conversations around practice that are centered on making all students successful and questioning why practices aren’t working for students, as opposed to why students aren’t fitting into our practices.

pencilsI suppose, though, the term we use doesn’t really matter.  In fact, when I reflect on my own philosophy, I recognize that it isn’t determined by the semantical differences between personalization and differentiation.  Instead, it’s determined by who I am as an educator and how I view these little humans in my classroom.

And what really matters is that I look beyond just what they are, in order to truly look at who they are.