I vowed to tally up the full weeks of school, so I suppose I’ll do that now. Still only one. Which I’ve written about (September 3rd). Next week will again be broken up because of homecoming, then a late start for professional learning committees (I think; the names change every other year or so), then Columbus Day, then another late start. Finally, during the week of October 24th, our second full week. The one after that won’t be until December 5th! Granted, some of these weeks include Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving, but c’mon. By December 9th, we will have had only three full weeks of school. Don’t get me wrong. I like my time off as much as anyone. But if I’m in school, I’d rather be in class, with students, teaching. 

We’re nearing the end of our social psych unit, and we focused this week on the consequences of misperceptions: viewing the groups WE belong to as diverse but regarding other groups as homogenous; viewing ourselves as discerning but regarding others as irresponsible or rude or even deserving of calamity. How convenient, huh? We will do anything to retain our sense of specialness and to create a bubble of safety around us. Can’t touch this. 

The writers of the season premiere of The Office must have been peeking over my shoulder. The entire episode is about this in-group / out-group nonsense, which highlighted one of my main points this week: the allegiances we form are often based on nothing. And we’re all guilty of this silliness, some more than others. It’s how we make sense of the world. After presenting several activities on this theme, I think my students understood the irrationality on a rational level, but I wonder if anything deeper happened. Because to truly know this, to take this in and feel this lesson, can be revolutionary. Makes me think of all the times in high school when I regarded all these other groups as cool and saw myself as this pathetic loner who didn’t quite fit in anywhere. It was all in my head. My big fat head. (For the record, I wasn’t a loser, but a loner. Changing one letter in loser makes all the difference. I could live with loner. Loner might even contain a whiff of cool.) 

In my other psychology class, my non-AP psych, we discussed Freud. The class is the smallest I’ve ever had, ten students, which allows for digression and heated discussions and a little bedlam (a word, students found out, that echoes the mad practices at Bedlam  Hospital). I wish I could insert a video here of three students role-playing Freud’s id, ego, and superego. If you know about these concepts, you can imagine the give and take, the id jumping up and down in infantile excitement, and the superego bearing down like a drill sergeant parent, while the ego in the middle tries to officiate. Hilarious and insightful. This blog can’t capture those moments. Even a video wouldn’t. Because you’re an outsider. You wouldn’t understand how cool we are on the inside. 

Actually, I’m not sure this or any other blog can recreate the intense flow that happens in a classroom, those moments when the bell rings and hands are raised and discussion is still hopping. It doesn’t happen every day, but often enough that you wonder, Who has a better job than I do?

I have a theory that all our preoccupations and flaws become compounded as we get older. For my old man, it’s his preoccupation with hot and cold temperatures. The other day while I was at his house, he felt hot and disappeared into his room to put on a pair of shorts, but he’d forgotten that he had long underwear underneath and amused himself greatly when he sat down and noticed. My question: why was he wearing the thermals in the first place on a 65 degree day? 

What will be compounded in your old age? Please comment! 

For me, I’ll probably become more and more reclusive, surrounded by tall and precarious mounds of books and magazines threatening to topple and bury me.

Your neighbor, Roger, detests you. But you mosey over to his house anyway and ask him to do you a favor. You plead! And Roger reluctantly complies. After a while, this eats at him because he did a favor for someone he doesn’t like! Something has to give. To reduce his mental turbulence, which can be torturous, he may very well begin to view you in a more positive light.

This week we’ve been focusing on such mental turbulence caused by the collision of two opposing thoughts, which psychologist Leon Festinger back in 1956 coined cognitive dissonance. It’s a simple, elegant theory that explains so much: heartache, grief, all sorts of conflict, even war. We walk around believing we’re right about, well, everything, and anything that intrudes on this illusion is batted away and flattened like a pesky fly. The brain, marvelous as it is, is also stupid and largely incapable of dealing with disorder. In fact, the brain will create order even where none exists. I’m right, you’re wrong, let’s move on. Or not, if you’re trying to pass reform in Washington.

I’ll supply one extreme example of our resistance to cognitive dissonance, and you can work back from there. Years ago, a man and his wife slithered into a wedding in Israel with explosives strapped around their torsos, intent on killing themselves and as many Jews as they could. Had these two invited a little head-spinning dissonance into their lives—acknowledging that Jews are fully human—they might have retreated, and a senseless tragedy could have been avoided. But no, they decided they would rather blow themselves up than admit their beliefs might be wrong.

My essay assignment this week for students: List three personal beliefs and write about how you might be wrong about each one. Invite some temporary dissonance, then reexamine your beliefs under this new light.

As you might expect, this is one challenging essay. We should assign the essay to every elected politician in Washington, yes?

(Thursday night was Open House, wherein I was reminded that I am as old or older than parents, who once seemed, if not intimidating, old, but they weren’t, they aren’t. How did this happen?)

 (I also had the opportunity to speak to three large groups of students at Rolling Meadows High School, who asked incisive and thoughtful questions that reflected their maturity and generous spirit.)


This week we started a unit on social psychology and began to discuss altruism and why most people do not help during an emergency. While it’s tempting to conclude that people are selfish or don’t care, numerous studies suggest this is untrue and that a host of other variables come into play: the number of people around, setting, how rushed people are, and so on. I hope students come away thinking more critically and that they’ll think twice the next time they scurry away from a situation that causes no danger to them. But I never urge them to help more because—who the heck am I to tell them what to do? 

What I’ve been wondering about lately though is this. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on altruism, tens of thousands of psychology students have been apprised of these findings, yet the rate of helping is still pretty dismal. Are we forever doomed to keep our compassion in check because of split-second decisions that barely rise to the level of consciousness? I think so. And I don’t think I’m being pessimistic. This is who we are and this is how we’ll be tomorrow. (When people find out I’ve been teaching for a while, they invariably ask, So are students different today? I’m always at a loss. They’re not that different. They may be more distracted today because of their stupid cell phones, which will probably have long-term consequences—longer thumbs?—but for now, No, students haven’t changed that much in 30 years. They want what they’ve always wanted: to be cool. I want that too, though I seem to move farther from that goal each year.) 

We’ve also been talking about the scientific method, which is a beautiful process when followed. But when I hear stories week in and week out about scientists who allow biases to creep into their work or scientific journals that decide what to publish based on some wallop factor or drug manufacturers that only publish studies favorable to their products and then hire professors to tout the positive results, I do become pessimistic. What to believe anymore? 

I’ll give you an example that ties some of the above together. A while ago, a big newspaper asked world renowned violinist Joshua Bell to play in the lobby of a busy Metro stop one morning. They counted how many people stopped to listen, and almost no one did. About a thousand people marched right by. You can find a video of the “experiment,” which I’ve shown to classes, and their responses are predictable: what’s wrong with these people? The newspaper wondered the same thing, suggesting we’re callous and don’t have time for beauty anymore. I say, What did you expect? People were going to work. They needed to get there on time. How about using a control situation and having Bell play after work? It’s a compelling little video, but it doesn’t prove anything. I suspect that after work, crowds would have gathered. 

All this reminds me of my favorite two-minute assignment that students did a week ago. I told them to simply pay attention as they walked through the halls. For example, if you’re approaching someone you know casually, how soon do you make eye contact? Do you follow that up with a nod, a comment, a half wave? How long do you keep eye contact? What if you don’t like the person? What methods do you use to pretend you don’t see the person? Do the lockers suddenly become the most fascinating things you’ve ever seen? Out in that hallway is high choreography! Demonstrating all this in class is hilarious because the decisions seem so familiar, and everyone comes to realize they’re universal. What’s even funnier is demonstrating what happens when these informal rules are broken, when eye contact is held too long or when a nod is exaggerated. Just as in emergency situations, our decisions are based on preservation of self-image, our boundless need to appear polite, and countless other social dictates—and if we pay attention, we can get a glimpse into the primitive snake brain inside each of us that controls these daily determinations more than we’d like to believe.



Back to school: week two recap.

I saw tired frames sagging against desks this week, and when I asked, “Long day?” I heard a collective sigh. This is our first full week, which is worth noting because our schedule is so often amended to accommodate a variety of essential and not-so-essential events: state achievement tests, ACTs, late starts for teacher collaboration, open house, pep assemblies, college night, teacher institutes, final exams. I’ll let you decide which are valuable and which leave teachers scratching their heads in bafflement. Hard to establish a pattern of alertness when the week is broken up, which is probably more often than not. Maybe I’ll keep track. Forget about extending the school year; just give us one uninterrupted week after another. 

I drove home my first set of papers and never took them out of the car and drove them back to school and graded a few there and the rest at home on a second trip. 

Most interesting part of the week was a discussion we had on goals (we were studying humanism in psychology). I asked students to write down where they saw themselves in 2020, nine years from now—and to be as realistic as possible. Then I had them repeat this exercise, but this time, they had to reach a bit. I said, What if you could put aside your fears, put aside what others thought about your goals, and focus on what you truly would like to do in nine years? After, I asked them for a show of hands if their answers to the two questions were different, and sure enough, most of their arms were raised. I didn’t follow this up with a lecture on why they should follow their dreams. Who am I to urge them to put aside their fears, which may prove useful to them? But the sometimes stark differences between the two answers was enlightening. Even if we follow the safer, more assured routes toward our futures, if we can at least be aware of the choices we leave behind, I think this can be instructional. 

I was inspired by the high and noble aspirations of these kids, in both their realistic and dream futures. They want to be doctors and engineers and teachers, they want to serve others, to contribute. And these are their realistic futures! In their dreams, they will be Broadway singers and write books and travel overseas to supply medical attention to needy populations.  Listening to them, I truly believe the future will be in good hands, and I regret that we haven’t left them a world in better shape. They’re not blind to this fact, and while they’re worried, they’re not cynical. One by one, we need to nurture that optimism at every opportunity.