Tag Archives: learning

The Power of Unconventional Freedoms

Among other hats, one of mine is “teacher.” I teach workshops to adults, art to children in after school programs, and more. One of the most powerful tools I have found I have as a teacher is the choice to allow what I call unconventional freedoms.

Kids in my class can talk about controversial subjects, go to the bathroom whenever they wish, and choose whether to sit or stand. These freedoms are allowed by some teachers, denied by others. What I mean when I say unconventional freedoms goes beyond this.

My kids can cry in class if they want to. They can walk away from their projects and go lay down on the floor. They can stim (engage in repeated body motions that cause no harm to themselves or others). They can do things considered strange or inappropriate by adults in larger society so long as they are not interrupting me, distracting other students from their work, or causing harm.

These unconventional freedoms allow children the space to grow as people and to explore who they are and how to exist peacefully with others.

Dr. Carol Dweck‘s research about the growth mindset (a mindset which involves believing in one’s own ability to grow in terms of skills) tells us that when children have the support to build a growth mindset, they are able to grow more than children who have a fixed mindset (the belief that they cannot grow in terms of skills). This doesn’t just apply to academic topics, Dweck tells us. It also applies to behavior.

Dweck’s research supports treating behavior like another subject students learn right along with English and math. This means supporting them through conversations meant to help give them the tools to grow and do better rather than tearing them down with punishments. Besides, as most teachers or parents can tell you, when children feel supported, they act out less to begin with.

In most of my art classes for children, there are one or two kids who are easily and vocally frustrated with projects. “I can’t do this” is a common refrain among them, indicative of Dweck’s framing of the fixed mind set. “It’s too hard, do it for me?” they ask. “I can’t do it right,” they pout, staring at the project, either dejected after a single attempt or afraid to even start.

To “I can’t do this,” I say, “Yes you can. It’s just hard. You have to try a bunch of times before it will work. This stuff isn’t easy.”

To “It’s too hard, will you do it for me?” I say, “Of course it’s hard. It’s something new. It’s only easy for me because I’ve done it a lot of times. Unless you do it a lot of times too, it will always be hard for you. Try again, okay?”

To “I can’t do it right,” I say, “That’s okay. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make mistakes. That’s part of learning, and that is valuable. Besides, sometimes in art our mistakes take is in new and interesting directions, and that can be exciting!”

By the time they are done working with me for the semester, they try. They attempt. They give themselves the space to fail and try again, just like the other kids. I see them go from a fixed mindset to a mixed or growth mindset. Of course, it helps that it’s an ungraded after-school art class. I have a lot of freedom in my class compared to the daytime teachers.

Which brings us back to the point: Freedoms. How do unconventional freedoms play in to all this stuff about transforming young minds from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets? I consider them to be a highly useful tool set. Here’s an example of why:

On the first day of class one term, a child sat staring silently at the project on the table. Everyone else happily worked away. This child remained still. I checked in with the kid, who then began bawling. “I can’t do this,” the kid wailed. “It’s too hard!” We had the same talk I always have with kids who say these things, but this kid was having a huge emotional response to the situation. The kid understood what I was saying and accepted it, but first needed to cry to get all that emotion out of the way. I let the kid cry on the carpet at the other end of the room, but not before making sure to say, “Come back whenever you’re ready, okay? Take as long as you need.”

Weeks passed and that kid continued to struggle. “It’s too hard,” and “I can’t do this,” came out every single class session at first. One day the kid even moaned, “Don’t you have anything I can do that is perfectly easy for me to do on the very first try?!” Talk about an explicit fixed mindset! I didn’t give up. The more I encouraged that kid to try anyway, the easier it got. Eventually the trips to the carpet to cry without distracting others from their projects stopped. By the end of the semester, the moment that would have prompted “I can’t do it” instead inspired mere hesitation, and a glance at me for encouragement.

None of this would have been possible if I had told this kid not to cry in class. Or not to lay on the floor. Or not to do both at the same time. The unconventional freedom of crying on the floor without shame allowed this child the emotional space to develop a necessary life skill, and it harmed no one.

Speaking of harming no one, that is one of the major lines I draw. Boundaries are necessary after all. In my art classes, there are three main types of rules that everything else I list to my kids as rules comes down to:

  1. Consent. Do not touch other students or their projects, or me or my bins of project supplies, without first asking for and receiving consent.
  2. Class Focus. Do not distract other students from their projects or from me when I am talking. No yelling or other loud noises unless it is an emergency.
  3. Do No Harm. Do not harm others or their projects, or any other property.

These underlying foundations mean that when I ever do stop a child from doing something, I have a really good reason. I will explain it if asked, or sometimes without prompting. The kids appreciate this. After all, kids are people, and people do not like being controlled arbitrarily. Kids just don’t have enough world experience yet to guess at my reasons sometimes without it being explained. On that note, children also thrive when given genuine connection and discourse in lieu of punishment, just like adults do. Here is an example of that:

Two kids in one of my classes were friends outside of class. They always picked the same colors on purpose and got along really well. One day, one of them kept grabbing the other’s arm and pushing and shoving. After the second time I verbally reminded this kid about the relevant rule, and heard it broken a third time, I said, “Hey [name], why don’t you come over here with me? Let’s have a little talk.”

As we walked, the kid looked troubled and closed off. Away from the class, at the other end of the room, I knelt down to be on the same level of the kid.

“What can I do to support you?” I asked. “What do you need to follow this rule?”

By the time I finished the first question and began asking the second, the kid was bawling. The moment this poor kiddo realized I wanted to provide support, all the walls went down and the tears came out. We talked about it through the tears, and I learned that this first-grader wanted the other kid to stop engaging in conversation. “Does [name] know you don’t want [pronoun] to talk to you?” I asked. Turns out this kid had never even thought to use words to establish a boundary line. Skills like that are things people have to learn. Heck, I know adults who still need to learn that one! Anyway, by engaging this kid in conversation with the same amount of respect we give adults instead of giving in to frustration over broken rules or conventional punishment systems, I was able to use the unconventional freedom of “have a discussion instead of a time out” to help this kid learn a valuable life skill. This kid went on to employ that skill in the classroom.

When kids actually do cause harm, they need to be stopped and educated so that they do not continue to do harm. However, much of what adults stop children from doing does not constitute harm. How much harm does that do, especially when we remember that children are people too? What is the point in curtailing freedom when no harm is being done to any person or any thing, if firm boundaries are in place around those very important lines?

Activism 101

If you can tell something needs to change, and you are ready to help make that happen, but you feel lost about what to do and where to start, then this post is for you. There are several key components to activism. I am going to discuss four of them. Each one is really just a different form of accountability, and you never stop doing any of them.

1. Self-Education

This is the root of everything. You cannot make a difference at all if you do not know what is wrong or how to fix it. Your choice to read this means you have already started engaging in self-education. Good job!

There are lots of different issues out there and each one has its own nuances. There are lots of things that are similar for activism for all minorities, but there are also key differences in how we go about supporting each minority. Non-visible minorities (such as gay people or transgender people who are passing as not-transgender or Muslims who do not look like stereotypical Muslims) face an entirely different set of obstacles than visible minorities (such as black people, or transgender people who are visibly transitioning their gender). Reading about all of these things will help you help them.

Gay people and tend to like to answer questions about being gay. Black people tend to resent answering questions about being black unless you are close friends with them so they know you are coming from a  genuinely supportive place, or they are working at an activist center and on the clock when you ask. Disabled people seem to have no trends regarding this that I have noticed. “Tend to” means not always; no single group of minorities holds some sort of blanket set of beliefs/needs/desires. That is probably one of the biggest keys to activism: Remember that a person who is a minority is a unique individual first and foremost. And regarding that question thing? Ask first if it is okay to ask questions. The burden of educating others is actually a super heavy one for minorities to bear. Never, ever assume that someone is okay with educating you. Instead, use things like blogs written by minorities, minority-specific museums, and centers designed for activism and education.

2. Peer Education

This is something that overlaps a bit with “holding others accountable.” I sincerely believe that most people do not want to be assholes. Most people want to be nice. That means that the vast majority of racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on is purely accidental. As you educate yourself, you will begin to see people doing these things all around you (and notice it in yourself as well). They will not even realize that they are doing it. Part of activism is calling people in (as opposed to calling them out), to let them know that what they are doing is hurting people. If you say “That is actually racist because X,” for example, someone who is already an educated activist will thank you and adjust, but most people will balk at the big scary R word and respond by saying they are not racist. That is why calling people in as opposed to out is, in my opinion, the most successful form of activism when we are talking about dealing with typical individuals on a typical day. “I know you do not want to hurt people, so I thought you would like to know that X is actually kind of mean,” for example, will be more likely to get people to listen to you.

3. Holding Yourself Accountable

Everybody has got a different idea of what it means to be an activist. A lot of people use call outs as their standard form. If someone calls you out, don not get defensive. Or if you do, just let that feeling rest inside you and listen anyway. Holding yourself accountable means listening to people who call you in or out, no matter whether you like the way they are doing it. If someone calls you in or out, take some time – however long it takes, really – to process it. Maybe even go search online for more information about it. Use it as an excuse to educate yourself. Then, make any necessary changes. This can be a long process, and that is okay. Keep with it. You might find more stuff in your self-education that allows you to hold yourself accountable to things before anyone calls you out on them. Every time you do that, it is a triumph because it means that is one less person who had to take on the burden of educating you.

Processing through self-accountability can be an extremely taxing process emotionally. It is important to find a support network for this. If you have close friends who are minorities, it can be okay sometimes to ask first if they’re okay processing this with you. Generally, though, that creates an undue burden on someone who is a minority. Find non-minority activist friends you can process your emotions with. Join activist groups to help you with self-accountability, self-education, and processing related emotions.

Remember: Every person who is a minority has a right to be utterly furious. They may express their anger when calling you in or out, or simply in general. Anger is one of the best triggers for defensiveness. Do not fall into that trap. Let a minority person’s anger elicit your compassion and introspection, and set any defensiveness aside where you can process through it later.

4. Holding Others Accountable

This is the hardest part of activism, and you cannot do it unless you have been doing the first and third parts. This can be educating peers as mentioned above, or fighting for policies/laws to change at work, in your city, in your state, and in your nation, and everything in between. But you will not know what changes to fight for unless you have been educating yourself, befriending minorities, and holding yourself accountable.

Putting It All Together

As you may have noticed, there are two general halves to activism: Internal activism within ourselves, and external activism for educating others and holding them accountable. The first one is the most important because the second one is meaningless without it.

Know that this is a lifelong process. You will make mistakes, and that is okay. You cannot be a genuine activist without risking getting it wrong sometimes because it is a learn-by-doing process. Be okay with mistakes. Own them, apologize, and then make your apology valid by changing your behavior accordingly.

Dominoes for Teaching Fractions, Decimals, or Division

Choose a set of rules for dominoes, then pick one of the following variations on score-keeping:

For Addition of Fractions

  1. Each player keeps track of points individually. For competitive games, individuals keep track of their own scores. For cooperative games, each player keeps track of the total score of the game.
  2. As players place tiles, the numbers represent fractions rather than integers. The number on the end touching the existing tile is the numerator, and the number on the free end is the denominator.
  3. Each time a tile is placed, the player must add the resulting fraction to the point total.
  4. If playing a version where doubles are played sideways, use this as an opportunity to enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter which number is the numerator; the answer is still 1 point for that tile.

For Long Division and Addition of Decimals

  1. Each player keeps track of points individually. For competitive games, individuals keep track of their own scores. For cooperative games, each player keeps track of the total score of the game.
  2. As players place tiles, the numbers represent division problems rather than integers. The number on the end touching the existing tile is the dividend, and the number on the free end is the divisor.
  3. Players must divide the numbers appropriately to how the tile was played, and add the resulting decimal number to the score total. The facilitator may choose to specify a certain number of digits to be used (i.e. – “round to the nearest hundredth”) depending on the skill level and desired outcomes of the game.
  4. If playing a version where doubles are played sideways, use this as an opportunity to enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter which number is the dividend; the answer is still 1 point for that tile.

For Division with Remainders, Rounding, and Addition of Integers

  1. Each player keeps track of points individually. For competitive games, individuals keep track of their own scores. For cooperative games, each player keeps track of the total score of the game.
  2. As players place tiles, the numbers represent division problems rather than integers. The number on the end touching the existing tile is the dividend, and the number on the free end is the divisor.
  3. Players must divide the numbers appropriately to how the tile was played until a remainder is found. Then, players properly round the answer to the nearest integer and add it to the score.
  4. If playing a version where doubles are played sideways, use this as an opportunity to enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter which number is the dividend; the answer is still 1 point for that tile.


The Parable of the Anachronistic Alchemist

A prodigy graduate physics student at UC Berkeley in California’s bay area worked secretly to create a time machine. The device was designed to transport up to two people and their clothing, two small cases of gear, and enough fuel for a return journey through time and space. Calculations regarding Earth’s location in space over time were integrated into the operating systems, allowing the driver the ease of entering a date, time, and Earth surface coordinates into the console.

Our student had a fondness for alchemists from history. Their obsession with such goals as turning lead into gold did not blind their judgement when it came to the process of discovery. In fact, these individuals began to carefully record the results of their experiments, and ultimately created the fundamentals of what is known today as the scientific method.

When the time machine was complete, our student dressed in destination-appropriate clothing, bid adieu to the cat in ancient Greek, and arrived moments later outside Alexandria in the middle of a summer night in the year 176. After an incredible adventure that is not relevant to this story, our student returned to the vehicle with a new friend who was an alchemical practitioner, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Greek language.

Our student brought the alchemist to Berkeley’s campus, sneaked him in to the chemistry library, and showed him the wonder of one of her favorite collections of knowledge.

“Nearly two thousand years of exploration and discovery have lead us to this and more,” our student said in ancient Greek.

The alchemist looked around with eyes full of wonder. Book after book the alchemist pointed out, and our student translated the title. Sometimes they read in the books. As time went on, the alchemist grew wary.

“This cannot be,” he said. “Elements that are not alive? Metals as discrete, separate elements that do not mature into precious metals? Everything here is based on these concepts, and these concepts must be false. Therefore, this library is full of nothing but lies.”

Our student was perplexed and tried to discuss the matter further, but the alchemist wished to return home. Our student complied, leaving him back in ancient Alexandria where she had found him. Back at home, our student contemplated the situation. It did not make sense for someone who was dedicated to truth and reason to dismiss something just because it conflicted with previously held beliefs.

Graduation finally came, and our student took the podium. After thinking over time about her encounter with the alchemist, it flavored her speech to her fellow graduating scientists.

“…truly embracing discovery can be difficult because it means letting go of preconceived notions, and preconceived notions are comfortable. They help us understand the world, so losing them is scary. As we go forth into the real world let us remember, in former president Roosevelt’s words, that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Go forth. Let yourself be afraid. Discover truth.”


On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 7 am, just like every Saturday. I rolled off the couch where I sleep now and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. Everyone else was still asleep so there was no need to use the bathroom to change. I pulled a sweatshirt over my T, grabbed my large bag full of reusable shopping bags, and walked half a mile to the church where I get food.

I plopped my bag down at the end of the line of bags, boxes, and small 2-wheeled carts and joined the group of milling folks waiting for numbers to get handed out.

“Whoa, nice, is that a Call of Duty bag?” someone said, peering down the stairs at my bag. It wasn’t, it said something else on it.

“Nope,” I said, just as my new acquaintance realized it for himself.

“Oh man. I thought it was a Call of Duty bag,” he said.

We then proceeded to discuss video games, role playing games, and of course zombie apocalypses. It was a brief but rousing conversation.

“I had no idea you were a nerd,” he said after a bit.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ve seen you around and all, but…I just…I  would never have thought you were a nerd.”

“Oh?” I asked, wondering if it was just because I’m quite obviously female-shaped, and conventionally attractive to boot. “Why’s that?”

“I don’t know. I just never would have thought it.”

“We never know anything about anyone until we start talking to them,” I said.

We continued to discuss nerd-related topics before the conversation turned to our current situations. He essentially asked me in a less rude way what I was doing at a food bank if I was so clearly intelligent. I told him about my double-major at our local community college in chemistry and physics and my intention to become a chemical engineer after I transfer and complete my second bachelor’s before returning the inquiry.

My companion expressed a discomfort with his situation. He told me that he was between jobs at the moment, and that it was difficult for him to find work because he never graduated from high school. After hearing more about his work experience and lifestyle, I recommended a local company with a culture that seemed particularly suited to his needs. He looked them up online with his smartphone and started to get very excited.

By this time it was 8 am. The person with the number distributor device under his arm called out that he was ready to distribute numbers. Everyone moved to stand next to their boxes and bags and carts and tubs, and walked past the distributor one by one to take a paper number. Mine was 327. I glanced up at the lit display to see that the starting number that week was 295. Excellent.

As numbers are not called until 8:30 am, folks tend to settle in on benches or drift across the street to the park. I was in the second group, where I drifted back into close proximity with my conversation partner from earlier. He was looking forlorn again and told me that he didn’t think he could do the job at the company I had recommended. Turns out he’s practically illiterate. My mind went immediately to the seminar I recently attended about learning disabilities.

“If you struggle with reading, that could be the entire reason school was so hard for you that you dropped out,” I told him. His friend who was standing with us nodded.

“What do you mean?”

“Learning disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. If your struggle with reading was preventing you from learning, well, of course school was hard.”

“Oh I’m not disabled,” he said, and his friend frowned and looked like he was struggling to figure out what to say.

“The definition of ‘learning disability’ is just anything that makes learning more difficult,” I said, “it’s really a very loose thing.” His friend nodded. We waited while unknown thoughts crossed his face.

“It does seem to hinder me,” he said with a sad sigh.

He went on to say something that I can’t remember clearly, but portrayed a self-image of a lack of intelligence. His friend looked like he wanted to face-palm.

“You seem pretty smart to me,” I said, and his friend nodded.

“I do?”

“Yeah. That much is clear just talking to you. There is actually a high correlation of learning disabilities with intelligence.”


“Yeah. See, people fall on a bell curve,” I said, drawing one in the air with my hands and following it up with appropriate gestures. “Most people fall somewhere in the middle, then on either end we’ve got people with less intelligence and more intelligence. Our school system is designed to meet the needs of the people in the middle of this bell curve. It makes sense that folks who fall to either side – no matter which side it is – would struggle with that system and therefore meet our loose definition of what it takes to have a learning disability.”

He stared at me, dumbfounded.

“See?” his friend said, “I told you you were smart.”

“If you’ve had trouble reading, of course you’ve had trouble learning. Our public school system is based on the presumption of literacy. The thing is, there are programs out there just for this. Our local community college offers reading classes and they’ve got a disabilities services office that can help you figure out exactly what is going on so you can address it and move on with that information.”

“I…need some time to think…” he said. His friend and I nodded and stayed put while he walked away.

“I keep telling him he’s smart,” his friend said. “He has what it takes. He just doesn’t have the confidence,”

I nodded, thinking again about the seminar I had just attended and how lack of self-confidence seems to be a commonality among folks with learning disabilities, especially in people who don’t know that they have one. The disability students I tutor are often clearly lacking in confidence, sometimes to the point where it seems to be its own disability. Some of them have even consciously identified it as an obstacle they intend to overcome.

I wandered back across the street to check the numbers. The sign had been updated to say 300, but no one had gone in yet. Excellent. I was even closer to the start of the line.

When I came back across the street, I found my new friend sitting on a bench. I was going to give him space but he waved me over. When I sat down, I saw tears forming in his lower eyelids.

“I never thought I could…This is so…Wow,” he said, unable to articulate  his feelings.

“Do you feel overwhelmed?” I asked.


“Hope can do that to you.”

He laughed and sniffed, and we sat in silence for a moment.

“You really think I can do this?”

“Yes,” I said, noting inside my head that he had been able to look things up online without ever having had any help for his reading troubles. “Have you ever wondered if you’re dyslexic?”

“All the doctors I saw just thought I was making things up,” he said, looking at his feet. My heart sank.

“Well, like I said, the people at that office I was telling you about offer extensive evaluation services. They can help you figure out exactly what’s going on. You might have to enroll as a student though, I’m not sure.”

“What kinds of things do they have?” he asked.

As we talked, our conversation meandered between opportunities, services, observations of those around us, and some really intense introspection on his part. His comments sometimes betrayed what appeared to me to be a very strong intellect and awakened critical thinking skills. I took care to point it out to him whenever this happened and let him know that it’s not something other people find easy to do, as I have learned in my tutor training that it is very important to encourage this kind of confidence in people. He was surprised each time.

“What’s the catch?” he finally asked me. “Every time I think there’s an opportunity there’s some kind of catch. What’s the catch to everything you’re saying?”

“The catch is that you have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to embrace all this, and if you do, you have to put in a very large amount of work, time, and effort.”

“Hard work I can do,” he said with fierce determination. “I am going to contact that office and see what I can do. This is how I can get my life on track.”

Learning Disabilities

It’s a new school year, and with it comes new changes. I am now working on campus as a math and chemistry tutor while attending my own courses. After working for about 2 weeks as a drop-in tutor, I was promoted to a tutoring position wherein I work one-on-one with students with disabilities. I discovered early on that the only clear difference between my assigned students and those in the drop-in tutoring center was an extra dose of self-doubt.

Last week, my employer sent me to a seminar about learning disabilities. There was a panel of 7 experts, each of them from a completely different background. There was a neuroscientist, a psychologist, one of my own campus’s guidance counselors, and so on. They even managed to get the person in charge of our local system of services for K-12 disabled students on the panel. After an intense session, here are a few of the main points I gleaned:

  • Learning Disabilities are Not an Indication of Intelligence Level

While it is entirely possible for a student to struggle due to a lower intelligence level, a learning disability operates independently of intelligence. In fact, many students with learning disabilities are at the top of their class, graduating from high school with 4.0 GPAs, and the evidence suggests that there is a high correlation between learning disabilities and very bright students. It was clear that the panelists viewed learning disabilities as any sort of difference which causes more struggle with learning than a given student’s peers encounter. Our school system is designed to support the common student. Very bright students fall outside this bell curve. It makes sense, then, that some of them learn so differently that they technically meet the definition of having a learning disability.

  • Chronic Depression is Common in Students with Un-Diagnosed Learning Disabilities

Students who struggle more than their peers and don’t know why face a unique set of challenges. Their self-worth is called in to question. The constant nagging of, “why can’t I do this like everyone else can?” can prompt chronic depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a host of other related thoughts, feelings, and symptoms. This is part of why diagnosis is so very important.

  • Late Detection is Quite Common

The term “disability” is laden with stigma, and behavioral differences which are symptomatic of learning disabilities are not easily recognized for what they are by people who are not trained in these matters. As such, it is not uncommon for families seek to control their children and/or cover up the disability rather than seek help. An example one of the panelists gave of such behavior maintenance involved imagining a child with ADD/ADHD, or perhaps mild autism. The parent of this child might view related behaviors (such as becoming absorbed by video games or not sitting still at the dinner table) as problematic and provide a system of punishments and rewards to correct it. This is behavior management, but does not provide the support and treatment a student with ADD/ADHD needs to thrive in schools that are designed for a particular type of student. Diagnosis is important in order to provide that support.

Students with learning disabilities who make it out of high school without discovering the disability are sometimes diagnosed in college, if they can overcome the social stigmas attached to the phrase “disability” in order to seek out their campus’s resources. In California, typical college and university campuses are equipped with evaluation and accommodation services. If you are a student reading this and you are struggling in any way with your courses, I suggest you seek out such services on your own campus. The worst thing that can happen is that they cannot help you, in which case you are just back where you started. No harm done.