On Monday, I saw something remarkable. We hosted Kevin Honeycutt to present digital literacy PL to our staff. During the keynote, he produced a headband that wirelessly monitored his brain’s activity in real time via a smartphone app. The Melon app tracked his level of focus and showed graphs that displayed the distribution of his brainwave frequencies. The core idea is that higher frequencies indicate higher cognitive load and engagement. This device can give immediate, easily understandable, and measurable data on physiology of student engagement. It’s a little like a Fitbit for the mind. Kevin posed the question, “How would your teaching or instructional design change if you could view this type of student data?” He then challenged everyone in the room to act as if they did have a tool like this all the time. In other words, make engagement core to the work of teaching. This was a great message — a powerful message. And, while I agreed and appreciated what he was saying, all I could think about was Koan.
My youngest child, Koan, was born eight years ago. If you don’t know, a “koan” is an answerless riddle that Zen-Buddhist monks meditate upon (and try to answer) in order to reach enlightenment. A well known koan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” We named Koan before he was born.
Just a few days after bringing him home from the hospital after he was born, he began to have grand mal seizures. He spent the next month in the NICU while various medical professionals looked for a diagnosis. When he was around four months old, the seizures stopped. But, we were already starting to notice that he was missing developmental milestones. As time went on, it was pretty clear that Koan was going to face some significant challenges. Our worry was compounded by the fact that there was never a formal diagnosis or label to describe what had happened to him. He was a true riddle; his own namesake. The uncertainty in those first few weeks and months was almost unbearable. Koan continued to grow and develop but at age eight, he does not walk or talk.
When I saw Kevin’s headband, I wondered about the type of data we would see if we put this on Koan. With Koan, I’ve always believed that he was processing more of the world than he can show. This headband might be tool to see into his mind: it might just give us another way to get to know him. When I shared this idea with Kevin, he could not have been more kind and generous. He insisted on meeting Koan. He shared his perspective and his expertise on what might be happening inside Koan’s world. He also loaned us the headband. So, over the next few days, we’ll be gathering baseline data on ourselves and Koan to help us understand what is happening with Koan. I’ll keep you posted on what we find.
While this is a great story and remarkable all on it’s own, a more powerful idea emerged out of a conversation Kevin and I had as I was driving him back to the hotel. Earlier in the evening, Jeri had related some powerful advice she got from a close friend when it became clear that Koan would face some challenges our that other kids would not. “Take time and grieve for the child you thought you were going to have. Let that go. And, then love the child you have.”
It’s become clear to me that there’s is an important distinction between preconceptions and expectations. My preconceptions about who Koan should have been were the root of my negative emotions: worry and fear. I don’t mean that these preconceptions were wrong, bad, or somehow unhealthy. They’re a byproduct of hope — the best of things — to quote Andy Dufresne. Preconceptions are normal, understandable, and reasonable. But, when the train goes off the track, they become inherently empty. The anxiety I experienced due to missed milestones were not helpful to Koan. So, they were not only making me unhappy, but worse, they were getting in the way of me being at my best to help Koan.
By embracing the available joy, the small successes, and even the short falls Koan experiences each day — each moment — I am able to see and sometimes find my best self. I started to rely upon more global expectations rather than specific preconceptions. Jeri and I developed three big expectations we share with anyone working for Koan: happiness, good health, and independence. These three ideas guide everything we do with him from planning his trust, setting IEP goals, or working with therapists or respite workers. When we see growth or progress on any of these expectations, no matter how small, it brings us great joy. And, this is an incredible gift that Koan has given us.
As I was articulating this idea to Kevin, he something remarkable — “What if each year teachers took time to grieve for the kids they hoped to have, acknowledged that grief, then put it aside to embrace and love kids that are there?” What a powerful idea! As funny as it sounds, I had never until that moment translated this personal understanding to a professional one. Put aside the preconceptions that naturally appear with hope and excitement, and accept the reality of the present. This doesn’t mean abandoning high expectations or the belief that all kids can do great things: Success for All! But, acknowledge that our preconceptions of how things “should be” can be a significant obstacle to doing our work well.
I encourage all of you to relish the anticipation of the start of the school year. There are few things in life that are better than hope and anticipation. But, when you hit that first big bump in road, take some time to grieve for your preconceptions. Let them go, maintain your high expectations, and embrace the gifts your students are offering to you right now.