Tag Archives: Zen

19-Year Beginner

These past few years, I’ve been very fortunate to see my Sudbury work reaching larger audiences. In addition to a steadily increasing reach on Twitter, I’ve had the pleasure of particulating in a number of shows, such as the Conscious Consumer Network’s For the Love of Learning and L4G.tv’s Education Show. Most gratifying have been the times my colleagues at other Sudbury schools have brought me in for both presentations and longer consulting gigs.

That said, I also feel a fair amount of ambivalence when I’m regarded, especially by other Sudbury schools, as some kind of expert. Mostly this comes from a longstanding habit of self-deprecation, the good Midwestern modesty on which I  was raised. I wonder, how can I be a Sudbury expert when I’m still figuring so much of this out? Even two decades in, the scope of this work is truly daunting: Continue reading


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Niche Guys Finish Last (?)

If I ever wanted proof that our life’s work calls us, rather our choosing it, I wouldn’t have to look too far. In both my career and my personal life, I seem drawn to things that tend to appeal only to niche audiences. (See The Reluctant Reformer and Missionary Positions for related rants on this subject.)

In some cases, this is a minor to moderate inconvenience. For example, the fact that I’m passionate about singing early and contemporary music means there are relatively few opportunities and relatively small audiences—which means, of course, that those choirs often struggle to make their budgets. While this is occasionally frustrating, for me it doesn’t detract too much from the experience.

Where it really hits hard, this niche habit, is in my passions for Sudbury schooling and Zen. There aren’t nearly as many Sudbury schools as there ought to be, in my opinion, and those that exist are often quite small. On the one hand, there is some benefit in the constant incentive to streamline budgets, but far too few families even know about this model or have a school nearby, and far too many schools have closed in the years I’ve been part of this movement.

To some extent this is inevitable, at least for the foreseeable future: not that many people in our culture appear ready to leap to this not-so-new paradigm, to extend full trust and responsibility to school-age people. To find those who are, I long to develop better ways of spreading the Sudbury word, and then supporting those people and their schools. Hence my creating the organization now known as Friends of Sudbury Schooling (though here again, having a niche appeal means it’s that much harder to find the financial support to do the actual work).

With my Zen practice I face a similar challenge Continue reading

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Quest Questions

“If you don’t understand the way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
don’t waste time.”

~ Shitou Xiqian, “Harmony of Difference and Equality”

I started this blog nearly three years ago with the express purpose of chronicling, and seeking guidance for, a quest of mine: to prove that one can simultaneously pursue one’s passions and sustain a modestly comfortable lifestyle. Well, the time has whizzed by, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to my goal, but this seems as good a moment as any for a progress (or lack thereof) report.

In the past three years I moved from Denver to Austin and back in something of a sub-quest for my magic mantra of Money, Mission, Mate, and Home. I’ve managed to earn enough from various school and freelancing jobs not to burn all the way through the savings I took from the world of regular, full-time work. When I’ve been able to maintain enough focus, I’ve brainstormed various schemes and ideas for how to find/create work I love that also pays the bills.

And yet, as I said above, I don’t seem to have progressed terribly far toward my goal of passion-driven, life-sustaining work, despite having learned a good bit and enjoyed some adventures. Were I to issue myself a performance evaluation using the criteria of that four-part mantra, I’d have to say I’m one for four at best (Mission), with bits and pieces of the other three.

How could I have let the years slip through my fingers just like that? How can it be so easy to get lost in the day-to-day trees as to completely lose sight of the life’s-purpose forest? I’ve been just getting by for years, telling myself, “Well, this isn’t so bad. Let’s give it one more year and see what happens.”

Well, no longer. I am no longer willing to “one more year” myself.

But what does that mean? First off, I think it means I have to stop wasting time; I have to stop indulging myself in any pursuit that doesn’t further this quest. It means I have to be ever more focused and disciplined in identifying and going after what I want.

Okay, fine: so what do I want, then? Again returning to the mantra, I want: Continue reading


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A Blog For Emily

“Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” ~ Ezra Bayda

By this point in my career I’ve worked with literally hundreds of students. While I’ve been fortunate to maintain some connection with many, that number is dwarfed by all those who’ve fallen, largely or entirely, through the cracks of my hazy, fragmentary memory.

There remain a handful of students, however, whose memory persists independently of whether I see them online or even talk with them at all. Emily was one I’d always wanted to find but never managed to track down, despite periodic efforts. I kept trying because years ago we’d started talking and I wanted to get back to that, to resume the conversation and catch up.image

I have to admit, I recall little to nothing about Emily as a sophomore World History student during my first year of regular teaching (actually, that whole year is something of a stressful blur). What I do remember, vividly and fondly, is that during her senior year Emily got into the habit of stopping by my classroom after the end of the school day, just to sit and chat.

There were two teachers’ desks in the room, and maybe two or three times a week Emily would show up a few minutes after the last bell and sit at the other desk, and together we’d wind down after the long day. I don’t recall the specifics—although I do know one recurring theme was whatever she was going through with her boyfriend at the time. These conversations were simply an opportunity to decompress, to talk about whatever came up. Toward the end of that year, Emily gave me one of her senior photos, on the back of which she’d written the following: Continue reading

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Missionary Positions

A friend and I occasionally joke—and by “joke” I mean commiserate, laughing at ourselves—about our being reluctant windmill-tilters. I’ve spoken before about this tendency of mine toward passion-driven crusades, this compulsion to dream impossible dreams. The reluctance comes into play with my textbook introversion and general aversion to conflict.

DonquixoteEven taking a bold, controversial stance, appearing to know something with some assurance, is a challenge, which makes it a wonder I found myself in a career where I promote an unorthodox (I prefer the term “cutting-edge”) model of education. That said, this paradox has been an unmistakable, recurring pattern in my life: I’m a private person, yet I reveal a great deal online; I’m self-conscious, yet I often fling myself into the limelight of musical performances and public speaking.

This split personality has its liabilities, for sure. For example, the past couple months I’ve taken up a daily Twitter habit, venturing boldly into that arena of self-assured soundbites. Even more frequently than with Facebook, here I find myself cringing and/or deleting posts that seem too strident, sighing with exasperation at the umbrage and audacity of others. Every day, it seems, I dance this endless tango of assertiveness and self-restraint.

Fortunately, my well-developed diplomatic side tempers the missionary zeal to which I’m prone. In the seventeen years I’ve been associated with Sudbury schools I believe I’ve become considerably more reasonable and pragmatic: more capable of respecting divergent perspectives on what, to me, is a vital issue; less likely to press my convictions on those with whose views I profoundly disagree.

This wasn’t a quick or easy process, however—and it wasn’t without costs. Continue reading


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7 Tips for Finding Your Calling

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Here’s some wisdom originally posted at a great site called the daily zen. There’s so much here that’s consistent not only with my quest to make passion-driven living viable, but also with the Sudbury schooling that is my own professional passion.

7 Tips for Finding Your ‘Calling’

The idea of the ‘calling’ is cliched and abstracted by now, but it still exists. Many of us do indeed have a true purpose in life, and to put at least a little bit of effort towards discovering it is one of the most worthwhile things we can do for ourselves in the long-run. These are just a few tips… Continue reading

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Hacking at the Root

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

~ Henry David Thoreau

Blogging often seems to me the height of hubris or faith. What a series of assumptions are required to continue this silly activity, flinging words at the digital void: the belief that I have something worth saying; that my words will find an audience; that I might somehow parlay my ramblings into sustainable work.

Yet I persist because some part of me knows, deeper than knowing, that if there is such a thing as a calling or vocation, mine lies in the direction of word-driven windmill-tilting, an adolescent’s passionate idealism persisting into middle age. As you know (if know me at all), my primary professional passion is Sudbury schooling, a way of revolutionizing and humanizing education to become truly empowering and aligned with how people learn.

Even so, I sometimes wonder whether I’m tilting at the right windmills. As deeply as I believe in Sudbury, would my energies be better directed at something like climate change? After all, if we no longer have a planet (or one on which life as we know it is sustainable), what will it matter how our children are educated? What about political issues like campaign finance reform? (If the system is broken, how can anyone advancing real reform hope to succeed on a broad scale?) Poverty, violence, disease, overpopulation…there’s no shortage of potential windmills, worthy causes greatly in need of support.

In my more mindful moments, I realize that what’s more pressing than any particular issue is the overall level of consciousness in the population at large. In other words, the fundamental problem is not this or that issue, but the fact that far too many of us are either oblivious to real suffering or believe there’s nothing much we can do about it. This is one reason Zen holds so much appeal for me, as a means of developing mindfulness and compassion. This is why I often wonder whether I should give up what I’m doing and immerse myself in efforts to wake myself and others.

But regardless of whether I pursue Zen, or education reform, or political or ecological activism (or some combination of these causes), the real question—the ongoing thorn in my side, a relentless source of confusion and anxiety—remains how to make this work Continue reading

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