Tag Archives: Education

Yelling at the Ocean

During a staff collaboration, our department head showed us a TED talk by Eduardo Briceño that discussed the reason why people’s skills at their profession tended to plateau in skill despite large amounts of time being invested into their improvement.  Specifically, he said that the average person has two zones:

  • In the Learning Zone, people are relaxed and situations are very low-stakes.  The emphasis is on becoming better.
  • In the Performance Zone, the emphasis is on execution and evaluation, and the stakes are higher.

Briceño then stated that the problem is that most people almost always place themselves in the Performance Zone, and are seldom in the Learning Zone.  This is apparently impressed upon us at a young age: we are taught that school is evaluative through grades, and are often punished or docked for mistakes, enforcing the principle that mistakes are bad.  Furthermore, because the Performance Zone is one of judgment, not of improvement, the mistakes made are not used to improve any skills.

The first thing that came to mind when Briceño discussed a low-stakes situation Learning Zone was my time playing soccer.  More than any teacher making me spell and write repeatedly, my time playing soccer – especially with my father – taught me the importance of practice.

When I started playing soccer, I was typically awful.  However, about two or three years into playing the game, my skill level spiked suddenly.  This was not just due to maturity, or finally understanding the sport.  My kicks were powerful for my age, and I was able to aim the ball precisely – almost with x, y, and z-axis precision.  I was able to trap almost any ball flying toward me at my feet with a technique involving my shin.  These skills made me a valuable asset to my team, despite my lack of precise ball control as a dribbler.

Demosthenes projecting his voice over the ocean.

As I reflect now, Briceño’s words color my experience with a new significance.  His example of the Learning Zone was made clearer by his reference to the orator Demosthenes, who practiced posture by suspending a sword blade above his shoulder, who spoke against the ocean on the beach to perfect his projection, and who put rocks in his mouth to master enunciation.  Individual skills were perfected and honed in ways that far surpassed the difficulty of what he was practicing for – but the situations were low stakes.  Nobody would know if he failed during these exercises but himself.

Soccer practice ran similarly.  No matter how much we begged for a scrimmage (essentially a simulation of an actual game), both my coach and my father would instead focus on drills, which were little tasks that perfected individual skills in preparation for the game.

“There’s no point in a scrimmage if you have no skill.” said my dad to me once in the car.  Essentially, using a soccer game to practice for a soccer game was limited in usefulness because it was a performance zone.  Drills were specialized in practice: We practiced dribbling.  We did sprints and liners to practice changing direction.  We did the Give-and-Go.  We juggled the ball with our feet.

When I reflect now, I realize that the things I spent the most time practicing with my dad (mostly because we couldn’t really run around) were my kick (shooting the ball with my father as the goaltender – he was better than any elementary kid would be) and my trap (my dad would always expect me to trap the ball – no self-respecting soccer player would do otherwise if a trap was possible.)


Soccer practice was low-stakes but higher in difficulty.  If I missed a goal (you know, because my goaltender was a full-grown adult), I just had to try again.  Every time I missed a trap, I just had to run and get the ball.  There was no punishment. I practiced for way more hours than I ever played in a game.  I realize now that my father kept me in the Learning Zone.  Every time I tried to shoot a ball past my father, I was Demosthenes yelling at the ocean.  The drills that I performed faithfully improved my skills.  Accordingly, the drills that I performed less diligently – like running laps, dribbling, and ball-handling – did little to help me.

My skill plateaued eventually – and again, that’s easy to explain.  As I got older, I was shorter than a lot of my teammates.  When they did better than I did in practice, I was disheartened, instead of focusing on myself.  I practiced less with my father, and soon I only heard his feedback from watching my games.  Without realizing it, I had transformed my practice time into a Performance Zone.

Many parents make this same mistake with their child’s education.  Low grades are punished, average performance ignored, with only high performance receiving acknowledgment. – implicitly teaching that mistakes are bad.  If mistakes are bad, then everything is high-stakes, which makes school a Performance Zone, not a Learning Zone.

In addition, the social imperative mirrors this as well. For some reason, teenagers care what their peers think, to the point that their worst nightmare is to be caught in a vulnerable position.  The fear of becoming a social pariah as a consequence is about as high as stakes get, with teens tossing and dodging labels like “snitch” and “slut” in their day-to-day lives.  If you worry about what other people think, how can you be safe enough to make mistakes?

I’ve talked before about how we need to be uncomfortable.  In order to do that and get to sword-suspending and ocean-yelling, we need to identify our Performance Zones and our Learning Zones and treat them as such.  This is also why hobbies are a good idea: you can use the skills they give you in their assorted Learning Zones with your Performance Zone.  For example, rapping has been a low-stakes way of building confidence when speaking and demanding attention, which is something crucial when teaching teenagers.  It also expands my vocabulary and refines my pronunciation.  Blogging helps me with my writing skills and with expressing my thoughts in words, which is definitely an imperative for an ELA professional.

The concept of the Learning Zone is the rebuttal we’ve been looking for to the tired claim that you “don’t use what you learn in school anyway.”  Yes, you do!  Of course, problems aren’t like they were in school.  A school is a Learning Zone.  School tasks are drills.  School is yelling at the ocean.  Real life replaces the ocean with real people and raises the stakes – because now the waves can hear you or destroy you, and your words matter.

My article featured on the Classcraft Blog

I’ve talked a bit about Classcraft, and its uses in the classroom.  I hope to post more comprehensively about it in the future, but I thought I would share a post that I wrote for them that they recently featured.  There’s an excerpt here with a link below!

Hip hop forces discussion about race, poverty, identity, family, hate, and the Man—all of which are things students worry about daily when they’re supposed to be thinking about your step-by-step tutorial on Shakespearean sonnets. You have an opportunity with hip hop to acknowledge pain, hate, anger, and injustice instead of denying it and further losing respect from students, who go home to these real issues and face them instead of your homework. You can show them through hip hop staples (rhyme, repetition, storytelling, catharsis, reflection) how to handle these issues and even use them to navigate another discomfort: your academic world.

via Why teachers need Hip Hop Education in the classroom – Classcraft Blog

To People Who Don’t Read

A lot of young people like to make the excuse that they “don’t read.”


Reading books and writing are among brain-stimulating activities shown to slow down cognitive decline in old age, with people who participated in more mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes having a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental capacities.

Translation: How do you not read? It’s literally the other way to communicate.

“No, no, I don’t read for fun.”

That’s like saying I’m bad at math because I don’t spend my evenings graphing parabolas.  Like mathematicians are at home begging, “Mom, after dinner can I recite the quadratic formula? I love the way that everything divides by 2a!”

Even so, if you know that not reading is the reason you’re awful, then doesn’t it make sense to start now?

Here’s the thing; there’s some guff on the internet that says something about how “you don’t even use what you learn in school, anyway” or something like that.  That’s complete malarkey – a successful person will figure out how to use most of what they learn in high school to some degree.  But even if you accept that flawed premise, here’s a stone cold truth: Reading and writing are NOT on the list of things you won’t need.

I tell this story to everyone who tells me they won’t need reading and writing skills.  In my first job at a bowling alley, I worked with a coworker/supervisor (I’m not telling which because that’s too specific for creepy internet stalkers) who wanted to advertise a special deal: Pepperoni pizza for $1.00 a slice.  He had the bright idea of making this special appear on the score screens of all 32 lanes in large letters that would march across the screen.

“Peperroni Piza, $1.OO per slise – munday thru thirsday!!!”

Not only is every word except “per” and “thru,” (an acceptable abbreviation) misspelled, but he even had a typo on the part with “$1.00,” because he used O’s instead of zeroes.  Yes – dude misspelled a number.  I was mortified and had to fix it immediately, and of course, anyone who saw it was probably similarly mortified.

I’m not stopping the story here, though, as a cautionary tale where all listeners go “Well, I’m not THAT bad!”

The reason I tell that story is to deliver a message: If you write without capitalizing, it’s exactly as noticeable as this situation.  If you can’t write three sentences without showing why you didn’t get a diploma, it will look exactly the same as if you had written that pizza sign.  If you can’t read in the work world, it will be noticed and seen in exactly the same way as I, and now you, look at this guy.  There is no way to reveal a lack of reading and writing skill that isn’t embarrassing, except in school.

In my head, I feel like even youths caught up in gang activity might even be like “I’m gonna trust you to have my back?  I’m gonna trust you with a gun?  You didn’t even pass English 1, man.”  After all, if you can’t sit still long enough to learn how to read with people paid to help you, how are you going to fend for your life in this world?

I’m not saying people not good at these things have no value; I’m saying that there’s no way to hide it or ignore it.  It’s not like a scar you can conceal.  In most cases, within minutes of knowing you and hearing you talk, reading your texts, or viewing your Snapchat, employers, friends, enemies, and everyone else will know whether you would sell “piza” or “pizza.”

Here’s the kicker: Even people with similarly bad or worse spelling and grammar can tell when someone can’t write.

“I never read when I was young, Mr. Phan, so it’s too late for me.”

A lot of people seem to think that if you don’t start reading at a young age, then you’ll never become good at it. And I see why they might think that.

According to studies done by the University of Oxford, “Young brains do tend to be able to absorb new information better than old ones, although not necessarily to integrate it as well with what has been learned previously.”

That’s why little kids can’t take over the world. Little kids can learn faster, but older people use what they learn better.

That’s why I’m better at arguing than you are.

However, learning how to read at an earlier age doesn’t mean a rooster’s crow.

“Being taught to read at an early age (such as five years old) does not ultimately result in better reading skills, and if it replaces more developmentally appropriate activities, then it may cause other harms.”

Studies conducted in 2015 indicate that

“there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success.”

You can start NOW!  So what if it’s harder for your mind to absorb?  You’re also older – perhaps more mature now, and better able to suck it up and do the work.  It’s never too late to improve your reading skill.  Gorillas are doing sign language, man!

“Mr. Phan, I don’t have any books!”

Get a library card, homey!  Plus, I’ve got some more tips and tricks for you:

1: Borrow books from people.

The reason you want to do this is because, for many people, reading isn’t attractive because it’s a solitary activity, and we like to be social. If you borrow a book from someone, you instantly have someone else who also read the book, so you can talk about that one epic scene where the warrior slapped the king in the face. For bonus points, ask teachers! They’ll probably let you borrow some stuff!  You also will make more friends who also read, a really important thing that can help if you need to be surrounded by a positive atmosphere.

2. Read your interests.

Don’t be afraid to re-tread some of your old interests. See a movie recently? Read the book. Reading a book of a story you already know lets you not stress out about understanding the plot and instead can let you focus on other things – like the differences between the two.  Find the sequels.  Find other books by authors of books you already read.

3. Watch all of your movies with subtitles.

Even if you think you’re ignoring them, your brain will actually do a lot of work without you knowing. Also when you don’t hear something, you’ll instinctively look at the subtitles before bothering anybody with questions. Lastly, hearing the words being used will help expand your vocabulary and also help you recognize difficult words. That’s right, you can watch Terminator 2 and still increase your reading level.  Arnold definitely taught some people how to say “cybernetic organism.”  Netflix offers captions for almost everything.  This is great for rewatching movies that you’ve already seen.

4. Pronounce long words.

Sound that stuff out! I can’t stand it when someone’s reading in my class and they get to a word longer than two syllables and stop dead.  Everyone in my class now knows what I want them to do: Be brave. Sound it out, say it the best you can. If you say it wrong, say it wrong forever until someone teaches you the right way. You gotta keep a growth mindset. You’re not going to learn how letters work in the awful, complicated world of English unless you’re wrong first.

This will also help you if you learned to read by sight (memorizing words) vs phonetically (sounding them out.)  Reading by sight with memorized words leads to students being stopped in their tracks at even the most rudimentary words.  It’s like teaching someone to skate and then expecting them to be able to dance – and then finding out they never learned to walk.  Sound out the words.  Do that old-fashioned thing in Sesame Street where they combine two signs into one word.


5. Google stuff.

Google is a verb here, but it works as an adjective too.  Ask Google what stuff means.  Most devices will allow you to do this in seconds.  “Okay Google, define equilibrium.”  It’s over.  There was a time when if you had questions about something you read, it meant consulting this:

This is a real photo from the place in which I grew up.

Those days are gone.  In seconds you’ll know that equilibrium means “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced,” AND is also an underrated action movie with Christian Bale and Sean Bean about a dystopian world that destroys books and drugs people into happy submission.  How can encyclopedias compete?  The only possible answer is: by looking so wonderfully photogenic.

It’s never too late to learn to read skillfully… until you embarrass yourself.  Blogs are a great start.  So I suppose, while you’re increasing your reading level, enjoy your stay, and feel free to click around!