Purpose and the Story We Tell Ourselves: Wayfinding our own Oceans.

the-seaIn 1995, the prolific warbler Neil Young (and members of Pearl Jam) released Mirror Ball.  The album featured one of Young’s iconic declarations of independence, “I’m the Ocean.”  With a chorus declaring the title’s metaphysical conceit and lyrics probing smaller, stranger metaphysical comparisons (“I’m an accident/I was driving way too fast), Young contrasts being a trivial, single thing (“I’m an aeorstar/I’m a Cutlass Supreme”) with being something as expansive, deep and meaning-full as the ocean itself.

Young’s song is, perhaps, a meditation on the 90s as the beginning of the fracturing of meaning and attention that has come to mark our contemporary existence.  But more so, it is an exercise in the utter necessity of always writing our selves into the present in ways that both extend our individuality and acknowledge the reality that we are part of something much larger.

This recognition, that we are all part of an ocean of humanity and that we all have a tidal power to extend ourselves out and back again, this is one of the great mysteries of existence: That our individual self floats and drifts and surges amidst all other selves in the world.  It makes us humble but also allows us to know the great power each of us has to change the world.

However, as Young’s lyrics reveal, developing a sense of ourself in this way is not an easy task.  Such wisdom is hard-won, the process of struggle, of loss as well as success, and of many, many hours spent reflecting, talking to/with ourself…a silent, internal sounding of our own depths.

And for as important as such knowledge is to our own mental health and sense of well-being, there is little in most students’ school careers that helps them meet the self by itself and the self within our larger communities.

For most of my career as a teacher, be it in middle or high school, I’d always known that students hungered to better understand themselves.  After all, what else is education for if not to better understand the self?   For years I addressed this through stories, through philosophy, and through metacognitive exercises, and while all those had some meaningful effect, they never felt focused or cohesive.

Image result for Students polynesian wayfinderAnd then, two years ago, I stumbled upon Project Wayfinder.  The focus of this unique curriculum on understanding the self at the individual and community level has been instrumental in helping me to provide deeper meaning to the purpose projects that drive the way we learn in the elective I teach, NOVA Lab.  But more important, it has provided key experiences to recognize the critical role of community in our classroom.  When students are provided with an open and understanding environment in which the entire community is driving towards a common but unique goal (to better know ourselves), they learn how to develop empathy and communication flourishes.

Oh, I realize I am only seven lessons into this unique curriculum, but I know enough to know when the tenor of a classroom changes.  And even if some of the lessons in the year-long curriculum don’t work for all students, their belief in the importance of the overall goal of the project is, I think, strong enough to keep them focused on the need for others in the community to engage more deeply.

I’ve asked students to write blog posts reflecting on their work with Project Wayfinder so far.  Below I’ve culled a number of quotations from their writing so that their own words might speak to the power of the project itself.


“WayFinder has proved to be more beneficial than simply planning out my career path. I have learned more about my personality and strengths, and thus more about myself. By obtaining this knowledge, I believe it will help me in my future career and relationships.  —Emma C.

“[Wayfinder] Mondays are one of the best parts of our inNOVAtion Lab class, as they give me a time that I would not have otherwise had to think about my own desires and goals in life.  Especially as I’m now applying to college, recognizing my own strengths and goals in life gives me such a good base upon which to base my essays and interviews.” –Andrew D

“The idea of living beyond the simplicity of school work and the all-too-familiar monotony of the workweek has been planted in our minds.  The only way to really have direction in one’s life is to define what makes us tick–our purpose(s) and how we want to leave our mark.  Wayfinder has done this for me.” –Ethan F.

Project Wayfinder has slowly shifted my attention to parts of myself that before I wouldn’t share with people I didn’t know very well or even people I am very close with. It’s reinvigorated my passion in things that had been overtaken by other aspects of my life and brought them to the surface as bold as ever.” —Jane H.

“Project Wayfinder been a unique experience unrivaled by any other in my high school career. In school, we’re always working for a grade, molding ourselves to the machine in order to get to college and beyond. [In Wayfinder], we’ve had the ability to not only shape our minds and opinions but adapt our personalities and go on a path of self-discovery. Most teenagers don’t even consider who they want to be as a character in their story, but Wayfinder asks us to stare our future in the face and affords us the time to mold ourselves to our own personal goals. It’s been really inspiring to not only go through these activities but see how others have been impacted and adapted from the knowledge they gained during Wayfinder activities.”  –Glen R.

“Project Wayfinder offers us learning not covered in any other aspect of the school system. At times this can be challenging but overall it is a very beneficial process. This allows me to take time and reflect on what I have done, what I want to do, and why these things matter to me. I personally do not do these things on a frequent basis, but this course brings a healthy cleanse of my pent up mental strain. Focusing on my goals and feelings is a foreign concept to me but has proven important. The course could not have come at a better time due to how now is the time where so many, literally, life-changing events are coming up. Whether this be college or academic prospects.
–Ethan S.

“Project Wayfinder is less about the specific answers it provides than the process. Instead of blindly doing things because I’ve always done them that way, I now regularly consider what brings me joy, what kind of person I am, and more. The power of Wayfinder, at least the early portion of the curriculum, is not to define one’s lifelong purpose, but to encourage the careful consideration that will one day result in one.” –Matt T.

Students everywhere will tell you that the idea of curriculum is killing any sense of purpose they have, and Wayfinder knows this. So instead of trying to give you a book as a surefire method to find your purpose, they use the best tool available to anyone, other people. All the book does is give them better questions to ask. For example, instead of asking you for a definite answer to what you’d like to do, another person is prompted to ask you to tell a story about a time you’ve enjoyed doing something. Humans aren’t meant to spit out correct answers and know ourselves perfectly, we find ourselves through the stories we tell and the people we tell them to.” –Miles C.

“While Project Wayfinder is still a young product, I thoroughly enjoy it and think that it should be applied wherever it can. Not just innovation classes – other classes, other schools, workspaces; there is never a wrong time or place to find your North Star.” Valencia C.

“Project Wayfinder helps us succeed in the world rather than merely in the classroom. It shows us that no matter how different we are and how separated we are that we have a purpose and that our purpose is consequential to the world.” –Nicholette D.

“Project Wayfinder is a way to ask questions to yourself and find out who you are. Completing the exercises with integrity and wholeheartedness is vital to really discovering oneself and peeling back the layers to become more open and vulnerable. I thoroughly enjoy Project Wayfinder every week and figuring out more about who I am, little nuances about my personality, and how I can find my purpose.”–Aleesha P.

Being only seventeen years old, most of my life has been dominated by my time in school. Because of this, when I think of my identity, I think “student,” but Wayfinder purposely tries to leave school out of the activities. I’m interested to see what the next lessons will bring, and how I will think of my identity outside of being a student.”
–Brandon S.

I Am The Stories I Tell Myself: Teaching, Learning Narratives, and Our Responsibilities as Collaborative Authors

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From Jason Silva, Shots of Awe

We, that is this thing we call our “self”, are a narrative construct.  We are the stories we tell ourselves. This should come as no surprise to teachers and other educators.  We know that positive self-talk is correlated with higher levels of success and happiness in all students.  But these narratives are not crafted in a vacuum. We are, after all, social creatures, and thus our narratives include the lived stories we craft based upon how we perceive others perceive us.  As the philosopher Charles Cooley posits, our “self” is a narrative crafted within the social realms, that is, between us and others (or, as Jason Silva puts it: “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am”), and so our words, our deeds, and the actions we inflict upon others are immeasurable in their repercussions. 

In other words, Stories Matter!  A lot! We are, to borrow the words of Jonathan Gotschall, “Storytelling Animals.”  Thus the narrative turn in our understanding of who we are should play a larger role in how we help the next generation learn than the faux empiricism of evaluations couched in letter grades.

When we turn this theoretical lens onto our classrooms, we should immediately recognize that grades and the narrative we (adults) have shaped around them are a major influence on the selves whose stories we help craft.  And their influence is, by and large, negative. By all accounts, student (and parent) grade-watching is rampant, stress and anxiety are increasing in our children, and the stories our students tell themselves about themselves hang too precariously upon a letter.

We need to shift the focus away from largely arbitrary (and therefore mostly meaningless) letters and numbers to narrative assessments.  At least there, going back to Cooley’s work, we are not inflicting the system’s narrative upon the child/young adult. Instead, we are opening a dialogue, negotiating, and collaborating in the authorship of this human being’s learning narrative by helping them understand what we mean by “growth” in a cognitive sense.

 “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.”  — Vikram Chandra

No doubt, many students and adults become successful because they fit within the narrow confines of the system’s narratives.  And there are those who succeed in spite of the narrative…who are not prisoners of the thoughts and perceptions of others, of the worth implied via evaluative grades.

But how many persevere, silently or quietly, despite the system, all the while internalizing ideas of who they are based upon systemic labels (“I’m not an honors student.  I’m not good enough for …. I’m never going to be….”)? We talk about how students need to overcome their “fixed mindset” and use “Grit” to develop a “growth mindset” (“I’m not an A student…YET”).

That’s dandy, but we know that’s easier said than done.  We also know it denies social, economic, and countless other inequities.  If these students are constantly on the receiving end of grades which are often manufactured or, worse, inconsistently applied, if they perceive that they have no control over the system’s narrative…? If that is the case, it is a sick and sadistic system that doesn’t ask itself, “What harms are we committing in the name of “Adequate Yearly Progress” or “proficiency” or other “normalized” notions of human potential.

It is part of our shared story that we are all human beings in the becoming. (That’s the only perspective through which those videos of “The Power of Yet” make any sense.) If that is so, then grades, which imply for so many students an endstate, need to be seriously rethought, or in the very least their implementation needs to be reconsidered given the understanding of their power to prematurely end students’ learning narratives.

One of my academic heroes was the Nobel Prize Winning physicist, Richard Feynman.  As he sat by his young, first wife on her deathbed, he discussed how those he was working with on the Manhattan Project may be viewing his constant trips away to her hospital.  She asked him point blank, “What do you care what other people think?” (Those words were to become the title of one of his amazing, anecdote-filled memoirs).

I would love to think that all of us had enough fortitude to live by such a credo.  But we can’t. I don’t think anyone, even a mind like Feynman, can live that way 24/7.  However, when we continue to evaluate and judge students as we do, we send the message that we’re all supposed to be people pleasers, and that our self-worth is predicated upon how much others find our presence in class pleasing, our work satisfactory–“Are you an “A” student or a “C” student?”  

As educators, we must ask ourselves, is our work to help students coauthor their own ”Learning Narratives,” an ongoing subplot of the stories of themselves, or is it to be complicit in (and if so to what extent) the continued creation of compliant rule-followers who seek the approval of others to validate their existence.

One should not read that choice as a pure binary.  Obviously, boundaries and knowledge of what constitutes quality work and pro-social behavior are necessary, but they are not sufficient for the full realization of human potential.  Only narratives and shared stories help us understand one another that deeply.  And that, more than anything, is at the foundation, at the heart, of education.