Educating the “Whole” Teacher

Jul 16, 2015 by


Jeffrey Pflaum –

“Teaching is a creative art: call it human rocket science.” (Jeffrey Pflaum)

I’m not their mother, father, guidance counselor, social worker, or therapist. I’m a teacher. I teach. That’s what I do. You hear that from educators, now even more so with CCSS, multiple standardized tests, and all sorts of assessments looming overhead. You can’t blame teachers for wanting to avoid nurturing students because they have enough on their hands.

But then I read an article in The Washington Post (5/19/15), “Poverty, family stress are thwarting student success, top teachers say,” by Lyndsey Layton. The title says it all: obstacles to doing well in school are not always about classroom life. It is anxiety related to home, economics, which, in turn, creates learning issues and psychological problems. Surprise! Surprise!

There are missing pieces in teacher education programs. Schools of education are slowly getting the message. Just as we talk about “educating the whole child,” we need to do the same for our future teachers, neophytes entering the profession, and veterans alike: “educate the whole teacher.”

When I began teaching in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY, in 1968, I had little education background except for the Intensive Teacher Training Program at Queens College (12 credits). I walked into the classroom knowing nothing about how to teach, but was rescued by talented veteran teachers who taught school workshops in reading, math, social studies, and language arts, while also depending greatly on teacher guides from textbooks.

One day I woke up realizing that in my fears about not knowing how to teach, students weren’t listening to a word I was saying anyway and not in present time. We were in the same boat of unawareness. After my epiphany, I decided to make up original curricula. I thought: How bad could it be compared to traditional approaches I followed in my class lessons? If kids felt bored and distracted, with me swimming in my own confusion, there had to be a better road to educate inner city, or any students, for that matter.

My projects, starting in the 70s, expanded kids’ self-awareness, self-motivation, and intra- and interpersonal communication skills, which fall into today’s terms of emotional intelligence, social and emotional learning, and mindfulness. Through combined non-academic (EI/SEL) and academic lessons I got their attention without demanding they “pay attention”: it came from the inside out and pumped up the students and overall classroom environment.

In an article, “The Creative Imagination and Its Impact on 21st Century Literacies” (New Jersey English Journal, Spring 2013), based upon 34 years as a teacher-researcher-developer-experimenter, I described my progressive curricula and how it could lead to fresh approach to college education courses, professional development presentations, and workshops to cultivate creative, reflective, contemplative, mindful, and self-aware teacher-communicators.

The link for the 2013 New Jersey English Journal article is:

The following hypothetical, utopian courses listed would produce, in my opinion, educators, coaches, and mentors equipped to teach 21st century skills for academic and real life learning. Samples from my new, required courses, practicums, seminars, and workshops in an ideal teacher education program might look something like this:

(1) The Creative Imagination and 21st Century Learning and Literacies

(2) Emotional Intelligence and 21st Century Literacies

(3) Mindfulness, Meditation, Contemplation, and Reflection for Teachers and Students

(4) “Contemplation,” “Reflection,” and “Here-and-Now” Writing for Teachers and Students

(5) “Prerequisite Fundamental Skills” for Learning and Learning How to Learn

(6) Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, Experimenting, and Innovation

(7) The Socratic Dialogue: An Inquiry- and Passion-Based Approach to Learning

(8) The Self-Motivated, Focused, and Aware Adolescent Learner and Reader

(9) Group Dynamics: Educators as Mindful Communicators in the Classroom

(10) Social and Emotional Learning: Character, Identity, Values, and Society

(11) Poetry Reading and Writing for Teachers and Students

(12) Creativity and the Un-Creative Teacher in the Classroom

How did I arrive at these potential courses to create the “whole” teacher? My experimentation, years of empirical classroom research with original, provocative, and innovative curricula, opened exciting, non-traditional pathways into a plethora of education worlds, and also, into kids’ minds and imaginations, including their teacher’s. To see additional articles describing my upcoming curricula, please go to The BAM Radio Network’s blog, EDWords, at: Examples and summary descriptions of the various projects are:

“Contemplation Music Writing,” an EI/SEL curriculum, uses music, from rock to classical, contemplation, writing, discussion, and self-evaluation to lead children on peaceful journeys of self-discovery, self-motivation, and self-education. Students listen to music, contemplate inner experiences, and write about and discuss them with classmates and teacher. Discussions involve oral and anonymous readings of the student contemplations by the teacher. Certain highlighted writings are further probed by teacher questioning and expanded for greater understanding about why we act, think, and feel the way we do. The results: Music listening and contemplation changed kids’ lives in and out of school. Go to my website,, to find samples of student contemplation writings and relevant adolescent themes culled from their writings. (Courses #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, and #12 connect with these twice-weekly sessions.)

“Here-and-Now Writing Exercises” teach students to be there in the now and focused without teachers demanding attention. Practice lessons in concentration, a “prerequisite fundamental learning skill,” will help distracted, ADD, and ADHD kids to focus. An example of a novel, absurd activity is the “staring game”: Students are paired up and asked to stare at each other—eye-to-eye—for 2 minutes without losing their focus. If kids should lose concentration, it’s okay, they can take a second to relax, and return to staring. These fun, yet educational exercises, allow children to appreciate the “ins” and “outs” of concentration. Class discussions center on what exactly concentration is, how to develop, improve, and expand it, and how to retrieve it if it diminishes. (Courses #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #10, #11, and #12 connect with the bi-monthly workouts.)

“Reading and Imagining” is about the visualization, recall, feeling, focusing, awareness, and reflection skills—all EI/SEL skills—needed to read deeply and respond to literature. Lessons start with visualizing words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, for example—and continue with real and absurd sentences, longer complex sentences, paragraphs, and whole pages, eventually moving on to short stories, novels, and poetry. Students record the mind-pictures, feelings, thoughts, and real-life experiences connected with their reading, improving attitudes and inner-motivation. Kids morph into avatars navigating inner landscapes of reading worlds where reading, ideally, becomes a three-dimensional, holographic, virtual reality. Reading is about an inside feel derived from visualizing, sensing, experiencing, and critical- and creative thinking, all “prerequisite fundamental learning skills” coming from the practice of contemplation music writing. (Courses #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, and #12 connect with these 20-minute practice exercises.)

“Word-Bridges” lessons get kids to value words, their connections to other words, and words triggering ideas, thoughts, meanings, emotions, mental image pictures, and real-life experiences. Words become more than “black-on-white” on a page through original “bridges” or structures that allow them to word-storm words and find connections amongst words they didn’t know existed. The new associations help students realize that words can heal and hurt us, badly, especially in this bullying and cyber-bullying age. They see the power of words both in the real world and also how they can affect their imaginary worlds needed for creativity. Children learn to discover and see the possibilities—the worlds—where words can take us and open up. For example, in a combined word-bridges and concentration workout, I asked the class to think of a word that brings them “peace,” repeat it to themselves for 2 minutes, and describe their experiences in writing and discuss it with classmates. Practicing contemplation music writing, here-and-now exercises, and reading-and-imagining provide a foundation to make the word-bridges lessons successful. (Courses #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #9, #10, #11, and #12 connect with this project.)

“The Creative-Thinking-Picture-Slide-Series” uses pictures, photographs, slides, artworks, and cartoons from magazines, newspapers, and poster prints to develop critical- and creative thinking by brainstorming ideas to a given question. Example: An advertisement shows two mugs of steamy tomato soup with squares of butter melting on the surface. Possible questions are: What are the butters thinking and feeling? What do you think the butters are saying to each other? Create a dialogue or conversation between the butters. For enrichment, kids can create a “flash play,” story, or even a poem using the picture presented. Responses, whether they’re brainstormed answers to the first question, or longer narrative answers, can be serious, silly, or a combination of both. Students make up something from nothing, learn to think creatively and critically, express their feelings, brainstorm, and most importantly, enjoy themselves in thought. (Courses #1 to #12 connect with this project.)

The Inner Cities Poetry Arts Project is the culmination of all the above curricula. The lessons apply the contemplation, concentration, reflection, creative thinking, creative writing, vocabulary (“bridges”), brainstorming (“picture series”), recall, and experiential skills learned previously to poetry reading and writing.

After introducing and analyzing poetry via the “poetry reading sheet”—mind-pictures, feelings, thoughts, main idea/message, favorite lines, and poetry ideas for potential student poems—newspaper/magazine pictures, 20” x 30” color posters, and photographs are taped on the board. Slide shows are also presented, e.g., “The Big Cloud Show.” Students are asked, first, to describe the images they see, and second, to brainstorm ideas in the form of titles for possible poems. Next step: poetry writing. All the prerequisite fundamental skills for learning and learning how to learn have already been set into motion here. Kids become sensitized, empathetic, aware, feeling, thoughtful, open-minded, honest, reflective, energized, and intrinsically motivated—ingredients that create inspired child-poets.

The students’ poetry was published by magazines, newspapers, and by major book publishers. My website has samples of published work. More recently, their Persian Gulf War poems—translated into Spanish by the children—were published in Triadae Magazine. The amazing part of their work is that it forecasts, in my opinion, the Twin Towers tragedy. Check out the June 2015 issue, pages 70 to 73, at the link,, to find the poems along with my photograph of the Twin Towers shot through a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, ironically for its centennial anniversary. Three student poetry anthologies have been compiled over the years: Inner Cities (free-verse), Dancing in the Spring Rain (haiku), and There’s a Soul Arising in My Mind (combined prose/contemplations juxtaposed with free-verse poetry). (Courses #1 to #12 connect with this concluding curriculum.)

An internal education connected to self-motivation empowers children to learn from the inside out, and can be implemented in the CC classroom if teachers “become whole” through 21st century education coursework on undergraduate and graduate levels, including PD programs in EI and SEL, and through a series of school workshops. It really works and can be achieved in different school settings and under difficult circumstances.

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