An Open Letter to My Advisory

This is the narrative evaluation for all of my advisory students for this past quarter. I usually write individualized evaluations (you all belong to a highly individualized school, after all), but because of our day-to-day conversations, I think all of you know what I would write about your individual strengths and challenges, and we can discuss those with your parents/guardians at your Learning Plan meetings.

Instead, I’m giving our advisory a group evaluation.

We’ve gotten away from our identity as an advisory this year. The reasons are obvious. With only eleven students in our program, separating into two different advisories can sometimes feel unwarranted. I work just as closely with the students in Stuart’s advisory as I do with you, and vice-versa for Stuart.

But the fact remains, we are an advisory. That advisory includes four students who come to school every day and one student who has yet to make it to school this year (though that student is working with me online). It also includes students who have come and gone over the years, students who have graduated, transferred to other schools, or even dropped out. If you’re still in contact with me on even a semi-regular basis (and yes, Facebook counts), then you are still part of my advisory, and I will always be here for you.

What does it mean to be a part of our advisory? Let me set the scene. A few weeks ago, some of our members (but not all) were sitting down in the new cafe for the last block of the day. We were joined by a couple of students and a staff member from the Therapeutic program, all of whom were waiting for a meeting to take place after school. I was working on my laptop, designing a new template for our Learning Plans. Two of our members were documenting their work for their Phase Level Expectations; another was helping me build the Learning Plan, serving as a sounding board for my ideas and asking insightful questions as to how the plan would be used.

There was a vibe in the room that afternoon. Even the people who weren’t part of our advisory could feel it. It was a relaxed vibe, but also productive. We were all making forward momentum on something. There was also a kind of joyousness to it. Everyone was friendly to one another, and when one of us needed help on something, someone else provided it without allowing themselves to get distracted from their own work. I loved it. But it wasn’t just me. Everyone in the room could feel it.

Even if you weren’t in the room that afternoon, you know that scene. As a current or former member of our advisory, you’ve taken part and contributed to that vibe, and you know how good it feels.

That’s what it means to be a member of our advisory. It means forward momentum, accompanied by a joyous commitment to support one another.

Despite that wonderful afternoon, our advisory has had some challenges this year (not the least of which was the loss of one of our former members to a gunshot wound — but I don’t want to talk about that right now). Outside of that tragedy, our biggest challenge has been in creating cohesion and connectedness as a group.

As you know, we have a new student who has not joined us at school this year because they suffer from severe anxiety. As I mentioned above, I am working with this student online. I’ve also sat with this student’s parent a number of times and am working closely with an entire team of people to help the student join us on a semi-regular basis in the Spring. In addition, some of you have emailed this student, introducing yourself and trying to make them feel welcome at our school, and I think that is just awesome.

But I wonder if all of us could be doing more? If we were a connected advisory, we would have made our attempts to reach out to this student a regular thing. We would have sent them packages in the mail to let them know we haven’t forgotten them. We’d think of them less as the student who doesn’t show up and more as a member of our advisory who can’t come to school because they’ve been sick for a long time. We should be — and we can be — doing more to help this student connect with our school in the same way that rest of us have, to feel like this is truly a place where they can feel safe and supported as they figure out how to pursue their passion.

But that’s not the only place where we’ve had challenges. We have another new student who is part of our advisory, and this new student, while making strong bonds with the members of the staff, has yet to make strong bonds among the members of the student body. When I think back to our original three members — the first three students our school ever had — I remember that two of them arrived as best friends and the third arrived as someone they kind of knew but weren’t really friends with. Within weeks, all three of them were best friends. Those connections happened because the two who were already best friends made a concerted effort to bring the third student into the fold. They made plans for after school. They ate lunch together. They worked at becoming friends. That’s what I would like to see for every new student who joins our advisory. There’s no reason any single member of our advisory should feel like they don’t have any peers whom they can trust.

For the rest of this year, I’d like us to make a commitment to one another. Every other day, we are scheduled to spend the last block as an advisory. We often blow this off, choosing instead to stay with the rest of our classmates in a single room; again, because our program is so small, this feels natural, and it’s also helped us forge connections with the other members of our program. But doing so has done us a disservice as an advisory.

We need to use this dedicated time to check in as a group. When it’s the eight, nine, or ten of us all in the same room, it’s easy for one or two of us to separate off and spend the time essentially alone. This is not good. So let’s make a commitment to each other to meet as an advisory and use that time to not only check in as a group, but to offer whatever kind of support is immediately needed.

Let’s also use this time to expand our concept of our advisory. I mentioned above that every student I’m still in contact with is part of our advisory. That group includes world travelers, successful professionals, and college students. Let’s use part of our advisory time to become pen-pals with these people. They’re out in the world doing real things: paying bills, getting jobs, working on initiatives, figuring out their next steps. Let’s not only seek them out for advice, but also offer our support.

Let’s also use our advisory time to do community service as a group, whether doing activities that support the wider community of Poultney or the Rutland region, or activities that benefit our school (did someone say “yearbook” or “dinner and auction”?).

By doing these activities together, by connecting with ALL of our members, by being there for one another on a regular and committed basis, we will develop the cohesion and connectedness that we all want in our advisory.

So that’s it. That’s our evaluation. Now let’s get to work.



To Keep My Money Local

One of the buildings here on Main Street in Poultney has been for sale for a least a few years. It’s an old gas station with a two-bay garage attached. It sits on the corner of Rt. 30 and Main Street, right at the entrance to the village. A year or two ago, one of the organizations in town hoped to purchase it using taxpayer money to create a welcome center for the village. It was also going serve as the main location in town for weather-protected access to our regional bus route (i.e., a bus stop). Unfortunately (in my view), the taxpayers voted it down at town meeting that year.

This morning, in the shower, I had another idea for that building.

One of the biggest issues with Vermont is the lack of meaningful employment opportunities. In the list of the occupations with the largest employment in Vermont, you’ll find at or near the top of the list not-so-rewarding jobs such as cashier, retail sales, food prep (including fast food), and waitstaff. According to the Burlington Free Press, “almost all of the new jobs [created last year] were concentrated in four sectors of the economy:  health care, hotels and restaurants, business and professional services, and construction.”

In other words, outside of some version of nursing, there’s not a lot of jobs in Vermont that provide secure, long-term employment with health benefits, retirement accounts, and the ability to feel as if you’re making a meaningful contribution to the wider community.

Forbes’ profile of Vermont explains some of the reasons behind this.  We have the smallest economy in the nation, the second highest business costs, and an economic outlook that is supposed to be the fifth worst in the country over the next five years, all of which affects our residents’ income growth. Add on an aging population (second oldest in the country) and a brain drain of young college graduates (as with all young college graduates, ours are more attracted to urban areas than to rural), and it’s easy to see why more large-scale employers don’t choose to make Vermont their home.

On the other hand, the state of our small businesses is strong. According to a Business News Daily survey of Vermont’s small business owners, “entrepreneurs in Vermont may have to contend with a tight labor market and an elevated cost of living, but they also have access to strong, entrepreneurial communities and operate within a stable economy.”

One of the entrepreneurs said, “There are events every month in and around Burlington to facilitate networking with [investors, mentors, incubators, and entrepreneurs]” — but if you don’t live in or around Burlington (as I do not), then your access to this network is greatly diminished.

That’s where my idea for the building on the corner of Main Street comes in.

It has to do with a thing called locavesting:

In the wake of the financial crisis, people [looked] for ways to rebuild their communities, dotted with foreclosed homes and shuttered storefronts. And they knew they had to look beyond Wall Street. In some cases, that [meant] rediscovering tried and true solutions, such as community banks, cooperatives and CDFIs, or resurrecting centuries-old concepts, like local stock exchanges. In other cases, it meant inventing brand new models, like crowdfunding. All of these alternatives harken back to a time before our global financial age, when finance was something that happened largely within a community, among trusted participants, for mutual benefit.

The word locavesting is analogous to the successful locavore movement; where locavores eat food grown or raised in their local community, “locavestors seek to invest that way.”

In Vermont (as in many other states), we have rules designed to help Vermont businesses seek investments from Vermont residents. Our Small Business Offering Exemption, for example, “allows Vermont businesses and start-up companies to raise up to $2 million in capital by selling shares in their company to in-state investors.”

But I’m wondering how your everyday small business and your everyday Vermont resident gets access to this kind of financial market. If more people were able to invest in the growth and success of local businesses, wouldn’t Vermont be more attractive to entrepreneurs, and not just entrepreneurs who are coming from out of state, but entrepreneurs and potential entrepreneurs who already live here?

Imagine this:

Let’s say I receive a $1,200 tax return on my Federal taxes. I’ve got several options on what to do with this windfall: I can pay down my debt (always a good idea); I can spend it on goods and services; or I can invest it in either a traditional savings account or in something a little fancier (of course, I can also do some combination of the three).

Let’s say I choose to invest it.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could walk down the street to a beautiful new building where I could sit down with a professional financial consultant who could help me invest my $1,200 in a local business of some kind?

Because the building is located in Poultney, various brochures and video-playing kiosks would direct my attention to businesses located within or around Poultney, with each business making some sort of pitch as to what they would like to do with my money and what kind of return I can hope to generate from it.

Maybe there’s a video from a man I know who is looking to hire a second construction worker to help him grow his business. He’s hoping to raise roughly $40,000 to afford the second worker’s salary, and in return for the investment, he is willing to split a portion of his company’s profits with his investors.

Maybe there’s a pitch from a local entrepreneur who’d like to start a locavore restaurant, or another from a woman who would like to expand the location of her daycare, or another from a college student who is seeking investors to help him build a company around his recently acquired patent, or another from an elderly man who’d like to take his cottage industry online, or another from a local farmer who wants to buy a new piece of heavy equipment, etc.

It’s not just people looking to do something specific, however. There are also shares available in already thriving companies: a local plumber, a local hardware store, a local private school, a local baker. My investment in these small businesses signal my willingness to trust these entrepreneurs to make the most of my money, to use it to generate a return greater than I might find with a traditional savings account.

Of course, I would also have access to the larger Vermont market, but the priority of this particular building in Poultney would focus on entrepreneurs who live and work within 35 miles of my home — people I know, businesses I recognize and patronize, families who send their children to school with my daughter.

The upshot is that the exchange would act as a kind of hybrid between crowdfunding services such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, micro-loan services such as Kiva, and a traditional stock exchange.

Okay. So, that’s what it looks like if I’m an investor. But what if I’m a small business owner? As an entrepreneur (in this scenario), I’m already pulled in every direction and don’t have the time or the finances to do all of the legwork necessary to get my business listed on such an exchange, or once I’m there, to figure out how to conform with all the transparency requirements that are only fair in a public market.

That’s where the person working behind the desk in our imaginary building comes in. He or she is not just a resource for individual investors; he or she is also a resource for the businesses that are looking for those investors. This professional consultant can help walk the business owner through all of the required steps to getting listed on the market, and can put the business owner in touch with other consultants who can help maximize the offering (i.e., local professionals who can produce brochures, create videos, develop websites, assist with financial audits, etc.).

Because he or she is walking all of the local businesses through the process of getting onto the exchange, he or she will know the local market better than almost anyone else, and will therefore be able to assist the individual investors when they come looking for guidance.

Now imagine this particular building (and this particular kind of financial consultant) in all of Vermont’s 255 municipalities, each dedicated to driving investments in their local economies.

This isn’t a crazy idea. The financial rules are already in place. The only thing that is missing is the local access point.

What if the legislature set aside some kind of funding for this? The funding would go towards the creation of the Internet-enabled backbone that allows an investor in Brattleboro to send her money to a cupcake maker in the Northeast Kingdom, and to track the rise and fall of the various shares listed on the exchange.

The next step would be for the legislature to create an unfunded mandate that basically says, “Okay municipalities, if you want to give your local business owners access to an entire state’s worth of local investors, you have to create a physical location in your municipality where residents can receive professional advice related to the local market. The wages of the person providing the advice must (at least) meet your county’s designated living wage, and the physical location must have access to the Internet. Until you are able to meet these requirements, your businesses will not be allowed to list themselves on the exchange.”

This would not only create (at least) 255 well-paying jobs in the state (Burlington, for example, might choose to open a few of these access points), it would also equalize the opportunity to participate in the market: you wouldn’t need the Internet at your house because it would be available at your local access point; you wouldn’t need to hire a financial manager because the consultant would be available to everyone in your town for free (his or her services would already be covered by the taxpayers); and small businesses wouldn’t have to deal with a ton of up-front costs to prepare their businesses to be listed (again, because the consultant is already working for free).

The benefits of such a marketplace would greatly outweigh the costs. It would not only ensure that more Vermont dollars stay in Vermont, but it would also increase the rate of entrepreneurship throughout the state. With more local money flowing to more local entrepreneurs, more residents would have the opportunity to follow their passions to meaningful employment, whether that means starting their own businesses or hiring more of their neighbors, funneling my investment dollars into my neighbors’ lives.

Anyway, that was the idea I had in the shower this morning. It might not be wholly original, but I thought it was good enough to share.

They Can’t Revoke Your Soul For Tryin’

My students decided they wanted to know more about the soul.  They came up with a list of questions, including what is the soul?, how could the soul exist?, is the soul permanent?, and all sorts of other questions. One of my students even wanted to compare the concept of the soul to the more new-agey concept of energy (a brilliant question, I think, when asked in earnest).

They also agreed that we do not want to be multicultural tourists in the class; rather, we want to wrestle with the questions. But at the same time, we don’t just want to riff off the top of our heads about the definition of the soul. We actually — all of us — want to learn something.

The Hindu (Vedanta) Concept of the Soul

Yes, this is about to happen.

There is a thing called an atman and a thing called a brahman. That’s pretty much what I know about the Hindu concept of the soul.

Both the atman and the brahman make up the soul. The Hindus are not the only ones to have divided the soul into parts (St. Augustine does it, as does Freud, as do a lot of other people), but the Hindus are the ones who connect the individual soul to an infinite soul, not as one to an other, but as one and only. The soul we each have, the atman, is like our individual soul, our heart, but the soul we all share is the brahman, which is like the music made by all of our hearts beating together, not as one but as many, the music we make, the melody, bass line, and percussion, moving as one in song.

I read the Bhagavad Gita in college. In it, Krishna stops time just before a major battle to help Prince Arjuna make a decision. Arjuna is dithering because the men he is about to fight are his family members and loved ones. He knows it is his duty is to go into battle, but how can he kill people he loves?

I don’t remember a lot of the book.  But that’s not important. Sure, it’s one of the most sacred texts in all of Hindu literature, but by this point, there’s been so many thousands of years of dissection and analysis that anything I’d even be able to add to the discussion would always already be besides the point.

That’s okay. Because I’m not trying to teach the Bhagavad Gita right now.

What I’m trying to teach is that it says there is a sense of duty that each soul has — and by soul, I’m talking about the atman, the individual-ness of us. In some sense, the duty of every individual is to turn to face God (Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as a god with faces on all sides, whose core shines with the light of a thousand suns; having faces on all sides allows all of us to face him individually), but each individual, as an individual, turns to God in a way that is unique to their atman; it is the duty of each of us to find and know and do our atman.

Are you a dancer? Then dance your way to God. A reader? Read your way to God. A warrior? A prince? A priest? A queen? Act as a queen should act, regardless of whether there’s a crown on your head.

But remember, you are not the queen (even if you do have a crown). You are a subject of God, with all of the gifts and rights of any subject worth their salt; we are to God as the roots are to their leaves, all as one.

The goal, however, is to cut down the tree and separate into the flowing robes of the infinite.

Reincarnation is a part of this, too. How (who, what) we get reincarnated (as) has to do with the way we live up to our duty. The Hindus call this dharma.

Dharma is what puts the ethics in our actions. It’s like the universal law, telling us exactly what we should do. But it’s also like a river: the more you move when and where you’re supposed to move, and how you’re supposed to, the better off you’ll be; the more you fight against dharma, the worse off you’ll be.

That’s one of the ways Hinduism differs from Taoism. Taoism wants you to surrender to the flow, while Hinduism wants you do more than that — it wants you to be more like a whitewater river guide who has been trained in the ways of the river and experienced it over and over again until you understand the best way to get yourself out of the river safely; Taoism, on the other hand, just wants you to close your eyes and jump in.

To use the tree metaphor again, dharma is the way the roots channel their energy up through the trunk of the tree and out onto the farthest reaches of the highest leaves, where it finally comes into contact with the sun. If you ignore your dharma and keep channeling your energy around and around near the base of the tree, you’ll grow stunted, ensuring that when the tree dies, all of your energy will just goes back into the ground, to try once again to go home.

Follow your dharma, and you’ll know exactly which way to go.

But that’s all argument from metaphor. How to philosophize that argument?

I’ll leave that one for my students.