The First Turning

A worldwide climate of positive change and hope for the future.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the First Turning

For the first time in my life I am on the sidelines of the circus out there—all the issues, events, chaos, and change that made me thrive before… before I went under for surgery for ovarian cancer, before chemo treatment became a regular recurrence.

Where I used to be caught up in the activity of each day, instead I have days that stretch out before me. This at first was terrifying, and once in awhile is still terrifying. But what I am learning to do is to have things to look forward to that do not involve engagement with the huge worldwide arena.


Teddy Roosevelt wrote of “the man in the arena” who “dares greatly.”

My “daring greatly” has been of a different kind.

  • I lean into the fear. When I have feelings of fear, as any person in cancer recovery is apt to have, I let it happen—not for hours or days, but for a little while. Then I meditate. Just as some use prayer, I use meditation to clear my mind and center me. Both prayer and meditation have the same effect of grounding all of us in a higher power, whether that be a mainstream religion or the universe.
  • I recognize what I have. Because chemo keeps me close to home with its unexpected side effects, I looked around at what I had. What I found was a beautiful home that was beginning to look frayed. So out came the paintbrush and the sander, and voila! (Well, not so voila, it was a lot of work!). My 20-year-old Adirondack patio furniture was refurbished, complete with repairs to rotted wood. It now looks elegant instead of forgotten.

And that was just the beginning. I am slowly transforming every room in my house with new paint, new pictures, re-arranged furniture. I am told that this is Morita Therapy, a Japanese method for lifting the spirit by changing the physical perspective. Whatever it’s called, it works.

  • I found my people. Using social media to relay my progress was a given—in many ways, social media is where I live. What I did not count on, however, was the tight-knit support group that sprang up overnight to help with the day-to-day emotions, and the issues that arise in recovery. This group appointed themselves. I’ve told them that they are now stuck with me forever. They don’t seem to mind.

The First Turning does not have to be a mega-event. It does not need to be a technological revolution. It has come quietly, as Carl Sandberg wrote “on little cat feet.” Compassion brings out the best in all of us. My recovery has created within me a sense of gratitude, for all of the events and people who have sprung forward to assist me. I have learned to accept help, which to this point was nearly impossible, For me, giving help was easy… but receiving? That meant showing my vulnerability and thankfulness. It is somehow a relief to do so.

This is indeed a personal First Turning. It is a kinder, more collaborative world. And it started, not in Silicon Valley, or at the Vatican, but in my own backyard.


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From The “Hot-Shot” Writer to All of Us

On April 15, 2015, I walked into the emergency room with what I thought was a burst appendix.

I walked out with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. My world went on tilt.

Within the next three weeks, in a blur of emergency, a 15-centimeter tumor was removed from my stomach… the silent disease.

I went from being a “self-sufficient” I to a humbled “we.” I went from being a somebody to being everybody. Illness is the great leveler. No one asks what your credentials are when you’re lying on a gurney in an emergency room.

The ideas I write about on paper—empathy, love, courage—have hit home to me in a whole new, deeply personal way. And instead of me being the person to extend those ideas into the world, I was suddenly receiving those ideas in very real ways, incarnate in the prayers, meditations, acts of kindness… in the thousands of hands reaching out to me from around the world. I have used Facebook as never before. It has become my bridge to the hope of the future.

All I had to do was sit here and feel the world carry me when I could not walk alone.

I sit here at home in recovery from a life-changing trauma—this hot-shot educator and author of The First Turning… who on paper envisioned a kinder, more collaborative world to the real-life reality. What I see more clearly now than ever is that at the heart of every single one of us lies not war or violence, but empathy, love and humility.

I should know. I am living it.

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Pope Francis: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The holidays . . . that time of year when the whole world becomes enveloped in a celebratory mood, when joy, blessings, thanksgivings and glad tidings are the currency of everyday conversation and interaction. More than any other point on the calendar, this is the season when people seem to actively choose to be good, do right, play nice.

I know I’m not the first or last person to state this, but this is the one time of year when people become acutely aware of all they really have (in every since of the word)—this is, generally speaking, the ONE time of year when people give pause, adopt a new perspective, and channel it toward acts of generosity.

Now, I want to acknowledge that the point I’m making at this moment about this season of joy and gratitude could be easily countered with discussion of recent events in Ferguson and New York City, and in Syria and Iraq and other places around the world where strife is all we see. And I want to honor that fact, for there is no way around it. These days, we are not all rosy cheeks and wrapping paper. But all the things going on in the world right now—those things that feel contrary to the holidays—can remind us that the world is complicated… that it is a place where suffering on one end cannot be replaced by gift giving on another… and that’s true at any point in the year.


Right before Thanksgiving I saw a headline that caught my attention: “11 Times Pope Francis Got it Right.” The article does a nice job capturing some of the many ways Pope Francis has used his position to further issues of equality, environmentalism, social responsibility, and more. Since taking his place as the most notable living spiritual leader, Pope Francis has, as I wrote in The First Turning, “thrown down the proverbial gauntlet, not just to Catholics, but to the world in general.” He has surprised us with stances that rival those long-held by the Church, he has challenged us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others, he has reminded us that the world is something we belong to rather than something we own.

I connected with the article’s celebration of Pope Francis as “Global Citizen” on every level. But, more than the list of his good acts, one of the things that most caught my attention reading this particular piece was the lack of timeline attached to the information. I’m not so naïve to think that the timing of its publish wasn’t intentional, capitalizing on the arrival of the holidays. But the post itself didn’t count down Pope Francis’s “greatest hits” of 2014. It didn’t date and timestamp each of the occurrences. And there’s a reason for that.

It is because Pope Francis, being the true First Turning player that he is, doesn’t attach dates and times to his global citizenship. It is something he lives at all times with utter intentionality.

I hope you can see that this is not a post disparaging the eagerness and ebullience with which we greet this time of year. Rather, it is a post about how we as a people can greet every time of year with that same generous spirit. How we can choose to adopt a giving mentality, non-judgmental stance and loving position throughout the days and weeks and months, and do so not because we’ll get to check off items on our wish list, but because it is quite simply the good, right, nice thing to do.


For Pope Francis, his ONE time of year is all year. What a precious gift that is! And one that is (all present faux pas aside) surely worth re-gifting.

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The Tenure System in Higher Education: A Voice from “Inside the Club”

Since I started this blog in April 2014, I have pretty much stuck to writing about and expanding on the chapters in my book, The First Turning.

Today, I am going to veer off that format and address an issue in higher education that cannot be ignored. And that topic, which I believe needs to be set squarely on the table, is higher education’s tenure system for professors.

Here’s the back story: The tenure system, whereby professors essentially can earn lifetime employment, began in this country as a guarantee to the right to academic freedom. As Wikipedia describes the origins of the tenure system, it “protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics.”

An example of this academic freedom occurred in 1894 when Richard Ely, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor supported the idea of labor strikes and labor law reform. Despite pressures by the Wisconsin legislature and other bodies calling for for his dismissal, the university asserted its commitment to academic freedom.

As I stand here today considering the form and function of the tenure system, I can’t help but think, “Something has gone terribly wrong with that wonderful high-minded belief.”

I am a tenured associate professor at a university. As someone who enjoys its privileges, you would think I would just keep my mouth shut on this topic. Because of my tenured position, I am protected from an unpopular research agenda, which is invaluable to my ability to pursue and impart learning at the highest level.

But, in my mind, the privileges I’m afforded with the tenure system also carry with them a responsibility to higher education and those it purports to support: students. Tenure is not meant to be a mechanism whereby autonomy becomes a lack of responsibility, or permission not to act. Unfortunately, though, I feel that is what it has become. Nowhere have we witnessed a sincere effort on the part of the tenured community to take a stance against the state of financial emergency enveloping the institutions by which we enjoy our academic freedom.

I learned long ago, according to family members, that “right is right and wrong is nobody.” So I am sticking my neck out and going against the grain.

My agenda, personal and professional, is the reform of higher education in the United States. I am a proponent of cutting the astronomical costs of tuition by streamlining and expanding the existing delivery platform at universities to include MOOCs and online education. My thinking and writing is extending also into the very heart of university curriculums in the wake of employer demands for competency-based professionals in the workplace, rather than general knowledge university graduates.

I believe that the urgency of these reforms, made even more dramatic by the $1.1 trillion student loan debt in this country, delivers a powerful bottom line: we are losing an entire generation of young people who simply cannot afford higher education.

And some of the most ardent protestors of any reform whatsoever are tenured professors.

My question is this: Do universities exist for the protection of tenured professors or do they exist for the education of millions of students? I may be writing myself out of a job here, but I believe that it takes someone “inside the club” to ask the hard questions that need to be asked.

In The First Turning, there is a chapter titled From Malala to MOOCs: Educating the Planet. Education is a basic human right, not a privilege. Educating the planet means just that . . . that the door to a better life needs be broken wide open by a change in the conditioning that exists in universities . . . a conditioning that espouses the view that higher education can occur only for a few . . . and that the few had better be well heeled.

Perhaps one of my graduate students said it best: “By the time I get my student loans paid off, it will be time to start paying off my child’s student loans. And she is in elementary school. I am discouraged.”

There is no way to put a “positive spin” on that student’s statement. It is the unvarnished truth. And how does the tenured professor, who insists that universities do not need reform, respond to that statement?

How can we walk into our classrooms, look our students in the eyes—the very same students we read about, those individuals swamped with student loan repayments—and teach them when we haven’t the slightest response to such statements? How can we shepherd them in their studies when we are doing nothing to overcome the obstacles of their education?

This “club member” has no answer… or perhaps only this remark: We are failing the very students that we are supposed to be educating.

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On Meditation, Kobe Bryant, and Me.

On Sunday morning I ran across a piece in The New York Times that made me stop dead in my tracks.

It was a combined interview with media mogul Arianna Huffington and superstar athlete Kobe Bryant.

And a central part of the conversation centered on not power, not success, not anything else you might assume about these individuals, but on meditation.




In The First Turning, I write of Centering Prayer, a system of prayer designed by a Trappist monk, Father Thomas Keating, that combines prayer and meditation.

Keating, Huffington, Bryant and many others have hit on a powerhouse. And they are bringing this concept into the mainstream of our society.

The topic comes up in the interview after the two are reminded of “nasty speed bumps” they encountered in their personal lives, and how they emerged greater from those crises.

Huffington is asked if she meditates and she matter-of-factly responds, “Every day.” Bryant describes his adoption of the practice as a type of “performance enhancement, as well as part of the journey of discovery”… as key to doing phenomenal things.


In 2010, I too, discovered meditation. I meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. I try not to miss. If I don’t slow myself down, things just don’t feel right.

For you see, I have learned that meditation builds brain cells, increases empathy, heals trauma, lowers blood pressure, and has the curious side effect of helping us detach from the frenetic pace and chaos of the world.

Meditation is not “woo woo” stuff. It has a solid base in research that has existed for decades. I believe it should be added to our public schools and university curriculums. If we are to enter a true First Turning, then we must harness our minds, listen to the silence and realize that in that silence exists the truth of who we are meant to be.

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That is How I Stand Up

Bel Kaufman, the author of Up the Down Staircase, has died at the age of 103.

Her autobiographic novel, a refreshing, witty and unerringly accurate look at the bureaucracy to end all bureaucracies—the American public high school—sold more than six million copies upon its 1965 release.

The storyline follows a young idealistic teacher, Sylvia Barrett, in her first months at Calvin Coolidge High School. She tries to reach the hearts and minds of her students amid administrative directives that don’t quite make sense, and teenagers who dare her to teach them anything.

In 1971, another young idealistic teacher (me) also began her career in education at an American public high school and was met with the same mystifying world of “Eduspeak” and the same lethargic students.

I do not know how I survived those first years of teaching. Barely older than my students, I simply lived by my wits. Somehow I knew that the glaring teenagers sitting in front of me were not the whole story… that there was more to them than the initial attitude they projected toward me (that of prisoners chained to their desks against their will).

Today, as I think of Bel Kaufmann and that long-ago Carol Engler, an image comes to mind: the face of a long-haired, long-legged young man sprawled in the first seat near the window of my classroom, Room 210. He wore a motorcycle jacket, boots, and insolence with great style. He dared me to teach him, and I tried everything from my limited bag of tricks.

Finally, one day, I brought a copy of The New York Times to class. I casually threw it on his desk. There was an article about motorcycle gangs on the front page. I said: “Thought you might like this.” I then went on teaching the class. He sat there, at first, seemingly indifferent. Then he picked up the newspaper and began to read. By the end of the class, he had read the entire section of the newspaper. As he left the room at the end of class he asked if he could take the newspaper home with him.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And he went on to become valedictorian.”

In fact, I don’t know what happened to him after he graduated. (But he did graduate, which was a triumph for him and for me.)

But I do know this.

As I watched him out of the corner of my eye that day, absorbed in one news article after another from one of the greatest journalism sources in the world, I felt a sense of reaching down into someone’s soul and grabbing that soul… and hanging on.

At the end of Up The Down Staircase, Sylvia Barrett despairs to a colleague of ever being a good teacher. She is reminded by the veteran teacher that—despite all the mindless administrative directives, all the discipline issues and all the craziness—there is education going on in every single classroom of the school. It can be heard through the open doors as verbs are conjugated, books are read, thoughts are expressed. The veteran says: “That is how I stand up.”

So, as I view education from the vantage point of a four-decade veteran, I am reminded that 49 years after the publication of that book, education is still going on in every classroom in this nation, in every country of the world, and in virtual formats unheard of in 1965.

And that is how I stand up too.


The First Turning.

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Online Education: From “Nice” to “Necessary”

I have been an educator for over 40 years. I went into this field because teaching and learning are what I was born to do. But several years ago I realized that that innate sense, that elemental calling to teach and learn, had grown dull. I had gotten fat over the years, in a literal and figurative sense. It was at that time that I began my four-year crash course in looking at the world through a new lens—which was what eventually led me to write The First Turning. Not only did I shed 40 pounds but also began to shed the pre-conceived “fat” assumptions about what learning should be.

As a tenured university professor I had come to accept “fat” as normal. The huge costs of a college education for this nation’s citizens did not faze me because that is the way I thought things should be—or rather, because I didn’t give it thought. It had been that way for decades, and, yes, it was a shame that some students could not afford to be educated, but it was not my problem.

But I was wrong, very wrong. And two incidents woke me up:

The first incident happened when I attended Ashoka Foundation’s “Disruption in Higher Education” conference at Arizona State University in February 2012. At a breakout session, I sat with a Stanford University administrator who told me about a professor who had opened up his traditional classroom-based Artificial Intelligence class to the world using a cutting-edge technology platform. The result was an astounding enrollment of 160,000 learners. The technological platform he used would later be called a MOOC, or massive open online classes.

My Stanford acquaintance told me that the professor, Sebastian Thrun, had resigned his tenured professor position and started a company called Udacity, dedicated to teaching not hundreds, but millions. The Stanford administrator went on to say that two more professors were about to launch a similar company. That company turned out to be Coursera, which now corners almost 50 percent of the MOOC market.

The second incident was more simple, and yet equally and perhaps more compelling. As I was watching network TV news, I saw a young boy in a Middle Eastern city pick his way through the rubble of war and violence in order to get to school. His determined little face is something that I will never forget. All he wanted was to learn. . .  simple, and yet, for him, nearly impossible.

Here’s the bottom line: Education is a basic human right, not a privilege. And whether that privilege needs to be extended to a determined little boy in a war zone, or an 18-year-old American who cannot afford the astronomical cost of getting a university degree, learning must be made possible. And it must happen soon.

Higher education must change. Traditional instruction is no longer a feasible singular solution, and online education isn’t just a “nice” alternative to face-to-face instruction. It is different than what we are used to, but it is neither wrong nor “less than” traditional teaching methods—and quite simply, colleges and universities can’t afford to claim it as such.

MOOCs and online education in general are not going away. Instead of funding the construction of bigger buildings or inflating athletic programs, colleges and universities and the alumni and donors who support them should be pouring monies into information technology departments so that online and MOOC learning can occur. And, yes, that may mean that residential student life, cherished by so many, becomes a lesser component of the American college experience.

But if we think for a moment about our nostalgia for that experience, can we not reconcile the loss of it with a greater good? And perhaps find a way to instead cherish the ability to give education to others?

Online education and MOOCs are a financial and a humanitarian necessity.


The First Turning.


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