In the Zone

In the Zone

Moving Into the Yellow

Usually, it’s a tidy Bell Curve: Stress on the x-axis, Performance on the y. Before how many semester finals, AP exams, SAT endurance events, and cross-country meets have I drawn the graph on my white board? “Eustress,” I say. “That’s where you want to put yourself for peak performance. If you don’t really care, you’ll turn in a half-assed performance. On the other hand, if you short-circuit yourself with anxiety, you’ll end up running uphill through quicksand.”

There follow my centering exercises, the deep breathing, the mindfulness. Sometimes it works.

That famous Bell Curve is founded on the Yerkes-Dodson Law, now more than a century old, which maintains that performance improves when we put ourselves under increasing pressure—but it improves only up to a point.

(By the way, to be entirely accurate, in 1908 Yerkes and Dodson used the term “arousal” rather than “pressure” or “stress.” I forego the word arousal with high-school students.)

But I prefer the graph below. It’s not so symmetrical or tidy, and better still, it conforms to my own experience as an athlete, musician, actor, or test-taker. Ultimately, my teaching style and coaching philosophy are founded on more jagged curve.

My favorite label in the graph is “Zone of Delusion,” which saves the diagram from becoming the stuff of SAT and 5K fantasy. Are abilities don’t stretch into infinity, strain is real, and mind can’t levitate matter. For an athlete, to remain in the “stretch” zone requires well-developed self-knowledge; for a coach, keeping your athletes (mental or muscular) “in the yellow zone” requires deep perception, data, and probably luck.

Each semester, I try to keep my students running wind-sprints back and forth across the green-and-yellow border. Sometimes I succeed.

For the record, it’s been a while since I’ve coached any runner but myself. At my age, I can dance in the “strain” zone only briefly before I face weeks of layoff. I keep it yellow, too often mellow. A talented younger athlete can hang out far longer in the stretch zone.

So far: nothing new here. This Yerkes-Dodson Law is familiar to coaches, teachers, not a few students, and a small army of life coaches and corporate Powerpoint field marshals.

Brave Spaces

What I hope to do now is connect the Performance-Pressure Model to two important academic ideas: Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces.

Much has been written about each, and I encourage teachers to explore them. For the purposes of Just Teaching / Still Learning, I want to focus on a linked “Policy and Practices” article devoted to Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces, published on the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (formerly NASPA) website.

Author Diana Ali opens her article with this thought-provoking paragraph of contrasts:

In fall 2016, University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison chose to address what he and many others in higher education felt was a disconcerting trend toward intellectual isolationism on college campuses. He published a letter to incoming students, stating that the university would no longer tolerate the use of trigger warnings or safe spaces: “We [at the University of Chicago] do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own” (Grieve, 2016). In contrast, commentary made earlier in the year by Morton Schapiro (2016), president of Northwestern University, resurfaced affirming the value of safe spaces, stating, “I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort” (para. 10).

After reading the article’s opening, one might conclude that Safe Spaces “coddle” students, while Brave Spaces subject students to some discomfort as they confront viewpoints that may well oppose their own. Naturally, I would embrace the Brave Space model for my classroom, because coddling students doesn’t put them under sufficient pressure. Right?

Well, not so fast and facile, Coach Mac. Ali’s article cites numerous examples of historical Safe Spaces (not always so named in their day) where LGBTQ students and activists, students of color, women, enslaved people, immigrants, and military veterans have found that Safe Spaces have provided the necessary security for further self-advocacy and social action. When daily life is too often lived in the “Strained” and “Overwhelmed” Zones, learning and healing become all but impossible.

Certainly, a Safe Space can be misused. One can imagine a student protesting that he doesn’t feel safe in a classroom where his Nativist values are condemned or his right to display Confederate symbols on his apparel and classroom gear is not honored. Conversely, a student might complain that they can’t feel safe in a classroom where a former military officer now serves as their teacher.

But let’s posit that most teachers are able to cultivate comfort in their classrooms. Even classrooms that thrive in the “Stretch Zone” (all good foreign language classes put me there!) must provide a foundation of Comfort that their students can take refuge in from time to time. For a student who has been subjected to a repeated lack of safety, even voicing their opinion in class can take them far into the Yellow Zone and even beyond. Other students, more confident and expressive, may deliberately provoke classmates with outrageous assertions, all in the hope of learning something from the boisterous exchange.

It's a tall order to discern the boundaries between Comfort and Stretch for each student within a class of twenty or more. But if and once a teacher has established security for their most vulnerable students, they may then move their class into a Brave Space.

Here, according to Ali’s article, are the elements of a Brave Space:

“The term Brave Space was first popularized by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013) in chapter eight—'From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces’—of their book The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators. In it, a brave space within a classroom environment contains five main elements:

  • Controversy with civility,’ where varying opinions are accepted

  • Owning intentions and impacts,’ in which students acknowledge and discuss instances where a dialogue has

affected the emotional well-being of another person

  • Challenge by choice,’ where students have an option to step in and out of challenging conversations

  • Respect,’ where students show respect for one another’s basic personhood

  • No attacks,’ where students agree not to intentionally inflict harm on one another”

Foundational Norms

Each August, students at Aldo Leopold Charter School write their School Norms for the upcoming school year. Through the years, the composition process has varied: sometimes norms are collected at a meeting of the entire high school; other times, student-council members poll classmates and write them. At least once, students simply adopted the norms from a previous year. One student-council president, desirous of simplicity, attempted to champion a single norm, Respect, by considering the idea in all its manifestations—respect for classmates, for staff, for the school building, for differing perspectives, for self.

This year, my colleague Alex asked students to design posters for each of the norms, some twelve in all, then had students glue a list of personal goals she had culled onto the posters. Here's the norms poster dedicated to Perseverance, with a close-up of student goals and praise:

Like most schools, we have a lengthy handbook full of policies, grievance procedures, and a discipline matrix, but parents are far more likely to cite the handbook than their children. Students own their norms, sign a large document to pledge their commitment to them, and will cite them when school culture seems threatened. It goes without saying that norms are sometimes broken, but in general I have been inspired by our students’ commitment to following the norms they devise.

To be clear: school norms don’t guarantee the success of every student, or the job satisfaction of every teacher. They won’t prevent grave breakdowns in school culture, like violence or bullying. But they provide our best hope and our most authentic foundation for a robust and inclusive school culture.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

I admit it: I like charts. So do many of my students. Often, a chart summary is an effective entry point for more complex, nuanced discussions. I offer two charts here, both from the progressive Fairfax County (Virginia) Independent School District. The first chart serves as a checklist for teachers to evaluate their own teaching practice. It's worth noting here that using the chart requires remarkable honesty on the teacher's part, along with a willingness to experiment; a gutsy teacher might even survey their students after a lesson to see if student perceptions match their own.

The second chart, whose original source I’ve tried without success to track down on the World Wide Web, points to specific and illaudable teaching practices from the recent past—but hopefully not from the more culturally responsive present. These particular concerns are addressed through social-studies topics, but they are present in nearly all of our subject areas.


People from oppressed or marginalized groups are represented as a monolith.


Including broad categories like “Africans” or “Native Americans” alongside more specific groups like “Germans”


People from oppressed or marginalized groups only appear to have existed in the past (or belong to a more “primitive” or “uncivilized” time).


“What culture group lived in the Piedmont?” (without dates)

The study of Native Americans only during certain time periods could suggest to students that Native Americans belong exclusively to America’s past.


People from oppressed or marginalized groups are only known in relation to the interests or values of the powerful.


One resource’s questions about the Powhatan are only about how they appear to colonists (“Are the Powhatan friendly? Are the Powhatan willing to trade?”)


People from oppressed or marginalized groups are presented in dehumanizing ways.


“What is a Native American” versus “Who are the colonists?”


People from oppressed or marginalized groups are erased.


“The Arrival of Africans and Women” makes it seem like all Africans were male and all women were white. It erases African women.


Historical injustices are erased or minimized.


“Africans settled in the Tidewater region.”


Historical injustices are portrayed as inevitable, and the people responsible for them were just doing what was necessary.


Personification: “Tobacco required free labor”; “The Virginia colony needed slaves.”

Passive voice: “Slaves were needed for Virginia’s economy.”

Language that rationalizes injustice: “Would using indentured servants or slaves make your farm more profitable?”; “Teachers should note that slaves have existed in many cultures throughout the ages… only 15% of the Africans who arrived in the Americas came to VA.”


Historical injustices are trivialized; the tone in which they are addressed is insufficiently serious.


“Africans settled in the Tidewater because they liked the climate.”


There appears to be an “us” and a “them” that make minority groups seem like “others.”


The pronoun “we” is used but only the experiences or perspectives of the powerful group are included.

Generalizations are made about people from a place (Virginians, Americans), but those generalizations only apply to the powerful group: “Virginians were culturally British.”


The culture of marginalized or oppressed groups is presented as inferior.


In a National Geographic digital game about John Smith, the student races in a boat as a colonist against Native American boats and always wins.

The order in which culture groups are listed implies that some are better or more important than the ones that come later.

The Inevitable Pushback

While most of us teachers welcome and champion Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, there have been pushback and criticism from some citizens, including those with political power. While I don’t want to let the criticism herein linked deter any teacher from exploring and adopting Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, we need to realize that the principles of this educational initiative are not universally hailed. In this guest editorial from the Fairfax County Times, we hear from a former member of the Fairfax County School Board. To its credit, the editorial contains abundant links to useful websites. I should note here that I do not teach in the Fairfax County Schools system, but were I to find myself employed in their district, I would be proud to be part of a forward-thinking educational movement like the one the editorialist critiques (however ineffectively).

A Brave Space In Action (Rather Than Inaction)

Let me conclude with a brief tale, from the dark days of online pandemic instruction. One of the Seniors in my U.S. Government class appeared, for a few classes, before a Confederate flag he had hung in his bedroom. As a social-studies teacher, I regard a Confederate flag display as an advertisement for one’s historical ignorance; but more than that, I have an obligation as a public-school teacher to create an inclusive classroom that provides my students with a kind and secure learning environment—and a Confederate flag has no place in such an environment.

In 2015, the National Educational Association passed an action item in support of the removal of the Confederate flag from public schools. Writes teacher Kevin F. Gilbert, Ed.D., who served on the Executive Committee of the NEA:

“As educators we know how symbols of hatred—whether targeting race or religion—impact our students. Whether it is a swastika spray painted on the school wall or a Confederate flag flying on public grounds, the effect is divisive and deeply painful. We cannot condone their presence and must take action to ensure all students feel safe and able to learn in our schools.”

The question for me was how to take action. The student, bright and something of a provocateur, may have been testing my commitment to the First Amendment, which I had consistently touted in my government class. That the student was displaying his flag in his bedroom rather than in the hallways of our school complicated matters. Did a bedroom become a public space when it appeared on a classroom Zoom grid?

Here, let me admit that, despite declarations that I “teach students how to think, not what to think,” I sometimes drift into preaching. Enforcing justice in my classroom with a kind of inflamed ferocity has been one of my unwise mistakes during my three decades of teaching. In the end, preaching is nothing more than taking a “shortcut” that I mistake for actual teaching in order to make some cherished point.

A deep breath—or better still (if we have the luxury to postpone our righteous anger till the following day) an evening to reflect with a respected colleague or our longsuffering partner can help us climb down from our bully pulpit and more deliberately listen to our students. More to the point, if we factor in the outsized effects that peers have on young people’s thinking, we can see that having students arrive at a conclusion leaves a deeper impression than almost any well-designed teacher-centered lesson.

With such think in mind, I arranged for a Zoom conference between the flag-displaying student and me. Rather than citing the NEA (for the student, meaningless) or even 19th-century historical context (he had his own version of “The War of Northern Aggression”), I appealed to his empathy. I asked him how displaying a swastika might affect a Jewish classmate. He pondered. And as he pondered, I think he may have wondered whom exactly the Confederate flag was offending, since there were no black students in class. We discussed the variable meanings assigned to symbols in general, considered several possible meanings that might be assigned to the Confederate flag in particular, and examined the importance of a secure learning environment for all students. I never demanded that the student remove the Confederate flag, but when the class next met, he appeared without the flag behind him.

Perhaps in this instance I was merely lucky rather than persuasive. Perhaps the student figured displaying the flag wasn’t worth another online chat with his persistent teacher. Maybe, though, it was recognition and conversation that he sought in the first place. I’ll likely never know.