Passing Grade, Least Effort

If  you’ve decided you want a passing grade with the least effort – for whatever reason – you’ve come to the right place.  (If you’re taking a course that sets your mind on fire, you’ll do the things I’m suggesting  intuitively.)  Your guiding principle? Take charge.

                                            True or False: A classroom is where everything isn't.

True or False? A classroom is where everything isn’t.

Game Plan for Boring Lectures

Here’s how you can almost guarantee yourself a C or better—even if you do nothing else outside of class:

  • Pay attention –  playfully.
  • Attend every class — playfully.
  • Be sure to take every quiz and test — playfully.
  • Playfully.

These tactics work when you have teachers who see themselves, even in 2013,  as transmitters of information and feel guilty if they don’t “cover” everything in class. For a lot of them, the text is back-up material.

                                                                                     A guide to wakefulness

A guide to wakefulness



[In my November 11 post,there’s a streamlined way to dispatch textbooks quickly and efficiently:  “INTELLIGENT READING —  A 20-Minute Complete Course.”  So you can have some fun with your textbooks, too. When you put yourself in charge, things brighten up considerably.]





You can be pretty sure the tests these teachers think up will focus on what they talk about – what they emphasize.


                                                                                                 How to take tests

How to take tests


[ In my post of May 6, 2013,  “Turning Tests into Crossword Puzzles,” there are some tips and reminders on how to enjoy –yes, enjoy! – taking tests.]





If you don’t intend to study at all, make sure you select teachers who like to lecture. Then apply smart tactics in class.  The bottom line is all the time you’ll free up to go and pursue your education.  Above all else, do make a game out of taking classes. The worst thing you can do is to take all the rigmarole seriously. You mind won’t put up with it.  Till you wise up and start enjoying yourself, you’ll get headaches, diarrhea, insomnia,  and so on,.

What’s nice is that if you love a  subject you’re enrolled in and want to master it, these same techniques will focus your mind on  all the important information.  As you well know, a class that inflames your mind is sheer joy – and easy – “easy” in the sense that being fully engaged feels effortless.

Build new habits, but for heaven’s sake, don’t try to change twelve years of habits overnight.  One step at a time. Enjoy the challenge, and don’t take it seriously. It’s pitiful to watch the inevitable collapse of a massive self-improvement program, usually about one week later. The tactics I’m suggesting here are intended to be absorbed gradually at your own pace.

Use what you can now and add on as you go. Your own temperament is your best guide; build on that.

Teach yourself to pay attention while you are sitting there and you will be able to complete most of your work right in class. Occasional review could be enough to get by.

How to Be a Brilliant Student Without Even Trying

Escape from the Prison House

I was talking recently with my friend and former colleague of thirty years Karl Staubach about his time in the Army during the Korean War. He had finished a year or so at the University of Michigan when he abruptly enlisted, even though he would have been deferred.  Why?  Well, he told me, he couldn’t stand sitting in classes. Out of class he was never bored.  He had a wonderful life out of class – curious about everything, doing all sorts of physical and intellectual stuff –  but schooling was driving him nuts.  When he told the dean about how bad it was, the dean promptly said, “Join the Army.”

Where everything is

Where everything is

After a year an a half, he was discharged, resumed college and had a fine time.  I asked what had changed.  “I didn’t take it seriously anymore.  I took complete charge, including how to deal with teachers and classes.”  From then on he enjoyed the university and used all the good things a school does have – library, labs, telescopes, microscopes, artists, poets, brilliant minds to be engaged – he just didn’t let schooling interfere anymore.  He hardly spent any time on schooling, but got great grades and a beautiful GPA.  Meanwhile he was educating himself, just as he did when he spent summers as a forester on Mt. Adams inWashington or making his own sailboat out of Volkswagen van top or a guitar out of a cigar box.  Film, mythology, linguistics, optics, mathematics – you name it.  Once he was running the show and not his teachers, it was all fun.

  Shades of the Prison House

You Will Not Be Surprised to Learn:

Kids get more and more mind-numbingly bored as they progress through the grades.  In college they’re a little less bored, but, gee! over a fourth to two/thirds of your youthGYAOOC Pic disengaged?!

High school seniors: 28% of their time they’re  bored — mostly in class or studying for tests.

College students: 39% of their time they’re bored — mostly in class or studying for tests.

Humming birds, saints and poets?  Hardly ever.

“A classroom is where everything isn’t.” – Karl Staubach.

hummingbird 2

An A student


How to Take Classes, Part 1

GYAOOC PicOnce you think about it, it will be obvious that school subjects are not English, history, chemistry, biology, and so forth.

School subjects

reading textbooks
taking classes
doing assignments
taking tests
handling stress


Right? Of course. When you go to school, you spend your time on those things. They make up the structure of schooling – not of education. They are what is learned or not learned. But if you get good at them, you can actually enjoy your schooling. You can even have time for your education. Academic subjects are inherently fascinating, but to get time to get at them, to get “an intense vision of the facts” as William Carlos Williams might put it,  you need to dispatch these hidden school subjects first.

                         THE PASSIVE CLASSROOM

                                            True or False: A classroom is where everything isn't.

True or False: A classroom is where everything isn’t.

Even though research shows lecturing to be one of the least effective teaching methods, more classes than not are still conducted with students seated passively in rows and the teacher in front doing all the talking. Lecturing is so ingrained I’ve actually seen a teacher droning on at four silent and polite students seated in front of him. Another arranged the seats in a circle but lectured all the same.

Most college teachers don’t know much about what works and what doesn’t, even though common sense, much less the research, is right in front of them – if they ever bothered to look. Have a degree in physics?  OK, here’s your podium, never mind that you’re boring the kids to death. The old, counter-productive methods persist. Fear —”You’ll be tested on this”—is still used to motivate students, even though a warm and friendly atmosphere is known to result in better learning – with fewer neuroses. Classrooms still try to transmit information even though there’s Google out there,for god’s sake,  even though kids are falling asleep (if they bother to show up at all).  Antiquated, ignorant practices actually dull the mind.   What most students learn in boring classes is how to be passive, and of course, passive mental habits lead to C’s or worse for the majority of students. How often have you looked forward to your classes?  How often have all your senses, how often has your fully functioning mind, been engaged?

Get this: there’s good research that shows  95 per cent of these same students can succeed in other settings.

And, how about this: Even in crumby classes,  five per cent do succeed. They are not necessarily smarter. And they often work and worry far less than C students.

Any normal person, can figure out  the structure and use  it to get top grades in less time and with less work. All it requires are some new habits, some easy to acquire, some taking practice and planning.  In fact, the key to success in class and in doing assignments is habit.
Kid in Park





A classroom is where everything isn’t. — Karl Staubach

Mastery Learning

Playing to Win — Updated from Get Your  A Out of College

School is a wonderful place for an education.  Somebody ought to try it sometime.

When we realize we are in charge of our own learning and always have been, it changes everything.  We choose how we learn, when we learn, and what.  It’s an absolutely wonderful freedom and empowerment.  You know that’s true, don’t you?300px-Poker-hand-and-Chips

Success versus Failure

Imagine a game based on success rather than failure, a game in which almost all students of French can count on mastering it, students of auto mechanics can become masters of their craft, students of geometry can fully expect to achieve mastery. When you think of it, that is not at all unreasonable.  And it sure does feel better.

I have resented to this day
When any but myself presumed to say
That there was anything I could not be.
– Robert Frost
You can master anything.

What’s more, there’s plenty of research that shows you don’t have to have talent in a field to master it.  It’s not even necessary.  You don’t even have to like it. If you are mentally and  physically okay—not great, just okay—you can master anything you feel like trying: painting, music, gymnastics, whatever.  (“You gotta sing like you don’t need the money.”)

The A List


The Way of Zen a la Alan Watts

Why haven’t schools rushed to adopt these practices? It’s this simple: If the structure emphasizes grading and ranking, then mastery and achievement would be at cross purposes with that emphasis. Follow the money; it’s all in the registrar’s office, in teachers’ record books, in course outlines, in standards, in the bell-shaped curve, in making up tests.  You will not find much that deals with everyone doing great.  It’s all about sorting and ranking. “How could we tell a B student from a D student?  What would business, industry, or grad schools do if we sent out nothing but A students?”

The Actual Goals


The New Curriculum

And you may be thinking that, too. If you are so accustomed to ranking that you wouldn’t want to be part of a school in which 95 per cent get top grades, don’t worry. These massive institutions are not about to change over. Meanwhile, you can easily get those A grades that only five per cent are allowed to have. All you have to do is discover the actual goals and learn how to play the real game. It’s far easier than you might imagine.

Once you’re onto the game, though, you can figure out the hidden house rules and start playing to win. Were you ever taught how to remember, how to take a test, how to cut through the padding in a text, how to keep the knots out of your stomach?   In this website, I’m passing on some of tricks of the trade.  You may already be using some of them intuitively, but using them consciously and deliberately cuts out masses of wasted time and emotion.  And you should never get emotionally involved in a money game.  The message? Take charge.

Take charge.

It’s that simple. You can put yourself in charge of your own learning.  You’ve been doing that all your life outside of school.  What school should be about is remembering how you’ve been doing that, learning how you learn.  That sounds pretty good.  I think I’ll finish this posting with that.

What we need to learn is how we learn.

School is a wonderful place to get an education – a good library, people who started before you did, smart young people like yourself trying to figure out what’s up.  It’s all there.  You just need to learn how to use it for your own purposes – which may not be what the authorities have in mind.   These web postings may gain you the time and peace of mind to start.


A good place for an education

It’s a Sucker’s Game

Schooling Is Not Education

Maybe I haven’t made it clear enough why I wrote Get Your A Out of College. Mainly, it made me feel bad to see my sweet, innocent students trying be play the school game without knowing the hidden rules.   If you take two minutes  – one, if you’re on your toes – you’ll realize that school is a game.

Education can take place in a school but not necessarily because of it.

I dedicated the first edition to “Patty and Kathy [my daughters] who wanted an education and were given schooling.”   I was almost ashamed to be part of this big poker game in which most of the players didn’t have a clue.  The house held all the cards, and it wasn’t eager to share them.  So I wrote the book to give the students a leg up. I was polite, more or less, then.  I don’t feel so generous now.Only the dealer knows the rules.

Only the dealer knows the rules.

(I did have some fun with the title of the book.  I made a big list, my family, and friends tossed in some, but they sounded so teachery.  Finally I was down in the basement one evening in the office I had walled off for myself,  fiddling around with this title and that, when exactly the title I wanted popped into my head from nowhere —  actually, probably from my non-conscious mind, which was probably sick of all the dull titles and sent me the one I chose. I started laughing, ran upstairs and told my wife and called up my friends.  Get your A out of college, kids, and keep on laughing.)


From Get Your  A Out of College  –  with a couple of new thoughts:

The A Book

The A Book


 School and education are not the same thing.

School and education, I have to concede, do sometimes coincide. But education, as you well know, throbs in the veins, sets the nerves tingling, peels the eyeball, sears the intellect, and makes the hair stand up on your neck. It is thrilling, frightening, and alive. It can happen anywhere. But school is an awfully sober and mind-numbing affair.  Far too often, it is plodding through assignments and following rules. It is proper behavior, multiple-choice tests, 500-word themes, teacher monologs, grade-point averages, padded and poorly written texts, competition.

Nonetheless, it’s a game you are expected to play, without knowing the actual rules and goals.


While you may innocently assume the goal is mastery of your subject, here’s what’s really going on:

You are being sorted, ranked, graded, and labeled.

By the time you are out of school, your  A, B, C, D, or F label will be permanent. Not only does the registrar record your label, but your friends, parents, grad school, and employers will think of you that way, too. You may even come to accept it yourself. “Oh, I was always a C student.”

The rule-makers consider that sort of thing reasonable and normal, and most players think so, too.  Even worse, look at what most schools actually  plan into their programs:

Ninety-five percent of the players must be awarded less than A’s.

If you test in the top five per cent you are considered to have succeeded. Everyone else to some degree hasn’t. So there’s a negative cloud floating over the entire campus.  You may have noticed it.  Worse, in some instances, schools themselves may actually cause poor student performance.

And, of course, the rank you fall in is totally artificial.

     Your grade is no predictor of how well you will do in real life.  The sadness is that school doesn’t have to be that way. It is not a law of life. You don’t have to have tests, you don’t have to be graded, you don’t have to compete with your friends, you don’t have to read poorly written textbooks.  You don’t have to give up joy.   In fact, you could toss out the entire structure and do much, much better.  You could look at the night sky.  You could play in mud.  You could look at a flower in a crannied wall. You could ponder things. Absolutely.

You can ponder things.

You can ponder things.

On top of all that negativity, these institutions are well aware that not very much will be learned or retained –  even by A students.

Most teachers know that nine-tenths of what is “taught” will not be retained beyond the final exam.

You can verify this fact by examining the residue in your own mind. Schools accept these depressing results as part of the game. Most teachers are happy if they can occasionally reach three or four students in a class.

It may come as a surprise, then, that it is quite possible for 95 per cent of an average group of college students to achieve success.   I’ll repeat that:

It is quite possible for 95 per cent of an average group of college students to achieve success.

Lots of studies confirm this. Awhile back, Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, for example, designed a school game in which 95 per cent (the top five per cent and the next 90 per cent) achieved the goals specified.  We don’t know  what happened with the other five percent.  They probably went off to Silicon Valley.   Bloom got these results not by watering down the expectations but by changing the learning atmosphere. These experiments expect long-term retention not of a mere one-tenth of what is learned but eight-tenths or better.

 Ninety-five per cent master and retain eight-tenths of what is taught.

Not bad, eh?  Actually retaining eight-tenths of what went on during a semester feels absolutely splendid.  Wouldn’t be great if you had that experience all the time, every year?  Of course it would.  And that can go on all your life.  Sounds like The Realms of Gold to me!

South Shore Path

And if you want to start getting the drop on all this, you came to the right place.

Turning C’s into B’s


Native Speaker

A Warm and Friendly Place to Learn

Test Pics for PostBig News Here:


In most schools and colleges a B+, a B, or a B- is recorded as a B.  A C -, a C, or a C+ ends up in your files as a C.


I’m about to betray the system and reveal one way to tip a C+ over to a B-.


And in the school game – in which fairness and objectivity in grading is riddled with flaws – that ends up a B.  The secret is that teachers fiddling late a night with grades that have to be turned in in the morning are trying to award as few B’s as they can – and even fewer A’s, lest their bosses think they are being soft.  So here’s some kid they don’t know who’s right between a C+ and a B-.  What to do?  Of course, jot down a C+.

But then there is you. 

On the first day of class you sat in the front row, you said, Hi, when you came in and said, Have a nice weekend,  when you left every Friday.  In college, you made sure the teacher knew you and knew your name.  In class you asked occasional questions, reasonable ones if possible — not too many, just enough to stay in the game — and you appeared to be very interested in what the teacher was dishing out.  When the teacher looked your way, you nodded and looked thoughtful.  And so on.

Do you know how alone teachers feel?  Can you guess how grateful they are for any comfort from all those imprisoned souls seated in their classrooms?  Most of them, even the crusty ones, are starved for human interaction, and you can help them feel better.

Crossword 2

It’s a game.

Guess which grade you’re going to get?

But don’t take my word for it.  Check out any good book on behavioral modification.
Or, better, conduct your own research.  Try it out.  Share your findings.

The Barrier of Species: Bridging Worlds

I look deep into their eyes and feel their presence in ways I could never imagine. [This dog], Mozart,  was the real turning point in my realization that animals are living beings emotionally similar to us, able to think, and fear, and communicate –  and all that stuff came from Mozart.  – Pet resort owner

Smart Dogs and Definition Tyranny




The Curtain Between Worlds

I’ve been thinking about
how smart dogs are,
oh, and jumping spiders and
human cells and quartz
crystals and,
oh, everything.

It always come back
to this: this very smart
universe, right out there
in plain sight, so smart,
and almost nobody

I’m thinking about
how it all depends
on lying down
in the grass and
letting go.

Ticky Tacky Little Boxes, Part 2

Nearer to God

                                                        Modoc Neighborhood

Modoc Neighborhood



Recently while  reading  Joaquin Miller’s 1873 Life Amongst the Modocs –  about life as the  Mt. Shasta Modocs lived it and the world of the miners who ripped open the mountainsides and polluted the salmon streams that had nourished Indian tribes for many centuries –  I came on a passage that reminded me of my June 14 posting “Reframing the Neighborhood” about some houses on a hillside in San Bruno, just across the Bay from the Oakland hills were Joaquin Miller State Park is. I had at first thought of them as “ticky tacky little boxes” but had to reframe that view to include the photographer, Ansel Adams’ view of them as “that necklace of houses.”  Now I can see them both ways.

But first, here’s how Miller framed himself



Mt. Shasta Serpentine

Joaquin Miller. 
AKA Mt. Shasta Serpentine

                                 As Broken as the Mountains
I then knew nothing at all of men. Cattle and horses I understand thoroughly. But somehow I could not understand or get on with my fellow man. He seemed to always want to cheat me—to get my labour for nothing. I could appreciate and enter into the heart of an Indian. Perhaps it was because he was natural ; a child of nature ; nearer to God than the White man.
I think what I most needed in order to understand, get on and not be misunderstood, was a long time at school, where my rough points could be ground down. The schoolmaster should have taken me between his thumb and finger and rubbed me about till I was as smooth and as round as the others. Then I should. have been put out in the society of other smooth pebbles, and rubbed and ground against them till I got as smooth and pointless as they. You must not have points or anything about you singular or noticeable if you would get on. You must be a pebble, a smooth, quiet pebble. Be a big pebble if you can, a small pebble if you must. But be a pebble just like the rest, cold, and hard, and sleek, and smooth, and you are all right. But I was as rough as the lava rocks I roamed over, as broken as the mountains I inhabited; neither a man nor a boy.


Hard and Sleek and Smooth

"With others, ground as smooth and pointless as they"

“With others, ground as smooth and pointless as they”

There are landscape pebbles here and there in my neighborhood, so I decide to go photograph some and bring back one to put alongside a  piece of serpentine from a trip to Shasta last fall. But there was a problem.  As soon as I framed the pebbles for my photo,the moment I focused my beam of attention,  I couldn’t force them back into non-entity.   Both individually and as a bunch they had become beautiful.


Unique in All the World

That minor miracle — “Why who makes much of a miracle? — triggered thoughts of the skin horse with most of his hair loved off in Margery Williams’ story of the velveteen rabbit.  Loved enough , anything can become unique in all the world, like the Little Prince’s rose.

                      Cosmic Egg

Cosmic Egg


Right now I’m looking at that plain pebble I brought home and put on my desk. I think I brought home a poem.




And How About Hopkins’ “Windhover”?

You can civilize a pebble till your polishing cloth wears out and you cannot quench the fierce fire inside.

 . . . and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,   
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
                                         PARTING OF THE SOUL by Roberto Lauro

PARTING OF THE SOUL by Roberto Lauro








The Tao

The field where the 13th century Rumi offered to meet us doesn’t seem to have ideas like ticky-tacky or smooth or rough pebbles:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase
each other
doesn’t make any sense.

— translation by Coleman Barks


The Myth of Species

Bridging the Worlds

David Greybeard -- Photo byIn the English department in the college where I taught, we had  ESL classes – English as a Second Language.  They were for people who’s mamas spoke Spanish or Urdu or Farsi.   But what about the native speakers of English in our regular English classes?The language a child learns from his mother’s lips is his second languageHis first language is the language of the grass growing and the language of the cells – and of rocks, too,  all the bits and pieces coming together and circling back on one idea, one universe, one intelligence, one language, out of which spin all the infinite varieties.


 Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

When an English speaker looks at English, her understanding is incomplete til she sees the deep grammar it grew from.


Deep Grammar

Nicely cataloged,
dogs speaking only to dogs,
grouse only to grouse.
God only knows about
oak to palm –  if at all
(and there’s a lot of doubt
that plants talk), yet

Violins, trumpets, kettle drums and
contraltos seem to get along quite well
in concert
along with
 practically the whole human-being
(give or take a rationalist or two),  and

how about that air show
up there –
a hundred starlings never crashing
into each other, not even
discussing it, and no conductor,
that I can see? so then

is it any wonder, really,
that the border collie and the herder
and the sheep move in concert, too?

Or that some young Englishwoman
sitting by a stream in Tanganyika looks
into a wild chimpanzee’s eyes
and hears the music of the

                                         PARTING OF THE SOUL by Roberto Lauro

PARTING OF THE SOUL by Roberto Lauro

Reframing the Neighborhood: The Tao Way


Bay winds have been blowing wild-grass seeds

into the  ice-plant beds in front of

some of my neighbors’ bay-front homes

and setting up residence there,

so that now there are wild grasses

just outside their back fences,

and my neighbors would like the gardeners

to do something about that.


I walked over an had a look.   There’s a bike trail along there and a sandy walking path and then the native grasses on the edge of the bay and the City across the water.  I thought of New England and Block Island and the shore and the dunes and the grasses.  And Ansel Adams and Walt Whitman and Reframing.

The Tao

           The Neighborhood Where We Live


 Seeing Is a Choice We Make.

Reframing (Bandler and Grinder, 1982) is a book about changing the way you see things, trying out various frames till you find one that fits just right.  

From their back patios my neighbors can see across the water a natural area along the south shore of the main Alameda Island, where there’s a walking trail.  Many of us think it’s a treat to walk along there, wild grass on either side of the path mingled with whatever  succulents share the neighborhood.  There are some homes there too a bit farther up the slope.

South Shore Path

                                            The Tao

The Ansel-Adams connection I thought of was a photo of his of a development along a hillside in South San Francisco that I wanted to include in  book I was doing (Image, Macmillan, 1973). They reminded me of “Little Boxes,”  the 1962 song by Malvina Reynolds that Pete Seeger made popular, all those little boxes made out of “ticky tacky” that all looked “just the same.”

Little Boxes Pic

                    Photo by Ansel Adams

My View of How Things Are

Adams wrote back, “Oh, that necklace of houses on that hillside in South San Francisco.”  So I had another look and enlarged my view of how things are:


Ticky Tacky Little Houses?  A Necklace of Houses?

Ticky Tacky Little Houses

Ticky Tacky Little Houses?  A Necklace of Houses?

A Necklace of Houses on a Hillside





Little Boxes Pic

                                               The Tao

Note:  Adams, of course, was not a satirist.  So, if I had been more awake, I’d have realized that though these houses from one point of view could be seen as ticky tacky, that would not have been what Adams was up to.  He used his lens to tease nature into revealing herself as she is, without the overlay of the viewer’s intention.  No matter what I decide to think about the scene before me, it will not affect what’s there one jot.


 Whatever Object We Look Upon

The Whitman Album

THERE was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,    . . .
. . . or by the mire of the pond-side,

And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.

. . . and the commonest weeds by the road . . .

Kid in Park

                                     The tao