Recognizing the Consequences

Less than a year before his untimely death, I was lucky enough to be in the audience at a  presentation by Ojibway wordsmith Richard Wagamese . What I remember most about his talk was not only laughing a lot at his incisive humour, but also thinking deeply about what he said about the role of smartphones in the lives of our children. He said that we should not allow smartphones to satisfy the need our children had to gather around a fire to hear stories. He said we should build a new, alternative fire to gather our children so that they could hear from us the stories that would teach them who they were.

I think about that talk a lot these days when I hear about the research that correlates the use of smartphones with high rates of sleep deprivation and depression amongst teens.

I also wonder what Richard would say about the fact that the government of California has, since 2014, been spending millions on ads that encourage parents to talk, read and sing to their children.

Does that fact shock you as much as it did me when I first heard about it? Are you surprised that millions of dollars are being spent to encourage parents to talk to their children? Given how reluctant most governments are to spend money on any kind of social program let alone one that benefits those too young to vote, the consequences of parents not talking to their children must be dire enough to warrant the spending.

California is not alone in taking action. The government of New Brunswick has also launched a campaign to encourage parents “to sing, talk and read to their children under five“. The Clinton Foundation also provides funds to organizations that will expect parents they support to take a pledge to spend time each day talking, singing and reading to their children. There are many other organizations, big and small, focused on the same project of ensuring that parents speak to their children so that they learn the words they’ll need to navigate the world.

Navigating iPad screens is an increasing popular skill among toddlers. Have you noticed how often screens are being used by harried parents to keep their children quiet for hours?

Do you worry like I do about the consequences for society when millions of toddlers grow up to be teens who do not know how to hold a conversation , who do not have the words to express how they feel but who are quite skilled at sending emojis?

This scary future may already be here. Recently primary teachers have been voicing concerns about kindergarteners not being able to manage their emotions and not being able to “use their words”.  Perhaps it’s because they may not have enough words from which to choose.

What are the societal consequences of having children “be quiet” all the time? Will we lose the power of words to weave stories that show us who we are?

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I’m very grateful that we have the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning to remind us what Indigenous Peoples have known about learning for millennia.  The third of the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning states that learning involves recognizing the consequences of one’s actions. I wonder if we adults, who are the hosts to the children who have newly arrived on this planet, fully recognize the consequences of spending so little time talking to our children that we need to be reminded to do so through public service announcements?

Monday, 20th November is Children’s Day, the 58th celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The  United Nations hopes the anniversary will inspire people  “to advocate, promote and celebrate children’s rights” and to begin “dialogues and actions that will build a better world for Children”.  I have no doubt that there will be lots of money spent on encouraging such “dialogues” and “actions” but I also know that it would cost nothing at all if knowledgeable adults everywhere fully accepted, as per the fourth principle of learning, their roles and responsibilities,  and put down their phones and instead picked up conversations with children.

If they did, the consequences will be priceless.

 

Relationships in a Climate Change Age

In her explanation and background to the principle of holistic learning among First Peoples, Jo Chrono provides lots of examples of what the integration of this principle may look like in a classroom. Teachers who have already incorporated regular field trips, reflective journalling, experiential learning, place-based learning, and project-based learning into their classroom practice will easily be able to connect their teaching to this learning principle. But what I want to focus on here is something else that she mentions: the critical importance of relationships inherent in this learning principle in particular.

Education literature is well-populated with articles on the centrality of relationships in learning but there is very little discussion on how difficult maintaining healthy relationships can be.  Relationships are always easy when things are going well, when there’s no conflict. They’re really difficult when things are not going well. And if there’s ever a place where relationships can get into trouble, it’s in classrooms and in schools.

A few months ago, three students who were very angry with me waited to talk to me after school. They wanted the four of us to use a process I teach to all my students to help them to work through any conflict they may experience in their relationships. It took some time but at the end of our excavation of the incident we all realized that we had each interpreted what we saw and heard in completely different ways thus resulting in different stories about what had happened in the classroom earlier in the day.  

Over the past decade, students have told me how this process, The Communication Model, has helped them not only to repair but also to sustain relationships amongst friends and family. Emily, a former student, has written about how she used it to de-escalate conflict between an adult and some students in our school. Countless others have talked about how their relationships with siblings and with parents have been strengthened through using the model.

I’m partial to the Communication model because, unlike other models for the resolution of conflict, its experiential method creates the possibility for a relationship to be strengthened through deepening mutual understanding.

communication model picture

The core premise of The Communication Model is that through examining our perceptions and interpretations, we can discover what we may only unconsciously hold dear. Another premise is that we are never angry about the thing we think we’re angry about. In other words, anger rears its head when we sense an attack on what we deeply value, what is critically important to our sense of self. The problem is that other people are often completely unaware of what is important to us and so there are multiple instances each day when they may inadvertently trigger this biological self-defense system. Most often we can brush off incidents quite easily by taking a breath and moving on, but sometimes that’s not easy to do.

At this point I want to stress that anger in and of itself is not a bad thing. Perhaps because the expression of anger in our society is so often associated with violence, there is little acknowledgement of anger’s value in helping us to understand why we do the things we do. As I tell my students, anger provides a direct pathway to our core beliefs, our deepest sense of self.

It’s also interesting to note the differences in the way children are taught about anger in various cultures and within social classes. From a modern western European cultural perspective, the expression of anger is certainly gendered: it’s okay for men to express violent anger but not okay for women to do the same.

I am curious about Indigenous perspectives on the experience and expression of anger and conflict. I would like to learn about how conflict was resolved before colonization and whether there are other examples of it being resolved through games like slahal.  With consensus being a common decision-making process amongst First Peoples before contact, there’s no doubt that we have much to learn from them about how to work through conflicts to arrive at a common understanding. 

When those three students processed their anger that day, we all learned a lot about each other. We learned what we each deeply valued and we realized that we all wanted the same thing: to have fairness and a sense of community in the classroom.

There is a lot of conflict in a world of systemic racism, gross inequality, and climate change impacts. If our children can learn how to work through anger to discover the values and aspirations they have in common with others with whom they are in conflict, the troubles ahead will be much easier for them to navigate.

 

First Peoples’ Principles of Learning: Well-being

There’s no way that I can fully comprehend what “well-being” means to Canada’s First Peoples as I am not indigenous and I have had barely any exposure to the cultures of the original inhabitants of this land, I’m ashamed to say.  I also suspect that the original term for which “well-being” is the nearest English equivalent includes a far more expansive worldview than can be captured in translation.

I wonder if the Greek concept of eudaimonia, sometimes translated to mean “the highest human good” or sometimes to mean happiness is compatible with what indigenous peoples mean by well-being?  Or is the Japanese concept of ikigai, translated as being “a reason to live” a better fit?

Perhaps the work of Martin Seligman with his concept of PERMA (positive emotion; engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement) comes closest to capturing the main ideas behind this principle of learning? I wonder.

Even though I might not completely understand what First Peoples mean by well-being, I certainly have an acute sense of what it is not.  There is no well-being in a classroom with no laughter, a classroom in which students feel lonely in a crowd. There is no well-being when there is extreme anxiety and overwhelming stress experienced by students who find no meaning or purpose in what they’re doing other than that it’s part of the plot of the story of school.

It’s the story that says if you go all the way through school, from kindergarten to Grade 12, and then go to university, and then graduate, you’ll get a good job and then you’ll be happy. The ridiculousness of this story is perfectly illustrated in Alan Watts’ Music and Life analogy in which he exposes the false promise of education’s holy grail.

This myth about what school is for continues to be perpetuated even though we know that there is absolutely no guarantee that having a job that is well-paid leads to happiness as evidenced by rates of depression and suicide amongst highly-qualified professionals. To put it another way, there is no guarantee that if our children do everything right to get a good job, that the job will do much for their well-being beyond allowing for the provision of material wealth, which our modern western European culture positions as the pinnacle of happiness.

In our society, high purchasing power is equated with high levels of happiness, a necessary myth when our economy depends on increasing consumption of all kinds of stuff from cars to clothing. We are taught to fear a lack of growth in “consumer confidence” as though the worst thing that can happen is for us to stop shopping.

But what is the logical outcome of an unlimited extraction of the earth’s resources in order to manufacture the stuff that we are expected to keep purchasing so that we’ll be happy?

On 2 August this year, we used up the amount of resources that it takes the planet a year to replenish. We used up in 7 months what it will take 12 months to replace. That’s the denouement at the end of the Story of Stuff.

Can we really afford to perpetuate the myth that cancerous consumption leads to happiness?

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If ever there was a time to replace the current stories of school and of stuff with stories that the First Peoples developed over thousands of years while they sustained a regenerative relationship with their lands, that time would be now.

Well-being for our children and for our planet should be the ultimate goal of learning. We can’t afford for it not to be.

But what would that look like in the classrooms that our children will be in next month?

In her blog explaining the background of First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, Jo Chrono explains that it’s important that the learning principles operate in a “robust and healthy learning environment”.  Now that’s something I do know about! Creating an environment that is engaging along with building a sense of community in my classroom have been my guiding pedagogical principles ever since I began teaching almost 30 years ago.

It’s not always been easy. Focusing on children’s well-being means being willing to get into trouble for allowing students to break school rules that disregard their physiological needs. It also means apologizing to students when there are things you know are not good for their well-being but about which you can do nothing.

But the task is not impossible. It’s not difficult to encourage laughter while learning. It just takes a little bit more planning to ensure that students are not forced to work when they’re fatigued. And it’s not too difficult to always keep in mind that the child sitting in front of you is more than just an empty vessel that needs to be filled with facts. That child is one node in a network of connections that include her family, her community, her ancestors, and, perhaps most importantly, the land around her.  

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, the most amazing fact is that we are connected to the earth chemically, to each other biologically, and to the the universe atomically.

But then First Peoples have always known that.  They’ve always known that our individual well-being is directly connected to the well-being of everything around us.

As the impacts of climate change increasingly affect the world around us, let’s help our children to see that in everything they learn at school.

Curriculum for the Age of Climate Change?

Have you heard of First Peoples Principles of Learning, a list of approaches to learning common amongst Indigenous Peoples for the multiple millennia before colonization brought the scourge of Residential Schools? The publication of the principles is a result of a collaboration between the BC Ministry of Education and groups of “Indigenous Elder[s], scholars, and knowledge keepers” and meant to provide an overview of Indigenous pedagogy, a philosophy of learning grounded in relationships and responsibilities. The principles are:

Learning ultimately supports the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits, and the ancestors.

Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).

Learning involves recognizing the consequences of one‘s actions.

Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities.

Learning recognizes the role of indigenous knowledge.

Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.

Learning involves patience and time.

Learning requires exploration of one‘s identity.

Learning involves recognizing that some knowledge is sacred and only shared with permission and/or in certain situations.

What if the Class of 2030 was completely immersed in experiences that upheld First Peoples Principles of Learning? Would they be better prepared to face the challenges brought by climate change when they graduate?

The next series of posts will explore these questions.

But before  continuing with my thoughts about what First Peoples Principles of Learning could look like in classrooms, I need to write about an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career in Canada. It’s a memory that makes me feel quite ashamed when I recall it. 

I remember that I was in the middle of one of those crazynutsbusy days that are the norm for teachers when I was told that a parent was wanting to speak to me. I remember wondering why she hadn’t come to the classroom as I walked to where she was. This part of the memory is so vivid I can see it as though it was happening right now.

I am standing at the top of a short flight of stairs at the entrance of our portable building. At the bottom of the stairs is a woman whom I’m told is the mother of one of my students. We greet each other while I’m wondering about why she’d come.

As soon as she begins to speak she starts crying and I don’t understand what she’s saying. It takes me a few minutes to hear her tell me that she’s so happy that her son, my student, was going to pass Grade 11. That he was the first person in the family to do so. And that she was so grateful that my classroom was the kind of space that helped him to succeed.  I don’t know what I said in response but it must have been something quite inadequate like “You’re welcome” or “I’m so glad that he’s enjoyed being with us”.

Here’s why this memory fills me with shame. I didn’t know her son was Indigenous. I didn’t know at the time that graduation rates for Indigenous students were abysmally low. And, most important of all, I really didn’t know what I had done to deserve her thanks.  I didn’t think I deserved it at all since I had not consciously set out to make her son’s learning experiences any different to the learning experiences of all my students.  It took me many years to figure out what possibly could have made the difference to her son. 

Because of my own experiences of alienation while being educated in South Africa during the apartheid era, as a teacher I am biased toward collaboration and cooperation. One of the first tasks that my students have to fulfill at the start of each semester is to learn each other’s names because they spend a lot of time working together. Building community is the focus of the first part of my planning schedule before it becomes the background to much of what we do in my classroom for the rest of the school year. I do it not only for my own sense of comfort but also because I believe that if we can’t learn to be together in public school classrooms, we’re not going to be able to be together in the world beyond the classroom where we need to “live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools” as Martin Luther King Jr. said.

It was just serendipity that what I needed to be able to teach in my classroom was what her son had needed to succeed.  It’s also what we’re all going to need as we face the impacts of climate change, together.

Connection.

Cooperation.

Collaboration.

Community.

Dear Fellow Passenger on Planet Earth

Dear Fellow Passenger on Planet Earth,

We have to talk. It’s about a topic you really don’t want to think about. When it comes up you flip into fear and then slip into denial while you silently hope that someone is going to save the day.

But there’s no one here but us. We’re all we’ve got on this tiny blue planet spinning in a dark void.

I know the data is overwhelming. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the facts, the statistics, the predictions. I get that. So don’t think about all that.

Think about the children. The ones who just got here. The ones who arrived on a warming planet of rising seas, devastating droughts, monster wildfires.

At some point they’re going to know that we knew what we were doing. That we knew we were putting too much carbon into the air. We knew that we were using up in 7 months what it took the planet 12 months to replenish.

They’ll also know that we knew what we needed to do to mitigate the impacts of the changes. We knew that we needed to stop burning fossil fuels, that we needed to stop shopping for pleasure so that we could stop wasting precious resources. We knew that an economy based on unlimited growth was unsustainable on a planet of limited capacity.

What will we tell them when they ask us why we didn’t act?

What story will we tell?

pale blue dot

See, that’s what I want to talk about. The story that’ll be told to the generations to come about this time when we were too afraid to think about how our children will cope in a world of 45 degree summers and dried-up rivers. A world of drowned cities and growing deserts.

It’s true that stories like that already exist. Stories that are apocalyptic. Dystopian. Frightening. The kinds of stories that would give children nightmares.

But what if we could tell a different story?

What if we could tell our great-grandchildren about that time when we stopped being frozen in fear, the time when we realized that if we didn’t change our present, there would be no future?

Is that time now?

It seems to be a good time right now because we’re into Back to School season, a time that’s always felt like a second New Year, a time for beginnings and future dreams.  What collective dream do we have for the children, those returning to school, those just starting their schooling journey, and those who just recently arrived on our planet home?

If we’re ready, there’s no shortage of topics and themes for new dreams, new stories.  In the decades to come we could tell stories of the time we all leaped into a new relationship with our environment or the time a thousand towns transitioned. There’s already unfolding stories within the new economy and plenty of fascinating plots in the pursuit of a zero waste lifestyle.

Now, while we’re living in the future’s prologue, can we think about creating a new plot?

What say you?
Sincerely,

Passenger # 5 354 309 834

 

Let’s nurture creativity in the Class of 2030

They’ll enter classrooms in a few weeks as scientists, artists, makers, doers, inquisitive about the world around them, excited to explore its nooks and crannies. But how will they leave after 13 years of being told a thousand times not to stray, to stay within the lines that separate curriculum from curiosity? How much of their childhood creativity will still be alive when they graduate in 2030? Near the end of this second decade of the 21st century, there is ample evidence that earth’s life supporting systems are slipping into crisis. We are in urgent need of all the creative solutions we can get to help us to transition away from the destructive path we’re on.

The last thing schools should be doing is constraining creativity.

Ken Robinson’s Do Schools Kill Creativity? talk should not be seen as just an interesting thought exercise. With humanity facing the devastating consequences of climate change, his words should sound like a five-alarm fire.  

Our students are going to need new ways of coping with the realities of the world they’ll inherit: increasingly hotter summers, more frequent droughts, abnormal floods, regular wildfires, scarce resources and a teetering global economy that will likely mean that they’ll be “hard at work in a jobless future”.  

I confess to being impatient with those who believe that children are “too young” to learn about the realities of life. All across the world, there are millions of children who are taking care of younger siblings, because they’ve lost parents to war or disease. There are an estimated 100 000 unaccompanied child refugees trying to survive in Europe after crossing continents in their flight from war zones. Every year thousands of unaccompanied children flee Central and South America to travel to the United States. An estimated 300 000 children  are being used as soldiers around the world.  For millions of children, facing difficult realities can’t wait until they graduate.

So, when should we let the Class of 2030 know about the challenges they’ll face?  

What should they learn beyond reading, writing and arithmetic?

Bubbles
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Because education systems the world over have been in constant state of “reform” for decades, there’s a bazillion possible responses to that question but, despite all attempts at change, schools the world over still look quite similar to the way schools looked in 1917.  And, as much as I like to dream of having trillions of dollars to turn all public schools into the kind of creative schools that Ken Robinson has written about, I have reluctantly realized that just wishing and hoping is an indulgent waste of time.

The Class of 2030 begins their schooling journey in a few weeks.

We have to think about what can be done with what we have right now, right where we are.  We have to engage the kind of creative thinking that people everywhere are capable of whenever they’re faced with a disaster or a crisis.

Something like the kind of thinking that William Kwamkambe engaged when he solved his family’s need for electricity by gathering scraps from a dump heap and reading about how to build a windmill from an old textbook.

Or perhaps the out-of-the-box kind of thinking of Kelvin Doe who scavenged through trash to find parts to build generators and batteries for his own radio station.

There is no shortage of examples of young people finding creative solutions to intractable problems all across the world, making do with what they have and what they know to make a difference in the world around them.

Imagine what could be possible if their capacity for solving problems was nurtured and encouraged in schools everywhere for their entire thirteen-year journey.

Imagine a world with more Jaylas, Boyans  Haileys,  Victorias,  Ashtons,  Ridhimas and Marleys.

Imagine.

The Last Summer we saw the Sun

The last summer we saw the sun

we didn’t camp

since it would have been no fun

without the fire

contained,

companionable,

while marshmallows

carefully were

scorched.

burned orange sun

 

The last summer we saw the sun

we watched trees become

candles,

torches,

flinging flames

onto roofs,

racing unrelentingly

across fields and forests.

 

The last time we saw the sun

bright in a blue sky,

casting shade,

growing shadows,

was before this time

of the burnt-orange disc

that sheds faint light

through a smoky dome.

 

The last summer we saw the sun

we recognized 

that Beijing’s skies

had become our own.