Question Box

question-box

Something I love about my job is when my teen students tell me something that ‘blows my mind’ (in teenspeak). Being a teacher of teens means that I am frequently having to adjust what I thought I knew about a whole range of issues.  The most recent adjustment has been to what I thought I knew about teens’ relationship with the Internet.

Before this week, I believed that a teacher of teens should never ask a question that Google could answer because a teacher’s reservoir of knowledge could not compete in any way with what Google could deliver in nanoseconds.

Turns out, teens are not impressed with that instantaneous delivery of piles of content. As was made clear to me this week, teens much prefer to have conversations about topics they are interested in, rather than just consuming content whether from a teacher or the Internet.

It’s not that I did not have an inkling that teens interacted with information differently to the way my generation did.  Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital did warn us in 2009 that the Net Generation (aka the Digital Generation, the teens I teach) have a radically different way of interacting with information than those of us born before the Internet existed.

In his book, Tapscott reveals that the Net Generation prefers to learn collaboratively and through discovery rather than through the traditional ‘downloading’ of information.

But it’s one thing to read about research and quite another to experience a phenomenon first hand as I did in my classroom this week.

My Psychology students had been tasked with presenting what they discovered about a topic they were personally interested in within the field of psychology.  While presenting what they had learned, they also had to explain why they found the topic interesting/significant.

As I listened to their presentations, I was struck by how frequently a student would mention that they had always wanted to know more about the topic but that they just didn’t have time to ‘look it up’.

I found this very strange.  After all, they are the first generation in human history that is able to carry in their pockets a device that gives them instant access to all of human knowledge. How was it possible that they did not use that device to look up what they wanted to know?

To help me to understand, I asked them about this in a circle discussion.  At first they could not clearly articulate what it was that was stopping them from ‘looking something up’ but gradually I was able to ascertain that it was not the availability of the information that they needed. Instead, it was having someone to talk to about the information. They wanted to have a conversation about what they read. They wanted to be able to ask questions, to talk about what they were reading, what it actually meant for them, in their own lives.

When I finally understood why they had not ‘looked up’ the information before, I also understood why the Question Box is the most popular of my teaching tools.

The Question Box is a little cardboard box in my classroom into which students can anonymously  place questions about anything they want to understand but do not want to directly ask an adult about. The questions that are placed in the box can range from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between. I have had the Question Box in my classroom for over a decade but have never really fully understood its popularity. Now I do.

Although my students can search Google for information on any topic, they can’t have a real world conversation with the author/s of the information. They can’t ask questions, in real time, about what they still don’t understand after reading the links.  They may be able to send a comment that may or may not be responded to sooner or later but this is not the same as having a direct conversation with the writer/s of the information.

Thanks to lessons on media literacy, teens are fairly adept at sifting through search results to find credible sources for information but they seem to be not quite satisfied once they do find reliable information.  In fact, the students I spoke with seemed to have a  kind of disdain for what they “learned” about the topic this way.  I was stunned to realize that they preferred putting a question into the little cardboard box in the classroom rather than into a Google search box.

Perhaps the Greeks were right about true learning arriving through dialogue, not through the dumping of information.

But what does all this mean for the latest education reforms that are focused on technologizing teaching, adding more computers into classrooms under the guise of ‘personalizing learning’ ?

I would suggest that education reformers speak to teens about what they would prefer to have as learning experiences. Teens would tell them that, although they enjoy using technology,  they prefer to have teachers to talk to about what they are learning.   Perhaps everyone involved in education could learn a thing or two from teens about personalized learning.

Reading, ecologically…

Alice and Isaac in nature

Alice, a neighbour’s 6 year old daughter, is learning how to read. She’s learning how squiggles on a page can be filled with meaning. She’s learning that these squiggles ‘say’ things. A whole new world is opening up for her, a world of different spaces and places she can travel to through those squiggles.

But I wonder what other kinds of reading she will need to master in order to make sense of the world in this age of climate change?  Should she know how to ‘read’ the land as her ancestors used to do?  To know what to expect when certain flowers are in bud or when the wind shifts or when particular birds arrive in the garden?

David Suzuki seems to think so. In a recent column he makes the case that children should learn how to observe the natural world. What he calls “observe” others like David Orr and Fritjof Capra call ecological literacy, a way of observation that decodes signs in nature in the same way that we decode squiggles on the page in traditional literacy.

If children learned to read their environment, what changes could we expect in society as they grew up?

One change perhaps would be the eradication of what Richard Louv calls nature deficit disorder, a result of children spending less time outdoors and too much time indoors, cut off from the natural world.

Each year when I take my  teen students on field trips into natural spaces, I am amazed at the transformation that happens when they spend time among the trees or just skipping stones on the water. It’s as though they have just woken from a deep sleep and are seeing the world anew. In effect, they probably are, given the amount of time they spend staring at screens instead of their immediate environments.

If children learned to  read their environment, they would have first hand experiences of changes wrought by climate change, experiences and knowledge that could not be ‘spun’ by the fossil fuel industry that spends billions each year fuelling climate change denial.

Environmentalist often lament the fact that our children can recognize more brand logos than they can tree leaves. Ecologically literate children would not only be able to name trees and describe their leaves but would also be able to name the kinds of fauna that depend on the tree for survival.

An ecologically literate child would know that she was not in the environment, that the environment was inside her.

An ecologically literate child would know that some forest bathing would do more for her stress level than retail therapy would.

An ecologically literate child would know the connectedness of all things, that whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.

The scientific revolution gave us new tools to read the world beyond the visible light section of the electromagnetic spectrum. Before that dramatic change in the way we saw the world,  we had to know how to read the land for our own survival and so paid close attention to every detail of the natural environment.  These days we would sooner check the Weather Network online on our computers before we went outside to see what the weather was.

Before the scientific revolution, we would know when seasons changed when we saw signs of the coming change in trees, in plants, in the sky. Now we look at a calendar.

If we could integrate the kind of knowledge humans had about the natural world before, with the knowledge that we have gained through math and science, how much more could we read and see and know about this place, our cosmic home?

In an age of climate change, when all around us nature is signalling her distress, perhaps one of the most critical skills we all can have is the ability to read our environment,  the ability to read the sky, the land, the water, the plants and the trees.

We can’t all have the knowledge that the scientists on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do, but we all can know a little more than we currently do about what is normal and what is not in the natural world around us.

We should all join Alice in learning how to read, ecologically.

Costs and Benefits…

helen and anne s 2
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Did you know that the BC government now considers learning supports for students with special needs in public education a “wage benefit” for teachers that is “too expensive” for taxpayers to afford?

Better read that again… I know it’s a bit of a mindtwist.  It would make sense though if you remember that this is the same group of people who have redefined what “essential” means… but I digress.

Back to benefits. Now you and I may expect employee benefits to be about medical coverage or a dental plan or a car or travel expenses. We’d be wrong, according to Premier Christy Clark. Benefits now include having other workers around you to do the work that must be done. By this definition, a nurse is a salary benefit to a doctor; a secretary is a salary benefit to an executive, and a dental assistant is a salary benefit to a dentist.

So, according this framing of our proposals for a wage increase in an attempt to decrease the blow our salaries have taken over the past 8 years due to the increase in the cost of living, if an Education Assistant helps a student in our classrooms, or if our school has learning specialist teachers, their work in the school is costed as a benefit to our salaries.

I wonder if the Premier counts the cost of her assistants in the same way, or are they just considered the perks of the job like dining out and iTunes purchases?

But what if we looked at the whole concept of benefits in a different way. Who actually benefits when we support students whose brains work differently?

We all do…

In fact people who ‘think differently’ have completely changed the world in the past. They are also presently changing the world and, if we give the students in our classrooms now the support they need, they will change the world of the future.

Take Michael Faraday for example. As a child he stuttered and struggled in school at a time when the very concept of support for students with special needs was unheard of. Luckily for us, his mother took him out of school and provided what she could in spite of their poverty.  When he grew up, even with an incomplete formal education, he discovered electromagnetism.

Now I’m not a scientist, but this much I know thanks to the television series “Cosmos”, that without Faraday’s discovery the very act of reading this blog post via the internet would not be possible.

Just sit with that fact for a moment…

Imagine what more Faraday might have given us if he had had support at school?

Here’s another example.  I’d never heard of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBot wheelchair and the Segway, before I watched an interview with him.  In it he explained how he struggled in school because, he said, as soon as the teacher opened her mouth he felt like a fire hose was coming at him. His  mind would be still processing the first thing the teacher said while she kept moving on, and he felt flooded with information. I imagine that this is how the mind of an incredible inventor works – taking a tiny bit of information and seeing infinite possibilities.

Thomas Edison’s inventions provide another example of how much we have gained from creative thinkers. The way Edison learned in school was so different to what other students did that his teacher said his mind was “addled”.  Despite only three months of formal schooling, he gave us the light bulb, the phonograph and the moving picture camera.  All inventions that radically changed the world.

We are very lucky when people who think differently have mentors or people who support them.   How much poorer in ideas would our world have been without the mind of Helen Keller, who although deaf and blind contributed so much through her writing and talks.  Her success due in no small way to the support she received from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Temple Grandin is another example of someone who has contributed much to the world after having lots of support as a child for her autism and speech difficulties.  What she has done is so amazing, Hollywood made a movie of her life. In fact Hollywood seems to have more interest than politicians do in special thinkers, given movies such as Radio,  A Beautiful Mind, Little Man Tate, Rain Man….

In this century, when all our chickens are coming home to roost in the form of dramatic climate change sparking the rapid spread of diseases once limited to small areas of the planet, we are going to need out-of-the-box kinds of  thinking that students with special needs do naturally all the time.  We are going to need special solutions to the special challenges we all face. Students with special needs may grow up to be the very people who will help us solve our most intractable problems.

So I guess in some sense, the BC government is right when they say that support for students with special needs is a benefit.

The part they got wrong however is that it’s a benefit for us all, not just to teachers. Supporting students with special needs will benefit humankind in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

But what about the costs if we don’t support these students? Well, apart from never knowing what the inventions or discoveries of students with special needs could have been, we will also continue to spend billions of dollars on a population of incarcerated people, many of whom are illiterate or have learning disabilities.

Since 2002  the number of Learning Specialists in BC schools has been cut by 20% and the cuts will increase again in 2014/15, a direct result of chronic underfunding. I’m not sure how much our Premier believes she is saving and for what purpose when she continues to cut approximately $250 million per year from the education budget, but that money is not really a savings if it has to be spent dealing with the costs of the consequences of those cuts.

Supporting all our students in all ways possible is not a cost when seen in this light. It’s an investment in benefits that we will all share.

Dear Christy…

door into school

Dear Christy,

It must be so difficult being Premier of the province these days. What with having to deal with all the complaints about  oil sands pipelines, and worrying about the changes in the LNG market, putting all your plans for our economy in jeopardy.  It must give you many headaches to have to think about all that.

I can imagine also that you must be very busy and hardly getting any sleep as you fly around the province to the various fundraisers for your 2017 re-election campaign. It can never be too early to work on the next election campaign, can it?

But what I wanted to write to you about was this fight you’re having with the teachers and the BCTF.  See, I’m not a politician but you may want to re-think your strategy with the teachers. Something happened when you locked them out of their classrooms in June….

Usually during lunch time they are too busy photocopying and working with kids and they don’t have much time to talk to each other but when the lockout forced them to eat their lunch out on the sidewalk, they suddenly discovered that they had lots of time on their hands and that they could have conversations in a way that is not possible in a busy school day or even on a Pro-D or in a staff meeting.

You see, normally in a typical secondary school that has a teaching staff of about 80 teachers, most teachers only ever talk to about 5 teachers daily and then perhaps about 10 others on other occasions but during the lockout, that changed. There was lots more conversation and, I’m sorry to say, those conversations were mostly about you and what your real agenda is when it comes to public education. Teachers shared information and experiences and built up relationships that had not existed before.

The other thing the lockout did was that it freed up time on weekends that would normally be used for marking and preparation of lessons but because you forbad teachers from doing any of that, they found it very difficult to break old habits.  They were so used to the kinds of tasks they had done for years on weekends, they looked for outlets for all that pent-up energy and that’s how they discovered social media in a way that was unprecedented.

They started pages on Facebook, they joined pages on Facebook and they set up blogs and wrote and blogged and tweeted.  They wrote letters to the media, they wrote letters to MLA’s. They commented on each other’s posts on the various pages set up to support teachers. They shared blog posts so much, they were noticed by alternative media like Huffington Post and Rabble.ca. They started Twitter tags   like #thisismystrikepay that went viral across the world.  Bit by bit they built up this network of connections and information that is proving to be quite resilient and resistant to anything that BCPSEA says or does.

I’m afraid that your lockout, the one they tagged #Christyclarkslockout on Twitter, has been the catalyst for the creation of a network focused on resisting any attempts to privatize public education in BC. 

I’m sorry to have to tell you this but all the work you’ve been doing for the past 12 years to save taxpayers money by shifting money away from the education budget and toward other investments may be all for nought as this network continues to grow and strengthen.

You should see what they’re talking about on all the pages! They’ve dug up all kinds of facts and statistics and information that makes a compelling case for their assertion that a well-funded public education system is critical to a democracy.  They are now also attacking your economic policies and are referring to studies that show that government austerity measures actually kill economies. This is dangerous information when you’ve been trying so hard to focus on balancing the budget. Do you know that they have the audacity to suggest that the whole concept of a balanced budget is just a myth and that there is enough money for schools if there is enough money for investments in mills and pipelines?

I think the best thing for you to do is to get teachers back into classrooms as soon as possible. Start the year early to make up for all the time that was lost in June!  Get teachers busy with lesson preparation and teaching again so that they can stop talking to each other and to the public about public education.  It’s actually quite scary the number of parents that are now talking to teachers!

Some of these parents are really very angry that they are only now realizing what has been happening in schools for the past 12 years!  They have been talking about working on a recall campaign and they have started so many petitions!

Oh! I should not leave out the students! Have you seen the letters they’ve been writing in support of teachers? And all those videos on YouTube? Some of them are quite clever and funny. Sorry, but they are! And they’re getting lots of views too!

So you see, if you get teachers back into classrooms you may be able to  stop this network  from growing and getting stronger.

I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, I know it must be quite stressful, but I really do think that you poked a hornets’ nest when you attacked public school teachers and their union.

To save yourself and your party’s chances for re-election,  you should do whatever it takes to get those hornets back into the nest. Give them whatever they say they need for their working conditions because you know they’ve argued quite successfully that their working conditions are students’ learning conditions and now parents agree with them. I don’t think you’d want to have thousands of parents angry with you when you promised to put their families first during your last election campaign. Best to do what you promised last time before you work on your promises for 2017.

I hope this helps and that you have a good rest before your next fundraiser!

Sincerely,

Joan Swift

We know you can help

lifesaver

I cannot believe that everyone who voted for  Premier Christy Clark completely supports what she is doing to public education in British Columbia.

I cannot believe that there are no people of integrity and ethics within the BC Liberal party.

I cannot believe that all BC Liberals are ignorant followers of a leader whose views they do not question.

I cannot believe that all BC Liberals think it’s a good idea to consult with a corporation, Cisco Systems, instead of professional teachers, about what is best for children in schools.

But…

I can believe is that there are BC Liberals who are economic conservatives but social progressives, people who believe in the importance of access to a good public education as critical to the strength of a democracy.

I can believe that there are many BC Liberals who have had teachers in their lives who made a significant positive contribution to the adults they became.

I can imagine that there are BC Liberals who are wondering how they can support teachers without leaving their political party.

In any fight for social or economic justice, it is those on the “inside” who can make a huge difference when they reach out to those on the “other side”.

In South Africa it was White people who worked with other White people and also with Black people who were critical to ending Apartheid.

It is men who talk to other men who can end the scourge of violence against women.

In Rwanda it is the Hutu women working together with Tutsi women who are continuing to rebuild their country.

Even in the world of finance, these conversations happen, as when billionaires not only tell other billionaires that massive economic inequality is not good for anyone, but who do something about bridging that gap.

Those kinds of conversations can happen here too. We would love to have conversations with people who voted for the BC Liberals in the last election but who are feeling squeamish and uncomfortable with what is happening in the courts, in our public schools.

We are appealing to BC Liberals of conscience, BC Liberals who walk with integrity, who uphold Canadian values of fairness and equity, to speak to your peers in the party. Speak to them about what you feel is at stake if public education continues to be underfunded and your leader continues her crash and burn attack on the BCTF that started 12 years ago.

Are you truly okay with school districts having to close school libraries? Are you okay with students in distress not having access to a counsellor? Is it fair that students who need support for their learning do not have a learning specialist teacher?

Is it what you wanted when you voted for your leader?

Do you really want a two-tier education system in the province where only those who can afford $18 000 per year tuition have access to small classes and full learning support? Can all BC Liberal supporters afford to put their children into private schools?

We know that you are shocked when you realize that a beginning teacher, after 5 years of post-secondary education, only makes $48 000 per year and that it takes that teacher 10 years to get to their maximum salary.

We understand why you would not have known this. Given what you are told on the news, it’s understandable that there are many aspects about the labour dispute with the teachers that you do not know about.

We understand that it is often confusing and frustrating to sort out the truth from all the rhetoric and posturing and sound bites. But we know that you have been trying to do that, to listen to teachers tell about their experiences in classrooms, how they can’t help all the students who need help.

We are asking you to help to ensure that all businesses, not just the LNG industry, have well-educated, skilled workers.

We are asking you to remember that the investment that pays the biggest longterm return for a company and for a country is the investment in the education of children.

We are asking you to do what you can to protect all that made us feel so proud to be Canadian two weeks ago on Canada Day.

We are asking you to help to keep our democracy strong, to keep Canada as a beacon of hope in the world.

We hope that you will help.

We know that you can.

Which side are you on?

 

I was not here in 1884 to protest our government’s banning of the Aboriginal potlatch ceremony which made criminals of people who were practicing an ancient culture.

I was not here in 1885 to protest the extortionate Chinese head tax aimed at reducing Chinese immigration to Canada.

I was not here in 1914 to protest when the ship, the Komagatu Maru, carrying 376 Asian immigrants was refused permission to dock in Vancouver because the exclusion laws of this land were “violated”.

I was not here to work alongside all the non-white women  who fought for decades, until the late 1940’s, for the right to vote after white women won that right in 1921.

I was not here in 1942 when Canadians of Japanese descent, had their homes and businesses expropriated and were interned in the country of their birth.

I was not part of many fights for civil and human rights here in Canada.

When teachers here first began to fight for more funding for public education in B.C.  in the 1980’s, I was living in South Africa. At the time the struggle against Apartheid had been ongoing for almost three decades.  People of my skin colour were born into the fight for democracy, for full citizenship.

At birth we were all “classified” into races. I was classified “coloured”. This meant that there was a limitation of my choices in life, but not as many as I would have experienced had I been classified ‘Native/Bantu’, a term used to refer to aboriginal Africans.

Politically, it meant that I could not vote, since only White people could vote in parliamentary elections.

Economically, it meant that I could only consider work and careers designated for me under laws that controlled access to employment for all ‘races’.

Socially, it meant that I could only visit certain beaches, attend certain cinemas, ride on certain buses, eat in certain restaurants, enter post offices at certain entrances and sit on certain park benches, inconveniences shared by all non-Whites.

Being born brown-skinned in a country whose government used the legislature to pass heinous laws that robbed people of basic human rights gave me a profound education in the use and abuse of political power.  My experiences in South Africa provided me with a particular political lens through which I view the actions of the B.C. Liberal government. So much of what is done in the legislature in Victoria seems familiar.   Politics here may not be as black and white as they were in South Africa but sometimes the laws that the BC Liberals pass  seem like just a different shade of grey  when compared to the laws passed in South Africa during Apartheid.

And so, at a time when all South Africans enjoy the rights of  full democratic citizenship, I find myself here, on the opposite side of the world, where democracy and civil rights are under attack.

I find myself here at a time when workers’ rights, won over many struggles over a century ago, are in danger.  I am here now, when the very concept of a free, equitable, public education system is being threatened.  I am here now, one of thousands, making history for the textbooks of tomorrow.

Students in the future will learn that a government in a democracy not only  attempted to disregard two Supreme Court rulings but also the highest law in the land, the Charter of Rights and Freedom. They will learn that over several decades, teachers in British Columbia fought to ensure there was a fully funded public education system. They will also learn of the particularly difficult fight that began in 2002 when the  government  attempted to eradicate the rights of teachers to negotiate the learning conditions of students and the working conditions of teachers.

In South Africa I did not have a choice about which side I would be on in the struggle for justice. That was determined at birth. But here,  in Canada, where all citizens in this province have a choice,  I will one day be proud to say that I was on the side that fought to save public education from attempts to gut it financially. I was on the side that fought to save one of the most important  pillars of democracy: an education system that provides for the needs of all citizens, not just those born into affluence.

Yes, when I look back on my life someday, I will be able to say,  I was also there then.

Thank you Minister Fassbender!

fassbender

Dear Minister Fassbender,

Thank you so much for freeing up my weekends! I woke up this morning feeling so relieved that I won’t have to spend hours marking essays and projects thanks to the lockout!  I will now have the time I don’t usually have to visit friends and to complete  all my errands!

My friends are so pleased that they’ll be able to spend time with me because they usually don’t see me at all except during holidays because I’m always too exhausted from a stressful work week or because I’ve got hundreds of essays and assignments to mark on weekends.

I’m also relieved that I won’t be expected to contribute my thoughts about the new BC Education plan. I had been so excited to read about the new “learning environment” concept and had been spending time on weekends researching ways I could transform my classroom into a learning environment. But now I can free up my reading time for the many novels I have been meaning to read.

I’m so looking forward to getting home early next week! Usually I’m still at work until 7pm. I’ve had many dinners in my classroom when I’ve had to plan lessons and prepare for the next day. But now that my afternoons are going to be free, I can use up that gym membership I’ve neglected. I’m going to be so much fitter by the end of the school year!

Oh! About that! Thank you so much for starting my summer holiday early! My sister will be visiting from South Africa around the time you have set to lock me out of my workplace and so it’s just perfect! We’ll have more time to talk about the differences between the education system there and the one here. She never could understand why, 24 years ago, I gave up 13 paycheques a year, 100% medical coverage and a housing subsidy provided to all teachers by the apartheid government.

Sometimes I wonder that too when I try to stretch 10 paycheques over 12 months…

Between taking a mortgage holiday and using discount coupons provided by friends, I’m sure I’ll be able to show my sister many tourist spots in beautiful British Columbia, one of the richest provinces in Canada. I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain to her why it’s also the province with the highest child poverty rates, why a newspaper has an Adopt-a-School campaign or why our public education system is so poorly funded compared to other provinces. But I’ll try.

I’m a teacher. I’m used to trying to make sense of nonsense…

Anger

“Emotions are the primary gatekeeper to learning. Emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain to guide learning. Positive emotions encourage, for instance, long-term recall while negative emotions disrupt the learning process in the brain – at times leaving the student with little or no recall after the event.” http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

Now that the debate about the connection between emotion and learning is over, what does a 21st century teacher need to be able to do to ensure that her classroom is an emotionally safe space? A place where there is lots more laughter than there are angry outbursts?

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Understand what anger is.
  2. Notice how you do anger. What triggers you? Under what circumstances?
  3. Notice how your body signals that an angry outburst is about to occur.
  4. Channel anger in ways that do not damage, do not destroy relationships.
  5. Apologize when step 4 above fails..

Anger is an important emotion. It has had critically important functions through our human evolution. Its main purpose is to infuse us with energy so that we can fight for our survival. But the evolutionary development of anger was not without a few flaws.  One of them is that the part of the brain that is engaged when we become angry works far more rapidly compared to the part of our brain that weighs and measures and considers alternatives: our pre-frontal cortex.

Have you ever done something in anger you have deeply regretted later? An action that leads to regret is one that is done when you were in the middle of an amygdala hijack. The regret comes after the pre-frontal lobe has considered other options and realized that you had misinterpreted the situation and over-reacted.

Although anger is an important survival emotion, it’s also a secondary emotion. It is always a cover for one or more of these other emotions: fear, hurt, sadness, loss.  Feeling those emotions exposes the deepest core of our being, leaving us vulnerable, so we are not likely to do that as easily as we are to allow ourselves to become angry instead. Anger is a nice comfy blanket that hides our fear or hurt or sadness.

No one can make you feel angry. You alone have access to the switch that triggers the cascade of chemicals that result in the experience of anger.

SONY DSC

So, no, that student did not make you angry when they did what they did. When you saw what they did, you interpreted their behaviour to mean something. That interpretation of their behaviour then led to the pulling of the anger trigger and when you yelled, you were in full amygdala hijack.

But, there are ways to circumvent another hijack.

When you know what kinds of things trigger you, when you know how your body signals that you’re about to be hijacked, you can take a deep breath or two.  When you are first learning how to do this, it helps to walk away, out of the room for a bit.

It helps too if you have a regular meditation and exercise routine. You are less likely to be easily triggered if you do.

It also helps if you regularly release the energy that fuels your anger in healthy ways. ( You could learn how to do this at a course, Anger, Boundaries and Safety at The Haven Institute)

Even though you  may learn all about anger, and what to do about it, changing the way you have been angry in the past is quite difficult to do.  For a while, you’ll forget what to do far more frequently than you’ll remember.

But you need to keep practicing because the only way out is through.

You have to go through the learning curve. The golden prize at the other end is that, when you know how to control your own anger, you will be able to help your students do that too.

You will also understand that when a student is being aggressive or angry it has nothing at all to do with you. They may have had a really bad evening at home and the very last thing they can handle is to produce an error-free paragraph or listen to you explain a poem.

When you learn about your own anger, you will know just how really scared or worried or upset that student is underneath their anger. You will feel empathy.

And when you model empathy in your classroom, you will be well on your way to creating a learning environment that is emotionally safe for your students.

19th century classrooms were ruled by fear and coercion. Students in a 21st century learning environment feel safe to express and experience a range of emotions because their teacher is attuned to students’ emotions and knows, both cognitively and experientially,  how to respond accordingly.

Attunement

Bach_cello_harmony

The learning professionals within the learning environment are highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement”  http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

I was very excited to see the concept of “attunement” included in the OECD document that currently seems to be guiding the direction of education reforms in countries like Canada. But my excitement was followed by concern that this would be yet another great idea that dies soon after launch because of a lack of practical understanding of it. For those who would prefer an academic analysis of attunement, I recommend this paper by Heesoon Bai. This post will hopefully illuminate the concept in a practical way.

Last year, through circumstances that were both serendipitous and synchronous,  I was fortunate to participate in a three-day workshop with Victor Wooten,  unquestionably the best bass player in the world right now. No, I don’t play the bass and have not played the piano since I was a teen! I felt quite comfortable in the workshop, not only because Wooten was very welcoming but also because there were  a few of us there with no other instrument but our voices.

Wooten is a master teacher and amazing to watch in action. One day during the workshop I watched in awe while he “taught” the concept of attunement without once mentioning the word.  At that point he had been talking for a while and I suppose sensed that people were not fully getting what he meant.

He went into the centre of the circle and called up 5 people, 4 who played instruments and one who sang. Without any further instruction, he began to play a bass riff. After about a minute, he nodded to one of the musicians who then began to play his instrument in harmony with the bass riff. After another minute Wooten nodded to yet another musician and then another and then to the singer. Each of the 5 people joined in, adding their instrument to the music, in complete harmony. And right there, before our eyes, an amazing piece of music was performed, a piece that had never existed before that moment. A piece that just emerged from the attunement of one musician with another. No one musician dominated the piece; each listened carefully to the others while creating sound that wove between, above and below each other’s notes.

Teaching in a 21st century classroom is about being attuned to the “music” each of your students brings into the classroom and helping them to play their instrument well while at the same time playing in harmony with everyone else in the classroom.

What is critically important to being able to do this is for the teacher herself to be attuned to her own music. To know herself well, to know her own strengths and to know where she needs help and support.

The singer in that circle with Wooten had no idea what she was being called up to do in the centre of the room. She did however know what she could do. She also knew  how what she did could complement what others were doing.  She could not provide the same sounds that the bass or the saxophone did but this was true for all the musicians in the centre. Each could use their instruments as individuals but what they could create together, when they listened carefully to each other, was magical and more than any one could do.

A teacher who is attuned to her students sees each of them as individuals and yet also part of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Attunement is not about what usually happens when a group of musicians get together and one  starts to play a known song and others follow along.  It’s also not the same as when one musician dominates an impromptu piece, leading the others.

Attunement requires a dissolution of the sense of separation between yourself and the other. It requires paying attention to something greater than you. Something that has to be felt to be truly known.

Which is why I’m concerned that this concept is going to be ignored or downplayed even though it is so critical in teaching and learning.

Teachers are most comfortable being “in charge” but to be attuned requires teachers to follow more often than to lead.

Teachers who want to be more attuned to their students will need courage to step down from their positions of control and to bravely step away from being  at the centre of  the classroom, literally and metaphorically.

I know how disquieting this can be and have previously written about my experience in a decentred classroom.  But I also know that going through the  discomfort is a necessary step to creating a learning environment for the 21st century.