Thank you Minister Fassbender!

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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.

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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.

Be the Change

Like Water

You’ve watched Ken Robinson other education revolutionaries on TED talks. You’ve attended numerous professional development workshops on the “new” way to teach. You know something has to change but when you enter your room each morning, you are overwhelmed by the demands made on you by the students and the system. You don’t know where to start.

Start here.

Realize that this change, this transformation will not happen overnight. It will also not be easy. It will not unfold in simple, linearity from point A to point Z. It will be messy. You will be frequently frustrated. You will want to give up.

Don’t.

Your students need you to not give up. They are desperately waiting for something more than they’re getting. Some of them have given up waiting and have dropped out. Their numbers keep growing. The ones who are still in classrooms are hoping that this year, something will be different.

Take baby steps.

First change the things you can easily change. Notice how you feel when you make those changes. Notice what happens in the classroom when you introduce the changes. Be like a scientist observing an experiment.

Try titration.

Add something to the way you collect data about the students.

Add something to the way students interact with each other.

Add something to the way time is used in your classroom.

Add something to the way you see yourself as teacher.

Then watch what happens.

Make adjustments.

Evolution is a slow process.

Be patient.

There are many of us out here, working like water flowing over rock, changing the system from within.

Soon all our little molecules of change will coalesce into a stream and then into a river and the system will have been transformed, not by political decree but by the work of teachers like you and me.

Learning Environments

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The latest buzzword in educational reform is “learning environments”.  These are, according to the OECD, places where constructive, self-regulated learning, that is  sensitive to context, is fostered. Critical to the success of learning in these spaces is that “learning professionals [should be] highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement” and that they should also “encourage well-organized co-operative learning.”

This all sounds really wonderful and very 21st century but as someone who has spent almost 3 decades creating learning environments that are socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating, I can assure you that teachers are going to need much more than a text and a workshop to successfully role- shift from being primarily deliverers of content and dispensers of discipline to being “attuned to learners’ motivations” while they structure learning environments in which learners are at the centre.

It will take much more  than just a cognitive decision to change a way of being in the classroom.

If teachers do not spend time getting to know themselves, truly, and if they’re not willing to look deep into the shadows of why they do the things they do, they will be incapable of  creating for students an emotionally safe space in which miscommunication and conflict that arises amongst students and between students and the teacher is managed in a way that preserves relationships.

When a classroom becomes de-centred, when a teacher is not in complete control of all interactions,  all kinds of wonderful things can and do happen but these can be easily overshadowed if the not-so-wonderful dimensions of relationships within the learning environment are not constructively managed.

Relationships are strengthened when they can withstand, and be strengthened by the fires of conflict.  But how is a teacher to know how to deal with conflict when in her traditional role of dispenser of discipline, punishment or banishment was the norm?

Central to the success of learning environments is that teachers should ‘care’ about students’ emotional well-being but caring is not always rainbows or fuzzy Care Bears  and Hallmark cards. Caring takes courage and honesty and trust and those are not deliverable by a point and click or an announcement of a policy change.

It is not enough to be an educated adult, motivated to create a caring classroom community/learning environment.

Nothing in my undergraduate studies in Anthropology, Sociology or Psychology or my post-graduate studies in Curriculum and Instruction prepared me to know how to meaningfully manage the dynamics and dimensions of classroom relationships between students and teachers and amongst students.

I am still not aware of any teacher-education programme that directly and specifically teaches teachers, in ways beyond reading and discussing a text,  how to develop and maintain and support relationships in the classroom.  Please let me know if you do!

In the absence of such a formal program, I have learned, mostly through direct experience,  how to create a learning environment in my classroom that supports and encourages relationships between students. It is these relationships that are critical and crucial to the health of a learning environment. They are the lifeblood, the ground, of the learning environment.  Just as any biological ecosystem depends on healthy relationships between all components of the ecosystem, social learning environments cannot succeed without healthy relationships among all human beings in that environment.

It is because of this that I structure my classroom/learning environment so that it is socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually challenging.

Welcome Space

 love in classroom

As each school day begins, my colleague, Christine, stands at the door of her classroom , coffee cup in hand, greeting every student  by name as they walk in. Sometimes the greeting includes a query about their well-being or a comment on how well they did on an assignment. Sometimes it’s just a huge smile and a “Good morning”.

When I walk past her classroom before the school day begins, it  is always filled with kids.  None of them her current students. Most of them had been her students when they were in Grade 8 but even though they’re now in Grades 11 or 12, they still go to her classroom every morning.

At lunch her room is filled with even more kids as she hosts a “movie club” which is really a safe space for kids who do not easily “fit” into any stereotypical group in a high school. What must it mean for those students to have such a space where they can feel at home?

How many classrooms had you been in at the end of your 13 years of schooling?  If your experience is typical, that number should be about 48.  In how many of those classrooms did you feel welcome and safe? Like you belonged, like you mattered?

Faced with yet another barrage of cuts to our education budget, I’ve wondered why there is no widespread public outrage.  Why is there no massive public anger about the lack of resources, the overcrowded classrooms in schools? Why no parents marching in the streets  all throughout the province to restore funding for a public education system that everyone agrees is fundamentally important in a democracy?

It is not as if there is no precedent for parent protest if one considers what happens when a beloved local school is threatened with closure.

But why the silence when the public education system as a whole is under enormous threat?

Is it perhaps because, if we think about those 48 classrooms we sat in, most of what we remember is feeling  bored or unwelcome or unsafe?

The pupils of today are going to be the voting public of tomorrow. Each school day, we teachers create the ingredients for the memories each student will take with them when they enter adulthood and their roles as voters.

If we create spaces in our classrooms and in our schools that are socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating, not only will our students have better learning experiences  (as neuroscience research is proving)  but when those students become voters, they will  be more likely to fight to defend an education system for which they have fond memories.

And that would also ensure that teachers could keep teaching in public schools.

Everyone would win if more classrooms were more inviting despite egregious cuts to school district budgets during the current political climate.

And yes, this can be done.  I will share, in future posts, examples  from my time as a teacher in Apartheid -era South Africa as well as in an under-funded school in Canada.  I also suggest my post Jugaad Education.

When a local municipality recently threatened to push a road through a popular park, people took to the streets, motivated by all their memories of time spent in the park and wanting to ensure that their children had those memories too. Let’s create classroom spaces that would be as powerful a motivation to defend public education.

The Teacher’s Task in the 21st century

discipline

 In the 19th century, the good teacher was primarily a disciplinarian charged with the task of re/forming farm children into factory workers through sanctioned access to a limited set of information. She could perform this task confident that the students she was teaching did not know what she knew since books were scarce and expensive and reading a skill not high on the priority list of farming families.

To teach students then was to instil in them a preference for punctuality and performance. It was to ensure that they were aware that some knowledge and information was of more value than other types. The student in a schoolroom in the 19th century learned to stay within the lines, to follow instructions and to not question authority. All these skills were necessary for the good factory worker who was responsible for uniformity of the products of the factory.

factory

But now that manufacturing no longer drives the economic engine of many developed countries and creative problem solving is the skill most sought after by corporations who pay decent salaries, teachers who focus on discipline and control of information stunt their students’ growth and development of the kind of thinking that does not fit neatly within the lines of conformity. We are especially at a disadvantage when it comes to information – who can compete with what Google can deliver into the palms of students’ hands?

Although much can be said about the lack of resources in classrooms and in schools, there is still much that can be done despite the current attack on education budgets. We may be  limited by what we can do to stem the bleeding of our education budgets but we are not limited by what our imaginations can do in response.

If Nelson Mandela could turn his tiny cell on Robben Island into his personal gym when he went through a rigorous set of exercises every morning, and if all the political prisoners with him on the island could turn their jail into a school as the ‘old guard’ and the ‘young lions’ shared knowledge, then surely we can turn our classrooms into places that students will want to be, despite everything.

Let’s practice creative problem solving ourselves as teachers so that we can model it for our students for surely they are going to need all the problem-solving skills they can master to deal with climate change and recurring economic crises in the world they will inherit from us.

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