A Year of Empathy

Empathy is s keyword for me in 2019 and one that I want to focus on with my class, school and family. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “How will I become a person of empathy this year?” I’ve also thought about how I can lead my students and family into greater empathy for others. This post is about some of the different strategies that I want to use to develop empathy in 2019.

Four Qualities of Empathy

Empathy has several different aspects to it. One definition that I have found helpful is Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy, referenced by Brene Brown in I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008).

To be able to see the world as others see it

Wiseman’s first quality of empathy is to see the world as others see it. This requires putting your own concerns aside to view the situation through another person’s eyes. One way that I’d like to cultivate empathy in myself is to intentionally read personal memoirs, autobiographies and biographies by authors who have different lives, beliefs and challenges than I do. How can I really communicate with others who have different beliefs or values than me if I don’t work at understanding their perspectives? I haven’t done a good job at this in the past. I’ve often read narrowly, inside an echo chamber of people just like me, and that doesn’t help to foster empathy.

To be nonjudgmental

The second quality of empathy Wiseman suggests is to be nonjudgmental. Making quick judgements of another person’s situation often discounts their experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation. In other words, it is a refusal to get into the messiness and hurt of the other person’s situation. Using stereotypes to form inaccurate assumptions is easy and often damaging to others. Asking more questions and listening to others is difficult and requires huge reserves of patience. This year, I want to become a better listener, someone who can be silent and connect without feeling the need to offer advice or try to put a positive spin on things.

To understand another person’s feelings 

Wiseman’s third quality of empathy is to understand the feelings of others. We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. One habit I started in 2018, that I would like to continue this year, is stream-of-consciousness journaling. The traditional memoir style journaling, where every journal entry has completely developed thoughts and neat paragraphs, has never worked for me. It is too time-consuming and doesn’t help me get my thoughts and emotions out onto the page. Writing out random thoughts, experiences and emotions in bullet point, rapid-fire succession is far more effective. I’ve found that journaling, in this way, has allowed me to better understand my own feelings and responses. I think it has also helped me understand the feelings and responses of others.

To understand the feelings of students in my class, I want to continue using several different strategies to encourage these conversations. Over the last few months, I have started a Mood Meter in my class. The concept is very simple but effective. Students come into my class in the morning and move their name to the part of the meter that shows how they are feeling. Sometimes I ask the class if any of them would like to share about the feeling they indicated. Other times, it just helps me get an overall sense for the mood of the class.

A few days ago, I shared where I was on the meter. I told the class that I had a rough morning trying to get to school. One of my sons had decided to look for his library book just 10 minutes before we left the house. When he wasn’t successful in finding it, he burst into tears. He felt rushed and frustrated. For the duration of our trip to school, he whined about not having his book. It was amazing how this small story gave my students permission to share how they were feeling. I ended up learning much more about their lives and having a better understanding of how they were feeling that day.

To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Wiseman’s last quality of empathy is to communicate your understanding of what another person is feeling. Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” Brown suggests trying, “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

This quality is deeply connected to the second quality and reminds me of, what counsellors refer to as, active listening. The general purpose of active listening is to question, clarify and reflect back the emotion and connected circumstances. After listening and questioning, the counsellor might say, “You are feeling ___________ (insert emotion) because of ________________ (insert circumstance). Is this correct?”

Active listening in the classroom looks different than in a counselling office but there are practices that help teachers tune into students’ emotions. One of them is greeting students as they come into class. I’ll never forget watching the video clip (linked below) of Barry White Jr.’s personalized handshakes with his class and realizing the power of a simple face-to-face greeting.

Let’s be honest, I’ll never have the moves that Mr. White has but I can definitely improve what I’m doing right now. Too often, I’m sitting in front of computer screen answering emails when my students come into my classroom. Or, even worse, I’m just guarding the door to make sure my students aren’t late. How much more in-tune would I be with the emotional life of my class if I was standing outside my class greeting students face-to-face as they came in? That is one question that I would like to answer in 2019.

Morning meetings are another great idea for building community and understanding the emotional landscape of your classroom. Lisa Dabbs wrote this great post about morning meetings for Edutopia. She does a great job of answering the what, why and how of morning meetings. She also gives some great examples of how different teachers use them.

I’d love to hear any comments below about how you are building empathy in your classroom or community.

Stories Clear Familiarity Fog

Familiarity with an idea can be a really good thing. Having some exposure to a certain word or concept can speed along the learning process and build deep understanding. However, the opposite is also true. Familiarity can dull our minds and prevent us from deeper learning.

Selflessness is something we talk about a lot in my class. I want the student to understand our class as a learning community and think about what it looks like to put the needs of others before their own. Even though I want this to be a central focus of the classroom, if I come back to it in the same way too often, it loses its power and students are lulled to sleep by things they have heard before.

Fresh Stories Clear the Fog

One solution to counteract the fog of familiarity is to tell fresh, powerful stories that illustrate selflessness in a variety of ways. They allow my students to gain deeper perspectives and have fresh inspiration to serve others. Stories are also a secret weapon to engage the head and heart of a person in a way that is impossible when communicating with bare principles or propositions.

One recent example of a story that brought the concept of selflessness to life was in Suzanne Collin’s book, Hunger Games. Last week, I was re-reading the story and was struck by the selflessness of Katniss Everdeen as she volunteers as a tribute at the reaping.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the reaping ceremony is required by the Capitol to remind every district in the country of Panem of their submission to its power. Two child tributes are chosen from every district to compete in a lethal competition called the hunger games. The games require a male and female representative from each of the Districts to fight to the death in an enclosed area. Katniss is one of many impoverished residents of District 12. Her mother and younger sister, Prim, are all that is left of her family after her father died in a mine explosion years earlier. As a result of her father’s death, her mother falls into a paralyzing depression and Katniss is forced to be the primary caregiver and provider for her family.

On the night of the reaping ceremony, the mayor gives a speech reminding District 12 of their historic defeat by the Capitol and why they must offer tributes to the hunger games every year. The district’s female tribute is chosen, and to Katniss’s horror, it’s her 12-year-old sister, Prim. The crowd is disturbed by the draw of such a young tribute who will surely meet a sudden death in the arena. Katniss shakes off the shock of the moment and volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place.

To acknowledge her heroic act, the residents of District 12 touch the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and hold it out to Katniss. Collins describes this gesture as, “old and rarely used…occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love (p. 24).”

Katniss’ powerful act of love for her sister is contrasted by the selection of the male tribute that follows. Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, is also chosen as a tribute but his only brother, that can volunteer to take his place, refuses. His refusal to risk his life for his brother underlines Katniss’ radical act on her sister’s behalf. It is a love that goes deeper than family devotion.

Effie Trinket asks for volunteers, but no one steps forward. He [Peeta] has two older brothers, I know, I’ve seen them in the bakery, but one is probably too old now to volunteer and the other won’t. This is standard. Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was the radical thing.

The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins

“The radical thing” is what my students and I need to be reminded of every day. We want to be a community marked by radical devotion and servant leadership that puts the needs of others before our own. Stories like these grab our attention and inspire us out of our familiarity fog to be what we hope to be.

Do you have a story that has inspired your class lately? Tell your story or link your blog post below. I’d love to read it. If you would like to share this section of Hunger Games with your students, it is available from scholastic here.

Teachers as Human Beings

Building relationships with students is a foundational skill of a teacher. However, sometimes particular modes of instruction obstruct the teacher’s ability to build relationships, and therefore, the ability of students to learn. Teachers occupy numerous roles in their craft.  They act as tutors, counselors, evaluators, presenters, coaches, first-aiders and hosts (just to name a few). Many of these roles conceal the human-ness of a teacher.  In other words, a particular role can increase the relational distance in the teacher-student relationship making well-intentioned teachers into aliens.

Another way of illustrating this issue is to think about parenting. One role of being a father is much like law enforcement. There are certain rules of fair play in our family and when someone breaks a rule, I deal with the grievances that are reported and work to facilitate reconciliation. This often involves facilitating a small courtroom scenario where I listen carefully to both sides of the story and make an official ruling on the case. If I didn’t function in this role, I can only imagine the cycle of revenge that might occur. However, I don’t think that I would be a very good dad if I couldn’t switch out of my law enforcement role to also become a friend who has fun with them or a counselor who gives them advice. Teaching is similar to parenting in this way because no one wants a teacher that is always functioning as the rule enforcer or evaluator.

Of course, it’s easy to know that you should switch roles but difficult to create spaces where the switch can happen. In my experience, it often requires a different context and intentional planning. Struggles to find resources or parent support for experiences in different settings are real. With parenting, something as simple as taking one child out for ice cream might be all you need to create the space for a meaningful conversation. With a group of nearly 30 students, that switch of context isn’t so easy, and yet, if you are intentional about finding new opportunity to connect with your students, they seem to appear.

Finding Different Relational Spaces

Winding down the first term of school as we approached the Christmas break provided a number of opportunities to get to know my students as fellow human beings. Many of the year-end Christmas traditions in my class are focused on community-building.  In the past, I’ve approached these events as time-fillers or ways to manage students as their pre-holiday excited grew. This year was different because relationship building has become a bigger priority in my classroom.

One unexpected opportunity to connect with students was our Middle School, Christmas assembly that involved a teacher, lip sync battle. Even though performing on stage in front of 300 middle-schoolers was way out of my comfort zone, I accepted an invitation to pair up with another teacher and join the competition. Finding a Justin Bieber costume wasn’t easy and All I Want for Christmas is You was an awkward song to sing with another teacher but, in the end, we had fun with it. More importantly though, for those few moments on stage, I stepped into a different role and showed the students a different side of myself. Instead of being the “talking head” giving instructions in the classroom, I was the awkward, tall guy at the front doing my best pop-star impersonation and Fortnite, victory dances (which were terrible).

Ice skating was another grade-wide, Christmas activity that provides a unique opportunity to build relationships with students. Skating circles around an oval sheet of ice provides the perfect setting to talk with students about a variety of non-school topics. While it is still my responsibility to supervise everyone on the rink, it also provides a great space to throw some snow and have some fun with them–things that you may rarely get the chance to do in the classroom.

Rather than subjecting the students to another holiday movie, one of my teaching partners suggested that we have a class-verse-class dodgeball game. One unique part about this dodgeball duel was that both teachers jumped into the game as players. Because I don’t teach P.E. regularly, this was a rare opportunity to be on the same team as my students. Even though my class lost the game, we had a great time together and this shared experience bonded us together in a way that regular classroom interactions fail to do.

Sharing Your Experiences

I’m curious to know how other teachers create spaces to build relationships with their students as a fellow human being. I would love to read your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.

Imagination and Empathy

At a recent conference, I was asked to identify the dispositions that I valued most in a learner.   A list of words was supplied to help advance our thoughts on the question.  It included words like: resilient, innovative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative.  I selected and defended the imaginative disposition for many of the typical reasons.  I spoke about how imagination inspires innovation and how it creates a movie in the mind of readers that is necessary for reading comprehension but I never talked about one of the more important reasons that I have learned since then. Namely, the importance of imagination for developing empathy for others. J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech called, Very Good Lives, recently helped me connect the two.  In this post, I reflect on the relationship between imagination and empathy and suggest a few strategies for developing both in ourselves and others.  

What is imagination?

During the course of her commencement speech, Rowling acknowledges the role of the imagination in innovation and invention but emphasizes its transformative power.  The transformation Rowling envisions isn’t just a changed mind but also a changed heart.  In other words, she understands the imagination to help us feel what other people feel, without ever experiencing their circumstances.  

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

J.K. Rowling

How does imagination produce empathy?

According to Rowling, imagination creates empathy by allowing us to think ourselves into other peoples places.  She illustrates this from her own life telling how an early day job at Amnesty International’s headquarters required her to read horrific stories of tortured victims, executions, kidnappings and rapes.  These stories changed her life forever because she was able to think herself into the place of the victims she read about.

“Unlike any other creatures on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced.  They can think themselves into other peoples places.”  

J. K. Rowling

The evidence of this transformative impact in Rowling’s life is everywhere in her writings.  The Dursley’s treatment of Harry Potter in one small example of how Rowling invites us to feel her own compassion for those victimized and oppressed.  In her famed Harry Potter series, the Dursleys are a family of three, composed of Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin. Harry is an orphan who is forced to live with the Dursley’s after his parents are murdered by the power-hungry Lord Voldemort.  The Dursley’s keep Harry safe but treat him harshly, including confining him to a cupboard, locking him in his bedroom without meals and treating as their servant.  As the reader, thinks themselves into Harry’s place, they are provided with an opportunity to feel the loneliness, rejection and powerlessness of anyone in his position.     

Those who refuse to imagine

Of course, imagination is not automatic and sometimes it is even suppressed.  Rowling’s speech contrasts the imaginative person with the unimaginative.  Those who refuse to know about suffering and intentionally plug their ears to the voice of its victims.   

And many chose not to use their imagination at all….they refuse to hear screams or peer inside cages; they close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

J.K. Rowling

Rowling extends this logic to show that those who don’t choose empathy actually participate in acts of evil through their apathy.  

What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.  For without committing an outright act of evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy. 

J. K. Rowling

Cultivating Imagination and Empathy

Reading Rowling address challenged me to think about how I am intentionally taking time to read and listen to those who are less advantaged or suffering.  It also made me think about how I’m providing opportunities to empathize and take action on behalf of the vulnerable groups in my classroom.  I thought of two units that I have used in the past to create these spaces for empathy.  The first required my Grade Seven students, to complete a personalized novel study using a historical fiction novel where the hero/heroine is from a different culture, class and race than their own and suffers physically or emotionally in some way.  

Another opportunity I have given students to practice empathy for others is an oral storytelling unit.  To prepare for the final project in this unit, students are asked to read part of a biography on the hero of their choice who has overcome some type of adversity.  In the end, the story is told from the first person perspective–as if they were the hero.  Last year, I can remember listening to one girl in my class telling the story of how Rosa Parks refused to move bus seats in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.  At points in the story, she embodied the voice of Parks so well that it felt as though Parks was there telling us the story in person.  The class rose and gave her a standing ovation when she finished.  This was just one opportunity to identify with a person who did not have the same privileges that many of us enjoy.    

Taking Action

In the last part of her speech to the Harvard graduates, J.K. Rowling sounds a call to action that challenges the class to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless—to really enter into their story.  I hope you were challenged, as I was, to do the same.  

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existance but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.

J.K. Rowling

 I would love to hear more examples of how you are giving students opportunities to raise their voice on behalf of the those who have none in the comments below.  I’ve attached the video to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech below. 

Math Projects that Matter

Math matters when it’s connected to authentic tasks and situations in life.  Doing loads of textbook questions that aren’t connected to authentic situations isn’t engaging for anyone.  This is one of the reasons I have shifted my approach to teaching math over the last few years.  At the beginning of my teaching career, my math class consisted of marching chapter by chapter through the textbook.  In the past few years, I have moved to a project-based approach that has benefited my students in many ways.  In this post, I want to share a few of reflections that I hope will move more educators in the same direction.     

Adaptable to learners at different levels

One difficult part about teaching math is engaging students at different levels.  Unlike the textbook-driven approach, math projects can easily be customized to fit learners at higher and lower levels.  Often this is because the task is more open-ended and can be more or less structured to fit the learner.  Instead of boring advanced students with a set of questions that they quickly motor through and become disruptive to the rest of the class, math projects are easily expanded or made more complex.   

For example, in my pool project last year, I had my students build a circular, model swimming pool out of cardboard to show their knowledge about the area of circles and the volume of cylinders.  I also gave them certain requirements for the pool, such as its capacity and the target audience it would be designed for.  I made sure the target audience included people with a range of heights so that their pool would need a deep and shallow end. Once the advanced learners had this information and we developed success criteria, they began working independently.  I knew a few of my students were very advanced and challenged them to design a pool with a graduated floor.  Others, who were struggling with the general concept of volume, designed two, joint, circular pools with a flat floor.  

This adaption of the project was much more efficient than the traditional textbook approach I had taken in the past.  This adjustment didn’t require research to find more questions and answer keys.  There were no fancy math websites needed for advanced students to stay challenged.  Separate tests or evaluations weren’t necessary. Nor, did it require dividing students into ability groupings that may have prevented the more advanced learners from helping their peers.  In short, the open-ended-ness, that scared me when I started, proved important for customizing the learning to fit my students.  

More side-by-side time

One disadvantage of project-based math units it that they require more time on the front end.   The learning maps, assignment guides or learner playlists are more like a little unit a syllabus than a lesson plan.  In my experience, inquiry-based units often take many more hours of preparation than traditional units.  However, this additional time at the front-end of the unit has also bought more time mid-unit to do mini-lessons with small groups, or work side-by-side with students who need extra support.   This is a huge advantage when you consider that many parents don’t know how to help their children with math at home and others simply aren’t there to help them.  Students need assistance delivered during school and teaching math projects has been extremely helpful for this.

Student choice and engagement

I didn’t actually think about how passive my math class was until I started teaching with projects.  The first large math project I attempted asked students to design their own vacation.  Not long after the project launch, I received dozens of questions from students about the design process.  “Mr. Mayer, will I need to rent a car?” To these questions, I often answered with a question like, “How close is your hotel to the activities you are planning?” My students weren’t used to being able to make choices in math.  Narrowly defined problems with a very specific scenario and a single outcome were the norms.  Giving students dozens of choices to create and design gave them a sense of ownership and pride while engaging them deeply in mathematical thinking.  Recently, one of my students was so proud of the trip she had planned to Vancouver Island that she suggested that her family actually go on the trip at Spring Break.  Her parents adopted the idea and she was able to experience the trip she planned and budgeted for.

Cross curricular and cross competency 

In a textbook-driven approach to learning math, it’s sometimes hard to find opportunities for students to communicate about the math decisions they are making or improve financial literacy.  However, teaching math projects gave students multiple cross-curricular learning opportunities.  For example, in my vacation design project, the students were required to write a travel itinerary for their trip and make a commercial on Abode Spark to “sell” their vacation package to the class.  Writing appealing summaries and video-editing are typically not skills that students associate with math.  In fact, there were a few competencies that seemed quite unique to a project-based approach.  Skills like:

  • Students generating their own ideas about how to solve problems
  • Students comparing information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students answering questions in front of an audience
  • Students justifying their financial decisions using math
  • Student presenting their findings to an audience

I think it’s often this lack of complexity and cross-competency work that makes math boring for students.  Working on bigger projects allowed them to use many different compentencies while building their number sense.

If you would like want to shift your practice toward a project-based approach, I’ve linked some of my favourite resources below.  Or, if you have some have a resources that you would suggest, please link them in the comments below.  

Suggested Resources

No Friends in the Factory

Sometimes “eureka moments” come in that strangest places.  Two days ago, one unexpectedly arrived at a student-led conference.  The format of the conferences was slightly adjusted from the year previous.  After the students were finished explaining three areas of learning, three goals would be set. The student, parents and teacher would all set one goal based on their reflections on the term.

Having parents involved in goals-setting paid off in ways that I didn’t anticipate. In one particular conference, a parent hesitated before setting a goal for her son (let’s call him Jack).  She reluctantly added that she could only think of two areas that didn’t really relate to school.  I urged her on by telling her that it didn’t matter if they were school specific.  Her first goal was about Jack living peacefully with his younger sister.  He was always bickering with her and he needed to show more maturity and patience.  The second, suggested better eating and sleeping patterns for next term.  Jack was frequently staying up late and eating too much junk food before bedtime.  This was causing morning grogginess and making him miss breakfast on school days. 

Before the conferences, I had written out my report card comments for each of the students but hadn’t yet published them for the parents to see.  Jack’s comment communicated two areas for improvement that paralleled the two areas his mother brought up.  One was attentiveness during class, I mentioned that he seemed tired and his lack of attentiveness regularly left him confused about instructions in class. The other was constant bickering and joking with other students that distracted him during independent work times.  What first seemed like unrelated behaviours in different contexts were actually linked.  Relational patterns at home mimicked those at school and bad sleep habits at home minimized his focus during class.    

My “Ah ha” moment in this situation wasn’t the link between home and school.  Every teacher repeatedly observes direct links between the home and classroom as they get to know their students.  The surprise was how often views of education in our society exclude or minimize social and emotional learning.  Why do we compartmentalize social and emotional learning and pretend that it is a non-academic skill that doesn’t influence academic areas? 

Schools modelled on factories

Ken Robinson elegantly explains one answer in his TED Talk called, Changing Educational Paradigms. 

 He shows how our current system of education was modelled on the interests and in the image of industrialism. The result is that schools today are still organized along factory lines.  Examples of the factory influences that persist in school are ringing bells, grouping children into batches based on their “manufacturing date,” separating curriculum into separate subjects and standardized testing.  

Further, Robinson argues that the current educational system is also structured on an enlightenment view of the intelligence.  Knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning were the primary marks of an intelligence in this period.  The educational system was built for compliance to this narrowly defined type of intelligence.  Consequently, the western world was split into two types of people, the academic and non-academic.  As it turned out, most people, who didn’t happen to be good at those few valued skills were ostracized by the system.   

Factory thinking persists

Robinson’s explanation, of what I’ll call, factory education and intelligence, continue to be very deeply embedded in how we think about education.  I think it is one of the reasons that we minimized social and emotional learning (SEL) in our schools.  Examples of this are everywhere in my teaching experience.  Over the last few years, our Middle School has developed house teams across our school to build relationships between students from grades 6-8.  Every student, teacher and educational assistant in the school is divided into four houses team. Each is associated with a colour and an animal–almost like the house system in Harry Potter.  A couple of times throughout the year, we have full days of school that are dedicated to house activities.  These are jam-packed, fun days, full of activities that help students forge relationships with one another.  The response of the school community to this initiative was mixed. Some students fully embraced the day–turning up in the team colours–excited for a day of competition.  Others decided to stay home because we weren’t doing any “work” at school.  The message from the latter group of students seemed clear, building relationships with students wasn’t what school was for.  School was exclusively for “academics.”

The factory view of intelligence also explains why many parents in our school communities wrongly diagnosis their children’s learning struggles.  For example, take the parent who sees their child’s difficulty with math skills and automatically concludes that enrolling them in Kumon is the solution. Kumon may help their student, and I certainly think this program does occasionally help children learn.  However, linear connections between lack of academic skill and additional practice questions often misses the true problem because of a dumbed-down view of human intelligence.  In this type of scenario, considering SEL type questions is just as important, if not more important, than considering the skills themselves.  For example, a parent in this situation might ask:

  • What are my child’s beliefs about math? Does he/she think they are good or poor at math? Why? Are their experiences or people that are perpetuating these beliefs?
  • What is my child’s level of confidence in math?  How could I boost this confidence level?
  • Does my child understand the purpose of learning this particular skill math?
  • Would it be more motivating to try this skill in a real situation?

Education for the head and heart

These kinds of social and emotional realities have a huge effect on student learning and academic performance.  The research to support these connections is well documented. Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges (Aronson, 2002; cited in Durlak et al., 2011; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014).   According to a 2011 meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students, those who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs.  

UBC professor, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl who is a leading expert on SEL, also makes a connection between academic performance and the implementation of social and emotional learning programs in schools. 

In the video above, Schonert-Reichl also references the CASEL organization who have documented similar studies.  Another helpful place to reference SEL research on this point is Vanessa Vega’s article for Edutopia updated with the current research in June 2017.  Her summary of the current research makes Schonert-Reichl’s same point.  Human intelligence involves the whole person-including their emotional life, beliefs, and past experiences.  

That is not to say that academic achieve legitimizes SEL programs.  The development of SEL dispositions and competencies are connected to a greater vision of human flourishing that stands on their own merits. However, showing that SEL development influences academic performance proves that our enlightenment views of intelligence are too simplistic.  When education ignores the heart of the learners to focus on their heads both suffer.   No friendships in “the factory,” means less learning. 

To move our school culture away from the factory model, we need a new paradigm to think about learning.  We also need a different metaphor for thinking about schools and how we define intelligence.  Robinson gives us an alternative picture in his TED talk called, How to Escape Death Valley.  He reminds us that “…education is not a mechanical system, it is a human system. It’s about people.”  Robinson suggests that we should think about schools as organic, living environments that need to be nurtured.  At about 16:25, in the video below, Robinson compares schools to a dormant garden that need to be tended and nurtured in order to grow.  This metaphor is infused with incredible hope for the future. As teachers tend and care for their students, they will flourish.    

I would like to encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to Robinson’s whole talk.  It’s one of my personal favourites. I would also love to read any of your thoughts on these ideas in the comments below. 

Reasons to Read Aloud

It makes you a better reader and writer

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended that I listen to an episode from the Read Aloud Revival podcast that changed my view on teaching writing. Host, Sarah Mackenzie, asked Andrew Pudewa how students become better writers. His answer, in a nutshell, was they need to listen to books that are read aloud.

Pudewa’s link between reading aloud and writing starts with the belief that you cannot get something out the brain that you have not put in. Reading feeds the brain with new characters, story plots and vocabulary to help it produce written work. In another article on the same topic, Pudewa quotes Louis L’Amour saying, “A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first” However, the input-output cycle is not quite that simple. Good readers are often not good writers. One of the reasons for this, according to Pudewa, is because the writer is not listening to good reading. By listening to stories, that are just above their current reading level, students build up their brain’s database with advanced vocabulary and better absorb formal grammatical structures used in writing.

writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first

Louis L’Amour

He holds that reading by yourself doesn’t always yield this same result because the literature may be too simple, words or sections may be skipped and grammar may be ignored. By contrast, a good reader will help their listeners catch the nuances in meaning, grammatical structures and cultural or knowledge references that readers may not have.

Are homeschooling, read-aloud fanatics the only ones who think this way? Clearly not, in a 2018 study, conducted by researchers Colin Macleod and Noah Forrin at the University of Waterloo and published in the journal Memory, found that a number of significant relationships between hearing words read aloud and memory retention. If you are interested in investigating this further, Dylan Hendrick’s recent blog post summarizes a few of Macleod and Forrin’s findings.

It builds community

This summer I listened to The Hobbit with my kids. They loved it! The narrator was amazing. His different voices alone, had my three-year-old captivated even though she barely understood what he was saying. As we built a listening routine, I was surprised to find that it was good quality time with my kids that led to significant conversations. The same is true of the time I have spent reading aloud as a teacher. When I find a book that excites a fair percentage of my class, they always ask for and look forward to read aloud time. As I read, we laugh together, experience the high and low emotions of the characters together and usually watch the movie together. All of these things created a shared experience and build relationships.

What is true for students is true for you

Listening to books that are read aloud not only makes students better, it also makes teachers better. Let me explain what I mean. I have four children under the age of eight. From the time I get up in the morning, until the time I sleep at night, these little people swarm our house. There is little time for any kind of uninterrupted reading. Perhaps you don’t have four kids but I’m sure you can identify with the busyness that can plague our lives. Listening to audiobooks is a way to stay literate and relevant as a teacher. Even when I don’t have time to sit down with a coffee and a book, I do have slices of time when I can listen to books. Listening to books also inspires me to read other books and buy more books. The result is an improvement in my reading and writing ability–improving my ability to teach reading and writing . Realistically, it will help me teach everything with more clarity and understanding.

Tips for Reading Aloud or Listening to Books

  • Pick the right book. If you are reading aloud to your family or to your class, it helps to have a book that is written for reading aloud. Some books have short, choppy prose that difficult to read. One the other hand, picture books–like The Lorax–are written using rhyme and rhythm that is intended for listening pleasure. One of my personal favourites for middle school students, is the illustrated version of The Lightning Thief . A family favourite is The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden. Yan Glasser’s smooth writing style and short chapters are perfect for reading aloud.
  • Pick the right genre. Certain genres are easier to follow as a listener. For example, listening to one of Malcom Gladwell’s stories, is much more compelling in audio than persuasive writing with fine distinctions and detailed arguments.
  • Find the right audiobook app or supplier . If you don’t want to read aloud, you could find an app that does it for you. The app I would recommend is Audible –Amazon’s audiobook app. It has the best selection of audiobooks, is very user-freindly and reliable. Our library also has a few apps. One is called OverDrive, there is also one called Libby that I have on our iPad to download audiobooks–yours might too. There is also a good chance that your local library is well-stocked with a number with a number of CD audiobooks–if still have a machine that plays those.
  • Pick the right reader. When you download audiobooks, make sure that you sample the readers voice. If you are anything like me, it will be really hard to endure multiple chapters a voice that you find annoying. If you are reading to your class, you will want to model the best expression, pacing and funny voices that you can. But don’t be afraid to make mistakes–these will be instructive for your class too.
  • Pick the right time and place. Scheduling in a routine of reading before bedtime, on Sunday afternoons or during workouts is a ideal but not always possible. The great part about audiobooks, is that you can download them onto an app and listen whenever you have downtime. Are you going on a road trip, taking a hike, or doing an workout? Why not listen to an audiobook? Do you have a block after lunch that is set aside for reading or creative writing? Why not mix it up and read a book to your class–or listen to an audio book? Having a reading space with ambient lighting and comfortable chairs or pillows is great for reading aloud to a class. I often find a relaxed place in the library to read to my class.

Reflection

  • Do you read aloud to your students? Why or Why not?
  • What other reasons are there for reading aloud to students or listening to audiobooks as a teacher?

Teachers Making Themselves Students

An Awkward Teacher Report Card

A few days ago, I was listening to George Couros’ book Innovator’s Mindset and he posed a question that caught my attention,“What is it like to be a student in your classroom?”  Couros’ question shifted my thinking about life in my classroom. I began to wonder how my students were experiencing lessons, activities and feedback in my class. To understand their point of view, I asked my students to give me a teacher report card. The awkwardness of the situation didn’t grip me until I was about to upload my Google Form survey.  Suddenly, I was filled with hesitations and unlikely scenarios began floating through my head. Would one of my students take this opportunity to vent all of their frustrations? Would my class really be able to give me any meaningful feedback?  Coming back to my senses for a moment, it was obvious that fear was blurring my vision

At first, I wasn’t sure why I was stalling but then it hit me–a power shift was occurring.  By giving my class the ability to participate in my formation as a teacher, I was sharing power.  In a way, my class and I were switching roles–they were being given the role of the evaluator and I was taking the role as the student.  Through this role reversal, I discovered that making myself a student was a vulnerable practice that was necessary for my continued growth.

Teachers Who Stop Learning

At the Simon Fraser University, my alma mater, many of the education students identified with the idea of becoming a “life-long learner.”  However, the life-long disciplines required to continue learning are difficult to maintain.  In fact, anyone who has out-lived the magical five-year mark in their teaching career, knows how easy it is to slide from “life-long learner” to “life-long lecturer.”  In other words, it is easy for teachers to become so comfortable in their position or curricular areas that they stop learning. Learning usually involves some kind of struggle but if teachers are too comfortable, they are usually not ready to lean into that struggle. Getting too comfortable could mean that a teacher gets stuck into stale patterns of educating that they are not passionate about.  It could even mean substituting creative endeavours for too much Netflix.  Whatever the case may be, none of us want to get to the place where we stop learning.  

A 41-Year-Old Starts Cello Lessons

cello

One way to counter patterns of lax learning is to intentionally look for learning challenges.  One inspiring example of this is in the second chapter of Andy Crouch’s book, Playing God, where he recalls the story of learning to play the cello at age 41–with no previous experience.  He remembers walking to his instructors house and with a tinge of anxiety “knowing that he was going to spend the next hour failing or flailing” as he struggled to play his scales.  Crouch notes that 15 years had passed since he had a teacher and he knew it was going to be difficult to make himself a student again.  

At one point, Crouch replays a cello lesson experience where his pinky finger would not reach the correct position on the fretboard so his instructor moved around behind him and put his hand on Crouch’s hand to reposition it.  After struggling together for a few moments to get the hand position, he was still unsuccessful. This whole experience left a lasting impression on Crouch because he couldn’t remember a teacher physically positioning his hands since childhood. In a sense, he was being treated like a child and had to have the humility and vulnerability to accept his position as a student.  As I read Crouch’s account of this learning experience, it really highlighted the vulnerability of the learning process and the importance of engaging in these kind of learning challenges as a teacher.

Taking Learning Challenges

For Crouch, becoming a cello player was the answer to a learning challenge that he was searching for.  By “learning challenge,” I mean that Crouch’s choice to learn this instrument wasn’t required by an employer or outside authority–it was self-imposed.  In later section of his book, Crouch mentioned that he was already an accomplished pianist and didn’t really need to master another instrument. In this sense, Crouch is someone who, even though he had experienced success as a writer and musician, stepped out of his comfort zone to continue growing as a learner.      

In his cello learning experience, Crouch exemplifies what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.  He is someone who is actively owning his own learning and seeking out new learning experiences to continue growing. This is the opposite of a person who works inside his/her known strengths and becomes increasingly fearful of new areas of learning. Knowing and developing your strengths is definitely an important step for anyone. However, a teacher who is constantly working within his/her comfort zone encourages a fixed mindset simply because it decreases their ability to wade into unknown areas with their students.   

Moving From Growth Mindset to Growth Heart-set

Taking on a learning challenge, for Crouch, goes much deeper than simply cultivating a growth mindset, he understands it as a spiritual discipline.  That is, he suggests that taking on the role of student has the potential to shape ones mindset and heart-set. One change is deeper than the other. The change Crouch envisions goes deeper than a change of “mindset,” it touches  the motivations and emotions of the learner.  He understands this cello learning challenge as having potential to transform the whole person.  For example, consider Crouch’s reasons for deciding to learn cello.  He says that he learn the cello because:

    • It humbled him by making him return to the basics
    • It reminded him of how little he really knows and has experienced
    • It helps to wean him from negative uses of power and the self-importance that accompany even the slightest bit of success.
    • It modeled learning, growing and stretching to his family
    • It contributed to a culture of creation rather than consumption

By stating reasons like increased “humility” for learning the cello, he is signalling that these kind of experiences change his mind, attitude and potentially even his desires.   

All of Crouch’s reasons for learning the cello, are also reasons that make me want to look for learning challenges as a teacher.  To be honest, I like to identify myself a teacher who is in control, as one who assesses and offers correction others. However, constantly thinking of myself in these ways can too easily lead to control-freak tendencies and abuses of power in the classroom.  Taking a personal learning challenge is a great way to detoxify those ways of thinking, cultivate empathy for students who struggle and create a culture of risk-taking in my classroom.

Right now, one learning challenge for me is playing the guitar.  I’ve never played a stringed instrument in my life before so I’ve struggled to make progress over the last few years.  I still haven’t completely mastered the F cord but I like to update my class on my learning journey.  I want them to understand that I’m also a struggling learner and I don’t ever want to be a teacher that stops learning.  What about you?  I would love to hear about some of the learning challenges that you have pursued and where it has taken you.  Please leave a comment for me in below.

Reflection

What are you learning challenges are you taking that you could share with your class?

How are you being attuned to the vulnerabilities of your students by making yourself vulnerable as a learner?


Photo by Maruska R

Creating More Than We Consume

We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the centre of the home with things that reward skill and active engagement.  Andy Crouch

A few days ago, I was struck by the quote above while reading Andy Crouch’s book called, The Tech-Wise Family.  Creating more than I consume sounds simple but it’s difficult to put into practice.  As I watch my son practice the piano, I’m reminded of how much harder it is to make music than listening to it.  Creating music takes time, effort and skill, but it’s much more fulfilling than pushing a button to upload a song.  I also love to make pizza for my family but it takes work.  Shopping for fresh ingredients, making the dough in advance and preparing the toppings takes time, but the final product brings people together–and tastes delicious.

The reverse is true of the time I spend consuming information.  Scrolling through updates on my phone doesn’t require any skill (our three-year-old can do it) and it’s a relatively passive process that doesn’t engage my imagination.  It’s not that I always want an overly engaging activity that requires effort. Watching a movie at the end of the day can help me relax.  On the other hand, I think over-exposure to unengaged, uses of technology keep me from experiencing some of the best things in life.

In the second chapter of his book, Crouch makes a similar contrast.  He asks the reader to think about the things on the main floor of their house that promote active engagement.  He gives musical instruments, books, board games, and wall paintings, as examples of things that require kids to engage, develop skill and potentially take a risk.  He contrasts these things with other electronic devices in our homes that almost work by themselves.  He describes these items as, “…those toys that work on their own–that buzz and beep and light up without developing any skill.”  Crouch’s commitment to shaping his space with engaging things means these devices must be put in their proper place–on the outer margins of the space.

image
Photo by Academy of Art Design

As a teacher, I couldn’t help reflecting on how the educational space I create in my classroom can either shape my students into passive consumers of content or engaged makers and creators.  I learned this the hard way in my first couple of years of teaching.  In my second year of teaching grade one, I decided to do a pilot project involving digital learning centres.  The plan was to attach two or three smart TVs to my classroom wall and create interactive centres using iPads that were wirelessly connected.  The idea seemed good in theory but when the TVs were actually installed, they overwhelmed the space.  When the parents in my class saw the barrage of screens hanging on the walls of my room, they were horrified.  Not completely understanding their response, I asked one parent why she was disturbed by them.  She said, “It just looks bad having so many TVs as the focal point of your room.”  Looking back on it, TVs completely dominated my classroom. It wasn’t like I could close the curtains on the TVs for story time. They were constantly inviting the kids to passive consumption of information.  Even though I didn’t intend on using these devices simply for entertainment, my classroom space was sending the wrong message.

On the other hand, last year, the computer lab at our school was converted into a Maker Space.  The rows of desktop computers were taken out and replaced with shelves full of tools, construction materials, robotics kits, breadboards, snap circuits and Keva blocks.  The space itself was inviting kids to create.  It was providing a learning environment that invited students to design or try to make something for the first time.  It invited students to activities that required skill and active engagement.

One engaging feature of my own classroom that rewards skill is a large shelf full of books beside the door.  The commercial fluorescent lights don’t invite reading but I was recently inspired by one of our grade six teachers who opted to use three or four lamps to light her room instead of the tube lights.  As a result, her room has an ambient Starbucky feel that makes you want to curl up with a coffee and a book.

Living in a culture so focused on consuming, it’s easy for me to forget how important it is to fill the spaces in my life with things that reward engagement, skill development and problem-solving.  As an educator who embraces an inquiry-driven approach to teaching, I’m endeavouring to shape the space of my classroom in ways that invite engagement creativity and imagination.

Reflection

  • Does your classroom space reward skill and active engagement?
  • Are there a few things you could add or subtract to make it more engaging for students?

I would love to hear any of your thoughts, reflections or feedback in the comments.

A Teacher’s Shield of Perfectionism

I’ve never really thought of myself as a perfectionist, probably because I thought of perfectionism as synonymous with obsessive-compulsive patterns of behaviour.  I’m not the person who readjusts the picture in the room every time I walk into until “it fits.” I’m not the person who rearranges the books on my bookshelf until it “feels right,” therefore, I’m not a perfectionist.   That is the way I thought about it until this summer when two discoveries came together in an interesting way that changed my mind.

The first discovery was the realization that I didn’t know myself very well.  During the last few months, I’ve been reading Brad Lomenick’s book, H3 Leadership, where he underlines the importance of leaders knowing themselves.  Lomenick explains how knowing yourself helps you make important decisions, find areas you are passionate about and realize when you need support.  As I reflected on my own life, I realized that low levels of self-knowledge were holding me back from being an effective leader but I wasn’t sure why.  Was I not seeking feedback from those around me? Was I not taking enough time to reflect on my own passions, skill set, or areas of weakness? I wasn’t sure.

A few weeks later, I found myself listening to Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.  In chapter four, she describes perfectionism as a shame-avoidance technique that blinds people to who they really are.  I instantly understood one of the primary reasons I didn’t know myself–I was attempting to escape feelings of shame through perfectionism.  

What is perfectionism?

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is a negative mindset that keeps us from knowing who we really are.  In her book, she describes it as “a defensive move” focused on hustling for the approval of others.

Roman Shield

Perfectionism is a defensive move.  It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.

How does it affect learning?

When I embrace perfectionism as a teacher it means that I take fewer risks in my learning.  I don’t create as much as I should because I’m too worried that my work won’t measure up to my colleagues or students in some way.  Sometimes it means, I don’t try new strategies or lesson ideas in my classroom because I don’t want the students to see one of my lessons flop.  Ironically, this would be the best way to model a growth mindset to them.  At other times, it means that I don’t ask other teachers for help because I want to be perceived as being omnicompetent. Putting up a perfectionist front, may also mean that I over-schedule myself and have no margin for relationships with others because I don’t want to disappoint people by saying no.   It could also mean that I want to appear to be an ultra multi-tasker that does hundreds of tasks per day “naturally” without much effort–while I’m really burning out.

What cures perfectionism?

Though I don’t expect any quick fixes to my own perfectionist tendencies, Brown does suggest a few helpful guidelines her book to counter the self-destructive and addictive nature of perfectionism.

  • Create. The creative process requires some level of vulnerability.  It requires that we open up the “cracks” in our armour and be who we really are.  Those cracks are the things that others can identify with and respond to.
  • Own your story.  Brown says that we really only have two choices when it comes to own story.  We can either own our stories (even the messy ones) or we stand outside them.  Standing outside them causes us to deny our vulnerabilities and imperfections and orphan the parts of us that don’t fit in with who /what we think we’re supposed to be.  It also causes us to hustle for other people’s approval of our worthiness.
  • Embrace our common humanity.  Recognizing that feelings of personal inadequacy, suffering, and failure are part of our shared common experiences helps us normalize these parts of our lives and embrace them.
  • Bust perfectionist myths.  Believing myths like, “The perfect life is really possible” and responding to failure with “It would have been perfect if I would have applied more time and energy” only makes perfectionism worse. Brown reminds us that perfection is more about perception than internal motivation, and perceptions cannot be controlled–no matter how much time, effort and money we apply.

A final cure to perfectionism connects to the theme of worthiness in Brown’s book.  She says that wholehearted people, that have the courage to be vulnerable are characterized by a deep sense of worthiness.

Gospel Worthiness

As a Christian, I think that the gospel has the power to help me own my story and give me the sense of worthiness that she describes.  The story of the gospel, written in the Bible, is that God has provided a covering for shame through the perfect life of Jesus.  In Revelations 3:16, the “white garments” that cover the shame of the perfectionists Jesus is speaking to, is “bought” from Jesus. The white garments Jesus refers to is a symbol of his perfect life that is imputed to believers through faith.  These garments are not earned by our perfect moral life.  They are morally perfect but they are supplied as a gift by an outside party.  However, those white clothes do give me the confidence of forgiveness and worthiness before God–even in the mist of failure and embarrassment.     

Questions for Reflection

Is perfectionism preventing you from knowing yourself?

Is perfectionism locking you in a fixed mindset that prevents your growth as an educator?

I would love to know if you can identify with my experience or see this at work in your own practice.  Please leave me a comment below.