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Saving Summer: Amygdala and The Brain

Teaching is stressful, there is no doubt or debate. And it’s also joyous, satisfying, and filled with discovery and success.

But let’s get back to the stress for a moment so we can move forward with more moments of joy, satisfaction, and discovery.

My buddy Sharon and her Brainiacs are developing a PD session for SEL/Teachers/Students. Tangentially, I’m developing the digital curriculum, along with her and other colleague’s input. When we talk about preparing students for their futures, not our pasts, we must have a deep understanding or exploration of what is happening to our brains in the digital world. We must share this knowledge, so students can adequately reflect, practice mindfulness, and know when to take on that “big view.” Elena Aquilar’s post, “5 Simple Lessons for Social and Emotional Learning for Adults” was a deja-vu moment–my husband was just advising me of these ideas yesterday while we had street tacos at the local lunch truck. Take the big view:

“Lesson 4: Observe Your Emotions”

We are not our emotions. If we can practice observing them — seeing ourselves experience emotions from 10,000 feet above earth — we are more likely to make decisions that don’t emerge from them. We might notice that sometimes they’re powerful and gripping, and sometimes they’re lighter and less sticky. It helps to practice non-attachment to emotions. They’re just emotional states and they come and go — and remember that we have some control over these states. Sometimes I visualize my emotions as weather patterns: There are storms and calm skies, heavy rain, and light winds. They always change. I visualize myself as a tree experiencing these emotions that come and go.

An article posted in the New York Time’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, “When Is Speech Violence?” walks through the key points of amygdala hijacking and the effects of chronic stress.

“What’s bad for your nervous system, in contrast, are long stretches of simmering stress. If you spend a lot of time in a harsh environment worrying about your safety, that’s the kind of stress that brings on illness and remodels your brain. That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.”

A school year is a long stretch of ‘simmering stress.’ Whose job is it to maintain the physical and emotional safety of a building? In truth, everyone is a stakeholder. Building trust and relationships that can find strength in discourse and dialogue, strong respect and cordial working relationships are the desired culture of any building. And as the Stoics believed, it is not what happens to us that affect us, but how we view and control our thinking about events. What if we all pledged to think about the school stress as a means to practice our own care and mindfulness?

In the meantime, I’m reading a book my husband recommended to me a few months back, The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, first published in 1973. Yeah, not exactly a little light summer reading, but it’s what I need right now: hefty intellectual grips by which to grab onto the rocky surface, and climb up. Getting a new perspective or two is a great way to get that higher view.

And though I can’t control others behaviors, I will strive to speak the truth, ask questions, seek answers and common ground.

 

 

 

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Question Everything.

agony

A student who’s in the AVID program at school recently asked for ‘help’ in writing some “Level 3” (based on Costa’s work) questions. Having taken AVID training myself a few years ago, and created Levels of Questions work, he knew I was a go-to source. However, what he was not understanding that “giving” him questions was not appropriate nor was it helpful. But at least he’s honest–he just wanted the “answers” in the form of questions. He didn’t want to do the mental heavy lifting. And he’s not alone–far from it. Students have been parroting their purposes for learning things like pull-string talking dolls:

Me: “Why are you learning CERs?”

Them: “So we can get a good education.”

Me: “No–how do they help you learn?”

Them: “So we can learn.”

Me:

There are several factors I can think of why the wheels are off the bus, but the wheels are off indeed. So time to figure out how to get some traction going again.

No more Mrs. Nice Teacher. (If I ever was.)

Back to foundational lessons, and the one that gets the most learning mileage includes questioning strategies. In order to be an independent learner, we must be able to ask questions.

Here are some good resources I’m digging into, and you might find useful, too.  Some I’ve created, and am happy to share.

Mix Things Up: 3 Student-Centered Approaches that Balance “I Do, You Do, We Do.”

 

Postscript:

https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/blooms-digital-taxonomy-verbs
https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/blooms-digital-taxonomy-verbs

 

 

 

postscript: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/08/17/five-critical-skills-to-empower-students-in-the-digital-age/

postscript: https://educatech.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/4-ways-to-ask-better-questions/

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Strength to fall, strength to fail, and courage to rise

peanuts-tarot

I am not a Tarot card reader, though I’ve always appreciated the art, both the visual art and the reading art of it. The reading of people is an art form I lack, woefully. Sometimes human behavior mystifies me, and I fill in my lack of knowledge with pure lizard brain responses. Or maybe it is that I read people all too well, but haven’t developed the kind, soft tools to maneuver or add nuance to these interactions, especially when they go south. Unfortunately for my personal and professional relationships, this doesn’t always take the form of gentle, self-reflective musing, but bursts forth, unconfined, in a shower of detritus, flinging emotional responses. In other words: me and my big mouth.

One such big mouth moment happened recently. When these moments happen, I think, analyze, reflect and seek to gain understanding so I can avoid it in the future, handle it differently, and get to the root of the issue. I will always respond to a student in tears with a protective momma bear instinct, but in this case, I question my biases that have been brewing for months now. I am angry at how children have been left out of this conversation, intentionally and egregiously by a certain politician and his followers. Let me restate: not left out, but further abandoned and marginalized with exacting motives.

These motives are embedded with so many historical precedents it boggles the mind. Do we ever learn?! No outcome for this amount of hatred is going to have faithful, hopeful, or loving landing spot. We crashed the towers fifteen years ago, and we’re still falling hard to the ground.

There are many Muslim students at my school who are anxious, even slightly terrified, of current political events. When I saw a child in full Muslim dress, of whom we have many, and this child is distraught, did I overreact because not only are students of this faith currently being targeted by a certain ‘politician’ and his minions? Did I grossly project my concerns, or what I’ve been witnessing, absorbing that level of anxiety? And if that is even a tiny possibility–what do I do now?

He is also seditiously targeting Hispanic and Latino students as well. And the white kids are most likely confused, and the Black children have been hearing the angry, ignorant banter against them for generations. Please do not misunderstand: reflection is painful — if this bias in any way informed my response then I need to get myself in check. It was just a girl crying because of all the emotions that come with being a 7th grader, and trying to follow the rules. And when she didn’t follow the rules and was chastised by another person, she was upset and came to me. Nothing more. Right?

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. As it gets further away, the children are younger and have no living memory, but their families do. And we’ve gone further away as a nation from the place we were on September 12. Or at least I feel this way–that may not be true. I honestly don’t know anymore. I do know I am feeling more protective, more vigilant, and less tolerant of deceit and bigotry. Especially when it comes from family, whom I have no control over, or friends, which I do. I cannot imagine being a teacher and considering voting for one of the candidates. He has told us exactly who he is. We need to believe him.

As for our students from all walks of life, experiences, creed, color, faith and nationhood, I am asking my colleagues to consider one thing — we are living in a new situation and context that we have not faced before as a nation or as teachers. If you had told me fifteen years ago that we would be in this place now with normalized lying and hate mongering I wouldn’t have believed you. We flew flags, we prayed, we cried, and we held the hearts of heroes in our hands. We wanted them and their families to be helped, supported, and nurtured. Now Congress won’t pass funding to help the first responders who have many long-term health issues. I am not sure where the money that was raised went. Did it make it to the families? And why is a politician allowed to make the same false arguments and conclusions that were done to Japanese Americans during WWII? How can his followers be so hypocritical, and forget painfully learned lessons?

The tower tarot, when upright, is a sign of upheaval, disaster, and chaos.

Just like a wall.

When upside down, it’s avoidance of chaos. Just like when the walls come tumbling down.

I am self-reflective, but let this be known: I will always stand up for a crying child, and never apologize for this. Sometimes my big mouth is right, and I hope we all have better ears to listen. I have faith in this, and faith in myself to get this right.

 

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WIHWT: Taking Sides

Gustave Dore hercules

I wish I had written this: Taking Sides: Revolution or Oppression.

Our children’s fears indict us all.

Teaching critical thinking skills is not an option. It never was, but seemed to be kept for the elite or college-bound.

One cannot teach a skill in isolation. It cannot be a stand-alone, one-off concept. Skills must always ALWAYS be connected to a bigger understanding and knowledge building. Silo teaching “may help teachers, but does nothing to help students.” It’s imperative to make the distinction between the skill, its assessment, mastery and its application.

About three years ago many teachers collaborated to create a unit on water. Coincidentally, in Ainissa Ramirez’s article “Smashing Silos, water is also used as a cross-content topic: 

One question you might have is: “How do you apply these new ways of teaching to the standards?” There are many topics that can be taught by showing the interrelation and complexity of issues while still teaching the fundamentals and linking to the standards. A key topic in the 21st century is water. This is a challenge that our children will certainly have to face. The topic of water does not fall under just history, science, math, political science or economics — it falls under all of them. As recently as 2012, The Economist2 wrote a special report entirely on water. Why not prepare students now for problems with complexity?

But I cannot explain my abstract pedagogy to others sometimes. That I have the expertise, the volume of work — units, lessons, ideas, texts, etc. I don’t speak the same language, and it gets lost in translation.

But allow me to strive for clarity: skills are critical to teach. The direct instruction of teaching even the deceptively simple task of finding a central idea cannot be separated from content. But it is our job as ELA teachers to teach and assess the skill, and then by grace, goodwill, or sheer determination the other content area teachers will understand it’s not optional. 

Someone asked me a fantastic question today, and asked specifically what and how I teach ‘central idea.’ I have many lessons for this, but I couldn’t answer, because my instruction evolves with new information and learning all the time. It’s like trying to pinpoint the moment where a snake decided to become a skink.

http://morgana249.blogspot.com/2014/09/5-modern-reptiles-that-give-birth-to.html
oh hai der

After careful study and reading, my interpretation: 

Main Idea: topic.

Central Idea: topic and author’s purpose – thesis

Theme: complex, universal truth and exploration

Some suggest central idea is intended for informational text, while them is intended for literary works. Some even use these terms interchangeably, which makes teaching it difficult. 

via GIPHY

TOPIC IS NOT THEME.

TOPIC IS NOT THEME.

TOPIC IS NOT THEME.

Okay. I’m home now.

My apologies: the gravitas that this post demands slipped past me. It’s still summer, after all. I have one more week, kind of, sort of, but not really.

Here’s where I landed:

The work of a PLC is to focus, with laser intensity, a few things and teach them exceptionally well. Preferences and bias for instruction matter only in the instance of what do they do when they ‘get it’ and when they don’t. And it all matters. My life as a reader and writer serves my students well. It provides authenticity. Someone else’s choice of text is just that: their choice.

I cannot teach without the support and collaboration from other content areas. I cannot teach in isolation. The compelling urgency to make connections and allow for talk lightens the shadows and the burden.

A mentor said to me years ago that their grades can’t be more important to me than they are to them. I finally really understand that now. It’s not about ‘accountability’ or ‘responsibility’ –two words that are used as code for ‘lazy’ and ‘poverty problems.’

It is my job to make the learning important to one and all because it is their life.

Their life.

That’s the only side.

 

PS “Kick these instructional strategies to the curb.”

 

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Match up: texts, teachers, and students

The back of the cereal box of our times?
The back of the cereal box of our times?

This morning I promised myself not to touch either hand-held device, my cell phone or i-Pad, for at least five hours today. So far, so good. Lately I’ve acquired the odd habit of setting up arbitrary goals for myself, little mind games where only I know the rules. For example, in June, I told myself ‘no beer for a year.’ I really like beer, and though not trying to punish myself, just wanted to see if I could do it. Last night it got a little tricky because all I wanted to do was go out for a beer and nachos with my hubby, and instead we went through Dairy Queen drive-through and I traded a beer for a Peanut Buster Parfait. I have about one to two of those a year, so I guess I met my quota. Dang, it’s only July, too.

The other goal I set for myself was to try to do Camp NaNoWrMo. It’s July 7, and that means 6 days of only blog writing, which “doesn’t count.” All that’s happened is I am acutely aware that I haven’t written any drafts of fictional substance for months, and I’m overthinking everything. Too distracted, too grumpy, too much caffeine and not enough water. Focus, woman! Focus!

via GIPHY

This post is born of the fantastic Facebook pages/groups I’m honored to be in, specifically Notice & Note. Subscribers/members tend to post two types of questions: ‘What are some good text suggestions for X age group/Y skill or literary device,’ and ‘Does anyone have any suggestions on how to track student growth?’ I’ve already explored my plans for The Book Whisperer’s ideas, and am very excited about the how/why.

Now for the ‘what.’

I can’t read anymore. If a real, paper and bone book is in my hands, I have misplaced my reading glasses, or the light’s too far away, or I can’t get comfortable. If the text is on my Kindle, no problem, except something is kind of broken right now in my reader brain. Perhaps the paradox of choice is hitting me. I have too many unread books. Or perhaps it’s related to the ideas in this article, Why Can’t We Read Anymore by Hugh McGuire . And now I realize when I was gaming too much or flitting between devices, my brain seduced my actions with dopamine:

So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh,dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.

How can books compete?

Well, this blunt and honest conversation will take place at the beginning of my school year with students, that is what digitalization has done to their brains. All of our brains. Last year, my students who were readers were the ones who tended not to have a lot of television or screen time (remember those hippie parents, back in the day? Who didn’t have TVs? I gasped in bewildered horror anytime I came across a situation like that.)

Is the same thing happening to (other) teachers? Are teachers just not reading as much as they used to, grabbing a few YA novels or short stories, and curating them for themselves? Or it is just a means to share tried and true texts with one another? Probably the latter. But there may be some instances where it’s the former, or perhaps I’m projecting my own failings.

novels

I have my list of books/stories to share. I have an extensive classroom library, both hard copy and digital. There are apps and sites galore to help teachers find texts. There are news outlets, story sites, like This American Life, Storycorp, The Moth, Radiolab, etc. to explore, to name a few. It would take a lifetime to read or listen to all the infinite stories. Sites like Artifact App and CommonLit help educators ask the essential questions to guide reading, too. And there are still libraries, with real librarians, who love nothing more than to talk and share ideas about texts. But that involves getting out of my bathrobe and the house. Hmmm. Tough call. (Oh, like you’ve never hung out in your robe until 1PM on summer break!)

 

Artifact App
Artifact App

 

So what are we teachers looking for when we ask others about text suggestions? We’re looking the same things as when we recommend books to other adults. We want something relevant, that may speak to us, that we can find some universal truth, or help us connect. And this is where the digital dopamine can’t help us: texts, be they on the screen or paper, give us a much more powerful sensation than digital ones. Helping students understand these important brain functions will help them understand when a person hurts them on line, it feels real because our brains don’t know the difference. We want to share stories, and that drive gives me hope, for my students, and for myself.

McGuire writes:

I am reading books now more than I have in years. I have more energy, and more focus than I’ve had for ages. I have not fully conquered my digital dopamine addiction, though, but it’s getting there. I think reading books is helping me retrain my mind for focus.

While on the hunt for great texts, I plan on using my powers of digital organization and keep track, make a list, and add notes. But for the moment, I’m just going to make a sandwich.

 

 

 

 

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