Work Intensification & The Brain

I am a grand fan of technology.  It opens up possibilities for how we work, how we teach and how we connect with the like-minded, inspiring and divergent thinkers who we wouldn’t run into in the local Starbucks.     The down-side is the work intensification.  It is literally possible to work 24/7 and still never finish the to do list.  Because so many educators  give it a valiant try to complete everything on their lists, Health and Wellness became one of  themes for the BCPVPA, British Columbia Principals and Vice Principals Association, Friday Forum on February 23, 2018 open to educational leaders in British Columbia.

Gary Anaka was one of the speakers, originally a secondary Science teacher, who has worked tirelessly in presenting  brain research about structure, neurogenesis and plasticity in an accessible way. Over many years, he has provided not only made sense of  brain research but actively models purposeful ways to engage the brain and considerations for maintaining brain health in his engaging brain coach presentations.  This was all underlined and the ideas further developed by Dr. Sabre Cherowski, Dr. Fei Wang and Sr. Stephen Berg.  Each speaker added to create an iron-clad rationale as to why educators need to not only teach health and wellness but live it as well.

Best of all, I got up the following Sunday morning, abandoned any thought of trying to catch up on emails or attending to nurturing my spiritual well-being indoors and headed up Blackcomb Mountain to complete the assigned homework of getting out in nature for my mental health, moving to grow brain cells, skiing for my physical health and enjoying life and tending to the relationship with my best friend and husband of many years.  All good things.  Only the residual guilt for the ignored things to do list remained.  The trick becomes, what work and how much work is to be done.

This seems to be going the route of every blog post I write every new year and after every extended holiday.  The quest for balance.  In this quest, my German / Scottish roots and my all too developed work ethic, most often tips the balance towards work.  The real issue is one of priorities.  As an administrator, I have no qualms telling staff that their first responsibility is to take care of themselves.  It is another things to prioritize my own health and wellness over the ever increasing onslaught of things to be done.  It is, well… work.

In these times of work intensification, we need to create space for people (yes us) to take care of themselves in order to do the work that matters most.  The beauty of the field of Applied Educational Neuroscience is that it commands a wide scope of attention extending beyond the realm of educators.  Our role is to nurture young brains  therefore it follows suit that we need to understand the field and put our learning into practice.   The rationale for optimizing conditions for brain health and wellness therefore becomes the ultimate priority in doing our work as educators.  It adds another item to our list of things to do – helping students, parents, community partners and beyond to understand why.

Note:

Gary Anaka has published a number of books through Portal Press that are a good way to support the ideas presented in his lively Brain Coach Workshops.

Your Magical Brain:  How It Learns Best

Brain Wellness:  The Secrets of Longevity

Your Brain on the Job

Other Resources:

Teaching with The Brain in Mind  by Eric Jensen is an easy to read book with many instructional strategies.

The Brain’s Way Of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D. is a fascinating book around current research into many things we still don’t really understand abut the brain.

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7 Habits +1 to Empower

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Betty Boult was the keeper of the knowledge when it came to Stephen Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when I first started teaching in Abbotsford.  She had done the facilitators training and she facilitated with flair.  We had animated discussions and were committed to engaging with the ideas and doing the work to complete the workbook meticulously.  I can still play out some conversations that resonated and remember my queries around some of the habits.  Those were the days when “sharpening the saw” was just a part of daily life and took much less deliberate effort.   Saying “no” was not yet part of my repertoire and everything was a priority.   These were the days before children and my husband was working just as hard to start his business.  The advantage of professional development in Abbotsford was that it was a small enough district that we all did pro-d together.  Therefore, the things we learned and ideas we were thinking about, were discussed in the staffroom, as staff socials and the ideas frequently referenced.  I think in this way, many of the ideas were incorporated into who I was.

I recently finished reading Stephen Covey’s (2008)  The Leader in Me:  How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time.  In this book, the learning is focused on children in K-5, middle and secondary schools, in the United States (the main focus), Singapore, Canada and Japan.  The power is that it that the ideas are introduced and developed with entire school populations.  Students are taught public speaking and acknowledged for their strengths and encouraged to assume responsibility for leadership tasks within the school.

I remember shortly after my Covey training, I was asked to do the goodbye tribute to my mentor, Joan Fuller, at her retirement function.  Public speaking had never been in my comfort zone.  Memories of tomato seeds bouncing out of my hand during my 9th grade oral report haunted me.  Boring topic.  Questionable choice to be holding the smallest of all seeds for an oral report in front of the class.  Terrifying teacher who was known to roll her eyes. Nothing good came out of it and I carried a lingering fear of public speaking.  However, I loved Joan and had a vested interest in making her retirement special.  I was terrified.  I was over prepared and tripped over my words.  I was glued to my cue cards.  My vocal chords constricted.  My legs shook.  I blushed.  And yet, I lived through it.  Everyone clapped and smiled.  Joan was delighted and cried.  And there were no tomato seeds.  I drank the Kool-Aid and was excessively proactive and had a passion for professional development.  I found myself more and more speaking in front of audiences,  in both my professional life and involvement in personal passions.  Yes, I was one of the lives that was changed because I had come to understand I had something worthwhile to say.

Covey is frequently referenced but I wonder how many people really understand the ideas and have integrated them into their lives and then regularly revisited.  There is a tremendous amount to be learned that directly correlates with empowering, not only adults but children too.

For those of you who need a quick recap of the habits:

  • Habit 1:  Be Proactive
    • Take initiative
  • Habit 2:  Begin with the End in Mind
    • Set goals
  • Habit 3:  Put First Things First
    • Prioritize and only do the most important things
  • Habit 4:  Think Win-Win
    • Getting what you want while considering others
  • Habit 5:  Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  • Habit 6:  Synergize
    • work well with others to accomplish a task
  • Habit 7:  Sharpen the Saw
    • Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep
  • Habit 8 (added in 2004):  Find Your Voice and Help Others Find Theirs –
    • Identify gifts.  Optimize them.  Develop them.

Peaceful Playgrounds

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I recently read a publication in the NY Times Sunday Review called My Kid’s First Lesson in Realpolitik.   Annie Pfeifer is a parent bemoaning the need for our children to stand up to bullies.  There is recognition of the fact that “helicopter parents” swoop in with speed and  vehemence to deal with any conflict, big or small, that his / her child may encounter.   The alternative presented is to let kids fight it out, like on the playgrounds in Switzerland, so they learn how to deal with conflict.  It is my position that both of these options fail to provide our children with the confidence or skills to deal with conflict.  Our kids need educators and families to work together to provide the guidance and mentoring to teach kids how to resolve conflict.

Playgrounds serve to be a microcosm of the world where our kids learn important lessons.  They are filled with students who are human.  Perfection may not be possible but the aspiration to create a peaceful playground is paramount.  We want our future generation to accept that everyone is invited to the party and we all need to learn to co-exist peacefully to create a better reality.  A playground is a relatively small fishbowl and a good place to learn about kindness, acceptance, tolerance and to develop problem solving skills.

Peaceful playground require:

  • kindness
  • communication skills
  • compassion
  • empathy
  • inclusivity
  • compromise
  • sharing space, equipment and friends
  • an ability to express feelings, while considering other people’s feelings
  • an ability to understand when you need to self calm and practice those skills
  • problem solving skills
  • ability to follow safety rules and game rules

Of course the list could go on.  We have a number of programs and theories to help us navigate this course.  School Codes of Conduct are mandatory in schools in British Columbia and are widely published on school websites.  Articles and tweets about the topic of self regulation has become common.  @Stuart Shanker has committed to tweeting a daily quote #SelfReg to encourage us to pursue and gain a greater understanding of root causes of our feelings and how to deal with them.  .

I particularly like The Zones of Regulation program developed by Leah Kuypers, to teach kids that feeling emotions is never a bad thing but we require strategies to deal with them in ways that keep others and ourselves safe.  If you are very angry and in the “Red Zone”, your job is to self calm before you try to problem solve.  Kids are fascinated to learn that “yoga” or slow breathing actually causes your brain to calm your body.  Science at work!

The Peaceful Playgrounds Program is another program that I really like.  Basic messages are framed in a way for kids to easily remember and apply on the playground.  It also includes a plethora of ideas of things to keep kids active and problem solving on the playground.  Problem solving strategies that you probably remember from your own childhood.

  • Talk
  • Walk
  • Rock, Papers, Scissors ( Yes, you commit on 3 – agreed upon rule! )  In several of my other schools, this was know as Ching, Chang, Push, apparently a well established strategy in China too!

War Toys To Peace Art is a group established to fund art projects by peace loving groups of children.  The Friendship Bench is one way for kids to find their way into playground activity if they need some additional support.  A bench is designated as a space for kids to demonstrate kindness by inviting kids looking for a friend looking for someone to play with.  Programs like Jump Rope for Heart give kids a focus and the equipment to get involved in healthy playground activity.

Kids are human and sometimes they will need help resolving conflicts face to face AFTER they have calmed down.  When kids don’t make good choices, they need the opportunity to own them.  Kids need to be able to express how they are feeling and what they didn’t like in face to face conversations.  They also need to learn to listen to other opinions, how the choices he / she made impacted the other person and to develop strategies for how to repair relationships.  They also need to learn to move forward after they have dealt with the problem.   Adults are there to support kids in dealing with the problems.  The goal is for kids to develop the skills to problem solve and the confidence that they can.  Adults are involved in the process to ensure that name calling and bullying (physical and emotional )  do not become an accepted norm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling Grateful

This December is my last as vice principal at Tecumseh Elementary School.  I have been at the school long enough to work, learn, play and share  experiences with enough children and adults to make leaving a hard thing to do.  Many Tecumseh students have heard my heartfelt speech that you choose everyday if you are going to make someone else’s life a little bit better or a little bit worse.  I just realized that I have missed an important element.  You have to understand that you impact others with the things you choose to do and the things you choose not to do.  During my time at Tecumseh, particularly this past December, the Tecumseh school community has chosen to show me that they care about me.  That choice has touched me deeply.

The cards, songs, poems, books and kind words show that you understand the things that are important to me and are grateful for our time together.  I love that I have been able to help someone learn to talk to people and make friends, make someone feel special by saying hi and smiling, make someone else feel like they can kick a soccer ball or code or blog or learn English or choose who they want to be.  I’m grateful to have talked and listened and laughed and learned with you.  I appreciate that many of you have learned that strength can be physical but also standing up for what is right and believing in yourself.

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Staff gave me a beautiful silver necklace with the wolf symbol crafted by Harold Alfred,  as my parting gift.  This symbol was also given to me on a card when I left Norquay Elementary School.  I love it.  As you well know, I am very interested in Indigenous ways of knowing and worked hard to further our collective understanding of our history and traditional indigenous teachings.  I take the selection of this wolf symbol as a huge compliment and inspiration.   The wolf represents great strength, is considered wise and powerful, chooses one mate for life and demonstrates strong loyalty to family.  Not a bad symbol to have chosen for you!

I’ve learned many things about strength of purpose at Tecumseh.  I love that staff signed me up for the Bike to Work Week and tested by ability to persevere until I could pedal up the hills from Kits to 41st and Commercial Street WITHOUT getting off my bike.  I love that so many in the school community invested in our We Welcome Refugees project to show the strength of our conviction that Canada is a welcoming country that demonstrates empathy and belief in what people have to benefit our country.  I love the enthusiasm that Tecumseh students bring to new learning and challenges.  I love that so many students have the strength to continue to try even when they fail or the task is really hard or maybe not even fair.   I also value that the families in our school community are so invested in creating a better future for their children, often in the face of significant challenges.  My Mom struggled raising two daughters and supporting her extended family as I was growing up.  I admire the same tenacity in our Tecumseh families.

Students, staff, parents and community partners have shown me in so many ways that they value the relationship we have developed over the years.  I cannot tell you how much it means to me that the relationships we have developed means as much to you, as they do to me.  I am so grateful for our time together and I wish all the very best for you in the future.

P.S.  I am also grateful to Harold Alfred for creating my very special and beautiful gift.  img_0355

Not Just 4Parents

Parenting is a tough gig.  There is no “perfect” set of directions to follow that work with every kid and every situation.  I started to teach before I had children and bemoaned that if only parents could be consistent with some basic rules in the household, all would be well. Having my own children brought a new level of humility to my perspective.  Sometimes we are able to follow our intuition and get it right.  Sometimes we’re just tired and want to avoid conflict.  Sometimes we are left in search of the magic answer to steer us in another direction that will solve all issues and reassure us that we’re doing the “right” thing.  There is no easy answer and parenting continues as one of THE most work intensive endeavours of my life.

My mother had her well-worn copy of Dr. Spock in her bedroom bookcase well into my teen years.  My parenting bible was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish.  I read it repeatedly through the lucid moments, frustrations, phases and stages of bringing up my own two children.  For those parents bringing children up in the 21st Century, the “must read” is  The Dolphin Parent by Dr. Shimi K. Kang.  She is a Harvard-trained child and adult psychiatrist who provides advice in the form of prescriptions for parents who strive to raise children who have healthy relationships with the world and meet challenges with determination and hard work.

Dr. Kang provides a basic frame that divides parenting into three categories:

1. Authoritarian or the “I know best” parent.   Dr. Kang includes both the overdirecting and the overprotecting parents who micromanage their children’s lives.  This is an easy trap to fall into because many of us have been parented ourselves in this way.  She asserts that when parents micromanage their children’s lives, they are underparenting and thereby robbing children of a sense of control of their own lives.

The authoritarian parents include all of the types of parents with the familiar tags applied these days:

  •  “Tiger” parents ferocious in their dedication to pushing their children to achieve the competitive edge
  •  “Helicopter” parents waiting to swoop down to intercede on their child’s behalf
  • “Lawn mower or snowblower” who are always one step ahead of their child removing obstacles
  • “Bubble wrappers” – who see their role to protect children from even the slightest disappointment

She uses the metaphor of the butterfly to explain the problematic aspect of helping too much.  In his efforts to help, the little boy pulls off the cocoon that the butterfly is struggling to get free of.  To the little boy’s surprise, the butterfly doesn’t spread his wings and fly away.  The butterfly needed the time and struggle to develop the muscles and coordination to fly.

2.  Passive or “Jellyfish” parents  Dr. Kang frames these parents as those who avoid confrontation and underparent by failing to establish appropriate boundaries.  They fail to define socially appropriate expectations around respect, social etiquette or personal values.  These are parents who are overwhelmed with the demands of their own lives or strive to be best friends with their children.  They hand over control without providing guidance.  They struggle with saying “no” and will even resort to “turning a blind eye” or buying alcohol for their underage children to party with their friends.   Dr. Kant provides specific examples from her practice where these children end up irresponsible, impulsive, with poor relationships, a lack of respect for authority and an increased likelihood to engage in riskier behaviour.

3.  Authoritative parents establish clear rules and guidelines to support children in experiencing and coping with reasonable stress to develop the mental strength and resilience they need for independence.  This is where the metaphor of the dolphin comes in as a model of ideal for parenting.bottlenosedolphinmombabychinslapping-1

Dolphins are highly social animals and the bonding process is important.  Their young are provided with guidance and an opportunity to learn through play.  They experience natural consequences from mistakes through this playful exploration with the group.  Dr. Kang  is a big proponent of play to help students develop intelligence, emotional regulation, creativity and people skills.  Dr. Kang cites Albert Einstein’s quote “Play is the highest form of research” to emphasize the importance of play in a child’s life.  Overscheduling, memory drills, and repetitive practice puts the focus on demonstrating a specific skill set and kids don’t have the time to wonder.  They stop asking questions and will not risk an incorrect answer.  Apparently Edison failed 9,000 times before he eventually invented the lightbulb.  He had the benefit of experiencing the learning that comes from what is too often framed as “failure” rather than “learning”.   In the 21st Century, information is at our finger tips, but asking good questions is what generates innovation.

People have become very familiar with IQ or intelligent quotient as a standard measure of intelligence since the test was first widely applied to sort which soldiers would be sent to the front and which ones would be trained as officers in the U.S. Army prior to World War I.  However rote learning and regurgitation of information has not resulted in “smarter” students.  At the university level, The Faculty of Medicine, has needed to change requirements for entrance due to the fact that high achieving applicants do not demonstrate the problem solving ability or people skills to cope with the demands of a career in medicine.  We are learning that IQ is not the best measure of gauging how well a child will fair in life.

The 4 essential 21st Century Skills for success  have now been defined as CQ or Complete Quotient.  It has been determined by The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, an organization at the University of Melbourne that includes more than 250 researchers from sixty different institutions worldwide.  These skills have been incorporated in educational institutions and workplace environments everywhere.  The higher the CQ of your child, the more adaptable, healthier, happier and more successful you child.  These skills include:

  • creativity
  • critical thinking
  • communication
  • collaboration

As an educator and as a parent, I have come into contact with many parents and many styles of parenting.  In most cases, all of these parents love their children intensely and have grand aspirations for their happiness and success in their futures.  This book is an excellent way for parents to take a step back and consider what they really want to accomplish with raising their children.   We still want to develop the intellectual skills of our children, but also the ability to problem solve, self regulate, form meaningful human relationships and the resilience to cope with failure and keep on learning.  It also gives us the permission to bond with our children through joyful play and shared interests.

The Science of Art

Dana Mulder, one of the Tecumseh staff members, gave us the opportunity to experience the Science of Art last week.  She has developed a considerable amount of background knowledge through her work providing programs at Van Dusen Gardens and provided an after school session for interested staff members on dyeing wool from natural materials.  My experience to date with dyeing anything has been Rit dyes out of a package.  It felt like a whole new world was introduced.

Dana not only taught us about the natural dyes used historically but also the stories and collection of the plants and insects that they were derived from.  The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay, Wild Color  and Quilt History also provide a plethora of information for further exploration.  We learned there are three types of natural dyes derived from three different sources.  There are natural dyes obtained from plants (indigo), those obtained from animals (cochineal), and those obtained from minerals (ocher).

We used ALUM as the mordant to facilitate the chemical reaction that takes place between the dye and the fiber so that the dye is absorbed and brightens the colour slightly.  Other common mordants are: IRON (or copperas) which saddens or darken colors, bringing out green shades; TIN to brightens colors, especially reds, oranges and yellows; BLUE VITRIOL which saddens colors and brings out greens and TANNIC ACID used for tans and browns.  Some dyes like walnut hulls and lichens do not require mordants.

I chose the cochineal dye, not for the smell, but for the story and for the rich, red colour.  Historically cochineal was a valuable commodity, only beat out in trading popularity in Europe by silver and gold.  These dead insects, hence the smell, are ground with the mortar and pestle into a fine powder that is mixed with the alum for a beautiful colourfast dye.

As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers.  Knitting, crochet and embroidery projects were clearly enjoyable but also had a specific utilitarian purpose.  Creating clothing, decorating pillow cases and saving money were a driving force.  I learned to appreciate these endeavors and continued to pursue them and teach them to students as hobbies.  Dana’s session provided us the opportunity to consider the cross curricular connections implicit in the craft. Her dyes included crushed marigolds, dandelions, leaves and the cochineal insect.  Dana also provided information on respectful harvesting, although I have grand aspirations of our students stripping the ground of all traces of dandelions in spring to deal with this pernicious weed on our school grounds and use them for something purposeful!

The new curriculum in British Columbia gives educators the opportunity to consider the things that we do in schools through a new lense.  Dyeing wool no longer belongs solely in the realm of arts and crafts.  It becomes part of science, the stories of history and Indigenous practices, as well as outdoor education.  It also provides a high level of engagement that was able to keep educators at school after a week of parent-teacher conferences and preparing for professional development sessions the following day.  It continues to hold our attention as we shake our jars daily to distribute the colour and imagine the final outcome.  Special thanks to Dana for opening our eyes.  My Nanny Keenan would be thrilled .  She had fond memories of this long-haired sheep on the farm in Brandon, Manitoba.  I can only imagine what she could have done with these dyes!

 

Curriculum Learning at Gr.6 Camp

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Last week was the annual Grade 6 Camp Elphinstone experience.  For students on the South Slope of Vancouver, it is a game changer.  Most of the children come to camp and experience a plethora of “Firsts”.  This year some of those “firsts” included:

  • taking a ferry
  • staying in a cabin with friends
  • sighting a baby bear
  • watching a river otter poop
  • canoeing
  • kayaking
  • archery
  • catching a fish
  • swimming in the ocean
  • attempting to hit the bell at the top of the climbing wall
  • Meal time and Campfire ritual of songs and chants and debates
  • counting the seconds between the forked lightning and thunder
  • eating Mexican sushi (actually scrambled egg breakfast wraps)
  • setting the table, serving food, and cleaning up

The team building opportunity presented by the camp experience creates a  perfect opportunity to develop the essentials of social and emotional learning.  This results in a sense of belonging and a wonderful tone going into their final Grade 7 year of elementary school for Tecumseh students.  The YMCA has years of providing high quality programming for young people and has all of the elements of the camp experience down to perfection.  The camp rituals of family style food service and traditional campfire songs and activities challenge students to take risks, engage in experiential learning and explore their identity.  The young counsellors from Canada, New Zealand and Australia are able to keep up with the pace of energetic Grade 6 students and facilitate safe and memorable learning experiences.  Our Junior counsellors from David Thompson Secondary and sponsor teachers came together to ensure the best experience possible for our campers.

If you talk to our students, they will tell you they are on a holiday from school.  In actual fact, they have simply entered the outdoor classroom to engage in experiential learning masked as fun.  The learning is not in just one experience but many experiences in nature and with peers over time.  If you have the time and inclination, you may want to open up the redesigned curriculum in British Columbia-Grade 6.  The three-day camp experience touched on many big ideas, all of the core competencies and a meaty chunk of curriculum.  The social emotional learning is pervasive throughout all of the activities and experiences and indigenous ways of knowing are infused throughout the experience.

Meal time and camp fire included  action songs, chants, listening games and debates for students to hone their powers of persuasion.  Shelter building required teamwork to come up with a plan to build a shelter from materials on the forest floor that could withstand both the earthquake and water test.  Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, the climbing wall and archery challenged students to take risks, learn a new skill and took the development of flexibility, strength and endurance to new levels.  The range of games such Running Pictionary, Capture the Flag, Camouflage tag and Wink, Wink, Murder necessitate safety rules, game rules, social interaction, spatial awareness and verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

Upon reflection, the camp experience opens a myriad of possibilities for more intentional curriculum learning.  I am not proposing duo-tangs filled with photocopied worksheets.  I am proposing that we consider the aspects of curriculum that can be incorporated into the camp experience.  Place based Aboriginal perspectives and ways of knowing as outlined in the First People’s Principles of Learning could be clearly articulated.  The opportunity to directly teach social emotional skills to allow students to develop coping skills for dealing with stress and for dealing with conflict effectively are present throughout the daily schedule.  The consideration of opportunities for direct instruction in mindfulness by tapping into nature and social interaction are plentiful.  It means people with background knowledge about the solar system, constellations, local flora, fauna and primary resources become invaluable.  Materials such as compasses, Write in the Rain notebooks and field handbooks may need to be purchased. The camp experience may be re-imagined, not as an “extra” but as a vital pathway to develop and incorporate big ideas, core competencies and curriculum knowledge for our students in a meaningful way.