Language Matters, or Why I Love Edutopia

So there are a lot of websites that have tips and resources for teachers. Why do I always refer people to Edutopia​? My answer lives in this story.

Edutopia has pages for different subjects, and one is mental health. Their description used to read like this:

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“Life in the 21st century is exciting but also stressful. Discover and share resources for promoting psychological well-being.”

As someone who works intensely with young people who struggle with mental health issues, this language rubbed me the wrong way. Mental health isn’t about “exciting but also stressful,” and I felt that the descriptor made light of those struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

Language matters, and I think these small messages all around us build up to influence our thinking. Our worldview is shaped by the narratives around us. Edutopia focuses on “what works in education,” and to me, continuing misunderstanding and stigmatization of those with mental health challenges is not “what works.”

So I said something about the page description to the team at Edutopia, like, hey, I don’t think this description is doing what you want it to do, and here’s why.

The response to my concern is why I will recommend Edutopia and its community to anyone who wants resources on what works in education. The team there could have ignored my feedback, or could have said, “well, it’s just two sentences on a page, it doesn’t matter.” Instead? They asked me for more feedback – how would I rework the language? They took things under consideration as part of their larger process. And ultimately, they made a change.

Here’s how the page looks now:

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“Find compassionate perspectives and evidence-based strategies to foster school environments that promote psychological well-being and support students experiencing behavioral, emotional or social challenges.”

That is language I can stand behind. That language validates the challenges and invites teachers into the process. More importantly, the change shows me that Edutopia not only recognizes the importance of language, but also the importance of feedback and evaluation, and the hard work it takes to consistently align our “walk” with our “talk” – our values with our actions. As an educator I hope I can capitalize on moments of feedback as effectively as I saw Edutopia do here. Reflectiveness, openness, and a willingness to grow – that’s what “works” in education.

The Way Through

When people ask me what subject I teach, I never know how to respond. My teaching license is in English Language Arts. My master’s degree is in educational technology. In the past five years I’ve taught science, social studies, art, physical education, and more at our small school, where every teacher flexes to meet our students’ needs.

What I think I really teach, though, is how to get through. Conflict, adversity, anxiety – whatever the “it” is, I teach students to tolerate, regulate, and eventually move forward. Getting through is so much harder than going around, more complex, and ultimately a more necessary skill in life.

In the traditional public school, the response to conflict is “get out,” not get through. Leave the classroom if you’re disruptive. Take a suspension for a major breach. Thankfully, more schools are moving toward restorative approaches. Turning to inclusion instead of exclusion teaches students that it’s more important to work through as a community than to jettison the uncomfortable.

Working through truly is uncomfortable. Over and over, when my students get into conflict – with each other, with me, with their teachers – I hear “it’s whatever, I’ll just ignore it. I’m just done with this.” As most of us who have spoken similar sentences know, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. So I fall back on some tried and true approaches to helping students build confidence that working through is possible.

 

First, here’s what I say to my students as we start the process:

 

  • “I care about you.” Unconditional positive regard from teachers and staff is the foundation. When teachers approach conflictual situations with “I still care about you; let’s try this again,” students begin to build confidence in the resiliency of true and caring relationships.
  • “You don’t have to be friends.” I almost never ask students to apologize to one another; I never ask them to mend a friendship. Instead, I focus on the true bottom line: we are a learning community, and when we’re here we respect the right of everyone to access their education. While rebuilding a friendship can be a huge, insurmountable task, reestablishing roles as classmates can feel more attainable.
  • “You’re allowed to be mad. Let’s find some different ways to express that.” One surefire way to lose the trust of a student is to invalidate their feelings. When we try too hard to get back to neutral, we miss the opportunity to work through what it feels like to be mad, anxious, or sad. This is the feeling of “meta-okay” and it’s something I try to foster during the working through. Working with the actual emotion helps students find a way to safely express it without harming the community.

 

Once the student is in a place to start the work, we do a process we call “repair.” Not apology, not punishment, definitely not discipline. The idea is to help the student work through mending some of the rifts in relationship and community. What this process looks like varies greatly depending on the nature of the rift, the developmental stage of the student, and the strength of the peer group to help facilitate the process.

 

Some ways this has looked include these, used alone or in combination:

  • The student using social thinking strategies to reflect on the conflict (social scripting, filling in thought bubbles in a cartoon, etc)
  • Writing a letter to the individual or group harmed, and either delivering it or reading it aloud
  • Drawing a timeline of the events in a conflict and identifying points where different choices would have made the situation smaller, rather than bigger
  • Education pieces about bullying, conflict, communication styles, and so on
  • Creating or repairing something for the community (fixing a squeaky door, baking cookies to put out at lunch) as a way to put something positive back into the group
  • Bringing the family and school team together to look at any bigger picture supports needed
  • Prepping for a facilitated conversation between two students or a student and a teacher
  • Mapping out emotions during a conflict and where self-care or regulation strategies could have had a positive impact

 

The possibilities are endless – we just strive to create an authentic experience of reflection and repair that helps the student work through the conflict rather than just go around it.

 

So what are the outcomes?

 

Sometimes, I’ve seen this process fail completely. The student wasn’t ready to take ownership, needed more of a break after a conflict, or didn’t have enough trust in staff that it was safe to work through. In these cases, we go back to core strategies of building relationship and awareness and try again.

 

More often, I’ve seen students struggle through the beginning stages of this process and then land somewhere solid at the end. Students use the structure and tools we give them to take ownership and make an action plan. I’ve seen students make themselves vulnerable to teachers and say “I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that.” I’ve seen students say to one another, “It wasn’t okay how you treated me, but I’m willing to try again.”

 

Most amazingly, I’ve seen students get into conflicts over, and over, and over again. I’ve seen them using the tools I’ve given them to work through, and then start to not need the tools anymore. I’ve seen them adopt the language: “repair,” “make a plan,” “respect your right to learn.” Through the repetition of the process, I’ve seen students internalize the process and come to truly believe that it’s possible to work through.

 

When we finally believe that working through is truly an option, we are more able to express our thoughts without fear of losing our place in community. We can be vulnerable and trust that the process will carry us through. We can tolerate pain, anger, and anxiety knowing that there are steps to move us forward.

 

We build hope.

 

And that’s what I teach.

Supporting Students Who Experience Trauma

I’ve been getting more involved lately on Edutopia as a volunteer community facilitator. Here’s a post I put up a couple of days ago on supporting students who experience(d) trauma:

http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/8-ways-support-students-who-experience-trauma

It’s really astounding and heart-breaking to realize just how many of our students have or will experience trauma in their lives. As important as the strategies for supporting students are, I really want to emphasize my last point on there – taking care of ourselves.

When we are well, we can support our students well. When we take time to make sense of our own emotions, we can help students make sense of theirs. When we experience resilience, we help our students become more resilient themselves.

Trauma is real and present, but so is healing. When we provide safe and caring classrooms, we help our students move forward.

Meta-Okay

Heading into this school year, a bunch of factors are creating an atmosphere of super-stress for my teachers, beyond the regular stresses of the job (and teaching is not a low-stress job). Beyond our giant and ever-present to-do lists, there are also elements of uncertainty – how will this work out? – and confidence – can I do this? Will we make it? 

Our students arrived at school today with many of the same feelings. Can I succeed this school year? How will things go? Will I make it through what feels impossible? 

In the midst of all of that, I’m tempted to say to teachers and students: “Don’t worry, it will all be okay.” “Everything will work out fine.” “Just you wait, it will get better.” 

It’s not a bad thing to be reassuring – but I wonder if instead I can try to foster the feeling of “meta-okay.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase and I can’t take credit for it – but “meta-okay” to me means “It’s not okay, but that’s okay.” Meta-okay means accepting that things are actually not fine – accepting being the key word. 

I might more formally describe this as a type of frustration tolerance. It’s the ability to sit with things being unresolved, undefined, and still feeling alright in the midst of that. This skill takes lots of practice, and I don’t know if it ever stops feeling icky. Think of how you feel in the midst of a conflict with a friend or family member, while waiting for a phone call you know holds bad news, while grappling with a choice you wish you could undo. It takes self-regulation, mindfulness, and patience to tolerate “it’s not okay.” The more we practice, the more readily we reach for those skills when things are hard. 

I like the idea of meta-okay because it acknowledges that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When I say to a student or teacher, “don’t worry,” I dismiss their right to feel however they feel. I minimize that life is enormously difficult. I gloss over the fact that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable. 

I want to hold hope for my students, my staff and myself, and I do. Fostering the art of meta-okay is a way to strengthen this paradoxical hope: even in the tough times, we can use skills to be okay with the not okay. We can exist in the spaces between certainty and uncertainty. And in striving to live even just a little more comfortably in that space, we can begin to see a way through. 

This quotation from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has been one of my touchstones for a long time, and I leave it here as a reminder of how I’d like to foster the meta-okay as we travel into this school year together. 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Phrases I Can’t Live Without

I hear a lot of conversations in educator spheres about “the power of relationship.” We all know relationship is important; we agree that caring about our students is essential if they are going to trust that they can learn safely in our classes. I’d love to see the conversation turn now to the how of powerful relationship with students. I’m lucky to work in a school where I have the luxury of time and a small ratio to get to know my students well, but I think anyone in any setting can build powerful relationship if they develop the skills to do so.

One small thing anyone can do is pay attention to her speech. How do your words line up with your stance toward students? Are students hearing in your everyday conversations how much you care about them? Here are some of my go-to phrases for aligning my walk with my talk.

 

  • Tell me more. I can spend all day trying to analyze, interpret and theorize what’s going on with my students, but I find that if I listen well enough, the student will tell me exactly what’s going on and what they need. Same with coworkers and staff.
  • I don’t know. Being in authentic relationship means being vulnerable. Whether it’s an answer to a math question – I really don’t know! – or an acknowledgement that I don’t know how it feels to be in foster care, in a fight with my step-dad, struggling with hunger – saying I don’t know allows me to be honest and allows my student to trust that I’m not just going to fake my way through our relationship. “I don’t know” is best followed up with but let’s figure it out together. 
  • In response to a variety of questions, from “Can I take a break?” to “Can’t I just drop out of school?” to “Can I study medical marijuana?”: Yes – now let’s think about what that will mean – for you and for those around you. Starting with “yes” validates that what my student wants is valid, important, and ultimately, up to him, not me. Exploring choices is the meat of our work together.
  • I care about you. Not going to lie, it felt kind of weird the first few times I said the phrase “I care about you” that directly to students. But I think pretty much everyone deserves to hear loudly and often how much others care about them, and when I care about my students, I’m going to let them know and I’m not going to let them forget it.
  • I care about you but here’s how I was impacted by the choice you just made. There’s no such thing as a “good kid” or “bad kid,” just a kid with context who makes choices. I try to remember this in every moment I feel frustrated by a situation with a student, and then I try to say very clearly that I’m not dismissing the student herself, but hoping we can work through a choice she made. “I’ve seen you be kind to others before – so when you just called me a name, I was confused. Let’s talk about what’s going on.” Feels a lot better than “You can’t talk like that in here, go to the principal’s office,” doesn’t it?
  • You have value. If we are to prevent students from “falling through the cracks,” we need to remind them all day, every day that they have value and are valued by the community. Whether it’s recognizing a kind comment, strong academic work, increased effort, or even just showing up to school on a day they didn’t want to – these little recognitions add up to the message that you, yes you, have value here.

 

What are your go-to phrases, or best alternatives to “traditional teacher talk” that you use to help your students learn and grow, and to build positive relationship?

3 Reasons to Check Out EdCamp Centerpoint

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  1. Make a connection. Instead of “sit and get” professional development, EdCamp requires that you move around, actively participate, and talk to new people. I went to a tech conference in the area last spring and went almost the entire day without having more than a small-talk conversation with anyone – and I’m a pretty social person. It’s pretty impossible to get away with that at an EdCamp – I promise. We’re expecting participants with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, so take advantage of the cross-pollination and make a connection with someone new.
  2. Centerpoint isn’t like any other school you’ve seen before. Take a tour through our building, where rooms have names instead of numbers, students cook lunch for the school every day, and staff are encouraged to turn student-centered ideas into action (for example: this week we’re launching a therapeutic in-car driver’s ed program – I think it’s the first program of its kind). We do everything we do for the benefit of our students, and you can see that when you walk in the door. Come be part of our community for a day.
  3. Nurture yourself. Why come to an EdCamp during a school vacation? I think you’ll find it to be a way to “fill your tank,” rather than increase your burnout. We’ll have a ton of food and coffee to get your brain ready for learning (thanks to Physician’s Computer Company, Cabot Cheese, City Market, Healthy Living, and more of our amazing sponsors). The content of EdCamp is whatever participants bring to the table – so talk about the issues about which you are passionate, with other passionate education stakeholders from across Vermont. Put some energy and enthusiasm in your bank, and start fresh after the break with new ideas about how to support learning for all learners.

 

I really hope you’ll consider joining us at EdCamp Centerpoint on April 23. Preregister so we can be ready to host you, and tell your friends, too! Click: https://www.smore.com/7kru-edcamp-centerpoint 

 

A New Texture of Normal

I want to write a hundred books. No, maybe a thousand. Or just worm my way into books that are already on the shelves, dropping seeds like Hansel and Gretel wandering through the library.

The plot of these books wouldn’t matter. The protagonists? They can be anyone. What I’m interested in are the characters in the background, on the sidelines, minor characters who provide texture and contrast. I have a mission for these characters.

Right now when I read books, especially those for young adults, these side characters do a lot of things casually. They go to basketball practice. They stand at their lockers. They text their girlfriends. They drive beat-up cars. Whether a vampire or a witch or a high school student or all three, the side characters do what they do and blend into the background. They give us a backdrop of “normal” against which the protagonist shines.

So here’s my mission for these side characters. I want them to create a new “normal.” I want to see the side characters take their antidepressants with lunch. I want them to drive in their beat-up cars to their therapists’ offices. Text their social workers, go to their IEP meetings, name their anxiety.

I don’t want these routines to be the focus of these books. There are already books about struggles and hardships, about being an exception to the rule. Let the protagonists speak to the pain and drama of anxiety, depression, substance use, mental illness. They have something powerful to say.

What I want with the background characters is to create a new kind of a texture, a texture that goes unremarked and unexamined, one that creates a new “normal” backdrop for the stories our teens read. In this backdrop, it’s normal to talk about your depression meds, to go to an alternative school, and to work through difficult emotions with support from adults. If I wrote a thousand books with this new normal as a background, maybe a thousand readers would see a glimmer of their own lives and feel validated and heard. Maybe they would tell a thousand friends, and then a thousand more.

Every one of my students is different and faces different challenges. I think, though, that they would all be served by a community that accepted mental health challenges rather than shied away, by a society that embraced open dialogue about emotions rather than discouraged real conversations. How many lives would be saved if young people everywhere felt like it was okay to share what feels heavy and dark, to bring their thoughts and feelings out into the light?

The good news is that I don’t need to write a million books to get my message across. Maybe it would help, but I can save a lot of time (and paper) if you’ll help do your part. It’s not enough to tell the young people in your life that it’s okay to ask for and receive help. Model it. Show them it is. Express yourself in authentic ways to show young people that they can do it too. Hold your judgement when you hear celebrity or local gossip around someone’s mental and emotional health. Carry yourself with an accepting stance and make time to hear young people’s thoughts. It’s not always easy, but it’s essential.

So will we rise to the challenge? Will we create a new texture of normal? What stands in our way? How do you already do this in your life? I’d love to hear…let’s open the conversation.