I’ve been walking around since Friday with my heart alternately tightening and fluttering as I think about the youth in our world rising up for the Climate Strike. The images are breathtaking; the numbers are staggering. The message is undeniable: our children are pissed. Our earth is melting and the adults in charge aren’t moving quickly enough to address the issue. And these kids are through with the bystander role, with waiting to become old enough to make a difference, because what this generation seems to understand is that they ARE old enough to make a difference.
Students are taking to the streets (or in our school’s case, the courtyard) to change our world, and it fills my heart so absolutely full of joy to see them exercising their rights to peaceful protest. The educator in me considers all the learning happening…and wonders if they recognize it as such, or if our schools do. I think about the classes that they return to where some of those who were just chanting with full voices will sit back down at desks in rows, raise their hands to offer answers to questions, and in general return to tradition.
Something feels weird. It feels like we are missing the elephant in the room. They were just outside protesting the fact that the earth is melting! Should they be returning to their math class to review the answers to the quiz they took yesterday? Should they return to their English class to pick up where they left off reading Gatsby? As if the globe painted on their face isn’t there? Or the sign that rests against their desk is just an everyday accoutrement?
Why do we do this?? It’s NOT a return to normal! Our students should be walking back into our classes and talking about the climate. This might piss off some of you, but the curriculum can wait at an historic moment such as this. In fact, at times like this, I argue that what is happening IS the curriculum. How might we honor our students’ concerns? How might we help them leverage this momentum to incite change? One thing is for certain: we must give them time to reflect on their learning and to process the enormity of the movement in which they have participated.
I was fortunate to return to a classroom where the teacher gave students time to research Greta Thunberg following the rally at our school. We talked about her actions, her drive, and what she had accomplished. Still, I was left feeling like we had barely begun to understand the impact Thunberg has had, and that all of our youth are having.
So I’m reaching out to you. How are you recognizing the Global Climate Strike in your classroom? How might we continue to empower our youth beyond these momentous occasions? This is a time of great impact in their lives (and ours); what can we as educators do to ensure it doesn’t merely drift by?
Equity is a HOT topic in Vermont ed right now. Just check out the latest from #vted and you’ll see that educators are talking about it, and we should be. The last few years have given rise to far too many instances that shed light on the fact that we as educators have work to do. It has me wondering, how might we use a design thinking lens to bring about our own shifts and to address our own biases?
I talked to my friend, Dan Ryder, last week–someone who always stretches my thinking while simultaneously making me feel like I’ve been asleep for the last few years as a million ideas and advancements happened in education of which I wasn’t aware.
I have a huge crush on the Stanford d.school, who partnered up with the National Equity Project to consider how they might elaborate on the design thinking process in order to address equity issues. In so doing, they added two components to the classic DT process: notice and reflect.
The notice phase should happen as the first phase of the entire process. In it, you are checking your biases. From the d.school’s Equity-Centered Design Framework, “This phase focuses on you, the designer, in order to build a practice of self-awareness of your own identity, values, emotions, biases, assumptions and situatedness. From there, begin to reveal your authentic self, accept and build from all you don’t know so you can empathize with humility, curiosity and courage.” Before you even begin to interview your students, try to put yourself in their shoes, or otherwise build empathy, you check yourself. Like, how might my small-town, white, middle class girl from Vermont-ness affect how I’m thinking about this situation/design/my students?
And the other addition, reflect—big fan here. Meant to happen throughout the process as opposed to follow any one component, EquityXDesign created a term–“Equity Pause“–to bring intention to the practice. Indeed, if you are designing, you must constantly be returning to the user to determine your design’s effectiveness, and take the time “notice, focus and reflect on your actions, emotions, insights and impact as designer(s) and human(s) within your user’s context” (Equity-Centered Design Framework).
Design-thinking’s impact in the classroom and in education continues to grow, as it should. We must be constantly asking ourselves how we can better serve our students, and we must also consider that even when we have the best intentions, we do have biases that may undermine our efforts. This is some work we might consider as we try to do and be better.
Resources: everything you need is here at the d.school’s Liberatory Design resource collection. You’ll find their equity-centered design framework, empathy techniques for educational equity, and even some cool liberatory design cards that will get you going immediately. Let’s go!
The new school year is full of hope. Newness. Fresh starts. And like the hesitation you may feel to lay footprints on the newly polished floors, you may hesitate as you consider the best way to dive into your curriculum.
What if…you embrace design thinking as the underlying approach to your teaching this year? Here are 4 solid reasons why you should:
Design thinking begins with EMPATHY. And empathy requires you to understand your users (in this case, your students). They are complicated human beings, and that understanding will take time to develop. Still, even from the start, when you make the effort to know your students, you invest in them, and that empathy returns to you in student buy-in.
2. Design thinking requires you to be BOLD. When you consider solutions to any problem in class, think boldly! Contemplate ideas you hadn’t before. Ask your students for their ideas. Ask your favorite Twitter gurus. Reach outside your comfort zone.
3. Design thinking exercises your right brain. As you seek to solve problems in your classroom, tap into your creative side. Embrace the DT phrase, “How might we…?” Give yourself permission to think big. Look at things upside down. Examine components in a different light. Scrutinize from a different view point. Coerce your brain into redefining the problem through myriad solutions that you hadn’t contemplated before.
4. Design thinking demands INNOVATION. Whatever you are proposing as a solution to your classroom dilemma, it must be both new and better. And the only way to tell if it’s better is to test it and gather feedback. So take the time to do so. Don’t guess. Share it with your students, imperfect as it may be (you’re being bold, right?) and be brave enough to hear their feedback.
This is a true shift in thinking about HOW you teach. It puts students at the center because DT requires that you always empathize with them. It requires you to think like a designer because that’s what you are doing in creating an experience for your students that continues to engage and fascinate them.
How might you use design thinking in your classroom? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
If you’re looking for permission to experiment, to innovate, to take chances while my sons are in your classroom, here you go:
Permission to Cannonball
Who: my sons’ current and future teachers
What: Take risks. Ditch the curriculum if it isn’t working. Ditch the whole model if it isn’t working. Try new things. Push back when my kids complain that they don’t know what to do or how to do it and can’t figure it out. Encourage them. Know that by modeling innovation and being transparent about it, you are showing them exactly what they need as learners.
Where: in your classroom. Or outside, in the community, via the Web, or any other place that might inspire learning.
When: NOW, please!
Why: My kids need you. I know you’re nervous. I know there are standards. I know there are curriculum maps and lesson plans and a grade book. I know you worry what will happen next year when my kids land in that traditional teacher’s classroom and they haven’t learned all the parts of speech or the details of the fall of Rome or truly understood what the mitochondria does. I’m okay with that, because instead you are lighting their fire. You are igniting their passion for learning. If they want to go to school because you are doing amazing things and they are thirsty for more, you are doing exactly what I am giving you permission to do now.
How: I have ideas and would be happy to discuss them if you would like, but I trust in you. If you take this permission seriously, it indicates your readiness and willingness to jump in. Feel free to reach out if you need direction.
I give you this permission slip now, in the middle of the school year, in an attempt to encourage you to take risks and to pave the road for future innovators. The due date? NOW. TODAY.
I, Lori Lisai, give my children’s teachers permission to cannonball. They may take risks and try new things in order to inspire my children to new learning.
Signed, Lori Lisai
Thank you to the teachers who inspired this post for their willingness to take risks and to verbalize their nervousness in doing so. I applaud your vulnerability and your willingness to bust through boundaries regardless.
It’s Monday morning. Students are tired. A quick glance around the room reveals half-full mega Dunkin’s, Monsters almost gone, and groggy teens.
When my co-teacher and I talked about this lesson on Friday, we envisioned chart paper and brainstorming, our full group digging into standards and reflecting.
But now it’s Monday morning. A full weekend has lapsed, and I’m late to class due to other early-morning issues I had to address. So when I walk in expecting class to be engaged in meaningful reflection and discussion, I’m dismayed to find my co-teacher standing at the front of the room talking. And talking. And talking.
I can see his message is failing to translate. There are too many words for Monday morning. Our students’ energy is so low, and yet it’s this elephant in the room that everyone is actively ignoring. How might we defeat this?
Get them talking. It’s Monday. We just wakin’ up. Let’s talk about our weekend, our morning, our breakfast…just something to warm up those talking and thinking muscles so we can then start to think about the content.
Switch gears with some media. Make a playlist of video clips to have on file for occasions such as these–short clips of genius that will help ease them into the right frame of mind (or just simply hit the reset button).
Take a lap. Get outside and do a “walk-n-talk” guided by a question you (or your students) pose. Students pair up and discuss that question on their walk. It might be something content-related or it might not; make the call based on your students.
Brain dump. Give students 5-7 minutes to write (or doodle, or whatever they create with a pencil and paper) about whatever they want to write about. Provide the open space to share afterward, which may lead to some lively conversation.
We eventually recovered, but we didn’t employ any of these strategies. (Failure is the best teacher?) Teaching is such a human-centered profession and so very personal, but sometimes we ignore that fact and soldier on in an effort to stick to our plans. Believe me, it’s worth the 10-15 minute investment to start with students who are ready to learn…and you might just be building relationships along the way. Let’s remember this as we return from December break!
What are some ways you reset the energy in your classroom? Please share!
Our Exploring Education class wrapped up quickly–too quickly, really. School change takes root ever so slowly, and one semester was barely enough time to nudge our ideas into decision makers’ minds. Following our students’ presentations to decision makers during which they shared their ideas, supporting research, and calls for change, we struggled to close with meaningful reflection and celebrate at the same time.
The rushed experience highlighted for me the need for more flexible time in our schedules.
The ideal time to reflect on their presentations would have been immediately following them, and yet they rushed off to lunch and the rest of their day. We attempted to unearth the residual excitement two days later at our next class, but the energy had left us and it felt disconnected despite our best attempts. Yet another example of the dissonance felt when a new model of learning is placed within traditional structures.
Thankfully, our students continue to be passionate about their ideas. They want to see change as badly as we do, and school change efforts move far too slowly for their young lives. In motion are plans to completely remake one classroom with flexible seating, stand-up desks, LED lighting, and a fresh coat of paint, as well as grant applications to revamp all of our English rooms with new lighting. In addition, two of our high school Science teachers–Amber Carbine-March and Kim Hoffman–were awarded a Rowland grant to introduce EPIC (Educational Path I Choose) Academy–a project-based learning model where students can opt into an immersive learning experience for nine-week rotations through the year. In conjunction with this work, there is movement toward revamping our research lab space into one that supports independent, project-based learning–a perfect marriage between two of our groups’ visions.
With the realities of assessment pushing against the time we have with students, our push to balance time constraints with the need for meaningful reflection that sheds light on true learning remains a challenge.
What I’ve realized this year in taking this deep dive into personalization is that
it is absolutely imperative to embrace self-reflection as the primary means of assessment in this new learning model.
When I consider any meaningful learning experience I have had since leaving high school, the lessons came from deep reflection on experience. If we seek to measure students’ understanding, that must be done through reflection, and clearly, we must be intentional in the teaching of it. My sense is that it’s about asking questions repeatedly, looking at strong examples of reflection and dissecting them for meaning, and modeling. In short, good teaching.
InLearning: A Sense-maker’s Guide, Chris Watkins includes a chapter on “Helping Learners Make Sense of Their Learning,” in which he explains “four classroom practices that help learners: notice learning, have conversations about learning, reflection, and finally making learning an object of learning” (28-29). Each builds upon the previous practice, and I noticed this exact pattern in our class. Although I initially set out to help students reflect, I found that they were much more successful after we asked them specific questions about their learning. Watkins purports that we should stop students when they are “in the flow” and ask them to notice how they are learning–another practice that would take plenty of un-learning, but would very likely result in deep metacognition. I found myself coaching during our writing sessions, reading initial responses, discussing the why and probing for deeper thinking, and encouraging students to truly reflect. They didn’t like it so much–it’s not easy, it’s not a box to be filled in–but it’s worth it.
As Vermonters, we were given the gift of Act 77 to mandate change in our education system though our interpretation and implementation of that is left to local control. I’ve seen numerous changes fail at our school because we lacked the systems and structures to support them regardless of how well-intentioned they were. In the Heath brothers’ genius book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the authors emphasize three important elements of making meaningful change stick: direct the rider (that is, build on your bright spots and make it clear where you’re headed), motivate the elephant (that is, make explicit the why of the change and then break it into small steps), and shape the path (that is, make it easy to switch and to build new habits). Reworking the school schedule is the type of system change that has the potential to shift practice, and I’m looking forward to the changes our school has made with personalization in mind. You make time for what you value, and schedules are a clear demonstration of that. Indeed, in this new school year, we have scheduled long blocks four days per week (all fixed days) with short blocks on Fridays. I see great potential for Fridays as reflection day–a chance to think about what’s been accomplished over the week, what it means in the larger context, and how it might inform next steps.
How might we encourage teachers to use this time to allow for student reflection? I’m thinking there are two key elements: first, to model the importance of reflection with a deep dive into teachers’ own personalized learning plans (PLP’S) and second, to provide resources for encouraging, teaching, and assessing thoughtful reflection. Katie Martin, author of Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion and Unleash Genius offers this thought:
“Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such, but part of being a professional is working to meet the goals and expectations of the larger system. If we wouldn’t allow our students to opt out of learning or trying something new, why is it okay for educators? More importantly, as educators, we should be modeling and sharing our learning, not just telling others to do it.”
If we are requiring our students to create personalized learning plans complete with reflection, and requiring teachers to establish yearly goals and reflect on them, why are we not requiring teachers to use the same process we create for our students? What better way to empathize with our students’ plight? And what better way to understand how we must make time for reflection during our classes if it is to be meaningful? I envision students helping teachers set up online PLP’s, suddenly in the role of expert as they share their struggles with platforms, with the time they didn’t have to document their learning, with the lack of reflection. Goosebumps, right? (Or is that terror at the thought of creating one of these plans? Interesting…)
The second element to encouraging teachers to use Fridays for reflection is to provide the resources necessary to make it worthwhile. Here, a list to start:
AMLE’s Student Reflection: A Tool for Growth & Development (Originally designed to garner student feedback on her teaching, Brooke Eisenbach discovered deeper learning in the 10-15 minutes she allotted each Friday for student reflection: “An activity intended to suit my own instructional needs became an activity that inspired connection, openness, diversity, metacognition, and sense of community for my students.”)
40 Reflection Questions from Edutopia (Arranged into four categories: backward looking, forward looking, inward looking and outward looking, Edutopia provides a slew of different questions to jumpstart reflective thinking.)
R is for REAL Reflection by Tarrant’s Life LeGeros (The REAL framework is reflective and built on student engagement. Incredibly helpful links in this article as well as ideas for taking reflection off the page and allowing students to speak their truth–literally.)
Ideas for creative reflection in the form of metaphor: Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom by Dan Ryder & Amy Burvall (book & website) (This book should sit on every teacher’s shelf, dog-eared, highlighted, and pulled off weekly for fun activities to engage students in deeper learning and reflection by tapping into their creativity and exercising their playful abstract minds through metaphorical thinking.)
Allison Zmuda’s Learning Personalized website (If you’re deep into personalized learning and haven’t yet heard of Allison Zmuda, get your head out of the sand and check out her work. This post from 4th grader Ava Strauss will warm your heart and convince you of the power of student reflection.)
Last, a couple of resources from our class, should you choose to embark on a similar crusade:
Exploring Education blog (my class’s blog–examples of reflective writing and thinking about our process. Hopefully you’ll see some growth.)
Our Exploring Education course description (Feel free to use this as inspiration to create your own course that leverages the power of student voice to move change forward in your school)
Learning feels like an adventure when students can dive into their curiosities and explore with abandon. When we help them along the way by constantly questioning the why, we encourage them to notice how they’re learning and in turn how they will succeed in future ventures. It’s common knowledge that most students enter elementary school full of curiosity and wonder and leave high school with it tucked neatly away in a small, forgotten place.
Let’s recapture the adventure with them and reflect on the glory of learning!
Three years ago, I set out to recapture the adventure in learning through a Rowland Fellowship. I embarked on an amazing journey of discovery–visiting innovative schools, attending conferences with innovative educators, and embracing innovation as a matter of course. Three years later, I’m still chasing adventure, working to encourage and implement the innovation I saw elsewhere into our small Vermont school. It’s been a slow process. Personalizing learning takes time, among other resources difficult to come by. Still, I’m inspired by the hard work taking shape.
With each day I teach over the two decades I have already logged, I am reminded that
teaching is a practice that must continually be improved.
This year, I practiced in the role of technology integrationist for Lamoille Union, a 7-12 school in Hyde Park, Vermont. In addition, I co-taught two classes: a semester-long course called Exploring Education (with my colleague, Pat LaClair) and another semester-long business start-ups course (with my colleague Bob Fredette). Both classes had small enrollments of students (cannonballers like myself) in grades 9-12 who took a chance on a new way of doing things.
I dove deep into personalization this fall in Exploring Education. Our small group of seven students in grades 9-12 rolled up their sleeves and worked to make change at our school through the open PBL (project-based learning) structure of our class. Over the course of the semester, and through a lot of research, our students decided on three main focus areas: flexible learning spaces, project-based learning, and revamping our proficiency based graduation requirements.
The essence of the class was this: choose something you’d like to change at our school; create a presentation, and pitch it to decision makers. Once our students chose an area on which to focus (a feat in and of itself), they did just that. They presented their pitches in January to our superintendent, director of curriculum, high school and middle school principals, two department chairs, and two guidance counselors.
With each passing class, Pat and I struggled to find the best means to assess our students’ learning. Did we really need to assign a grade to a design thinking challenge? It felt as though that grade would somehow cheapen the experience.
Eventually we came to the conclusion that meaningful reflection was the only logical answer.
We asked our students to consider these questions and craft a response. Although we read them, we never graded the students’ responses. They remain in our Schoology course with the blaring blue “needs grading” flag beneath each student’s name. And we never graded them because they were shallow. They were curt replies to our attempts to deepen understanding through what we thought were probing questions. However, from conversations with our students, I knew the writing didn’t accurately represent what they had learned. And I started to wonder…
In retrospect, I can clearly see the disconnect between traditional grading and assessing project work. Two of our nine students were on a traditional grading system, and the other five were on our new proficiency system. In our minds, we had adopted the proficiency philosophy, and our discussions about how to translate an “emerging” grade into something between 1-100 shone a spotlight on the arbitrary nature of traditional grading. For us, we felt that it was perfectly suitable to simply say that everyone was progressing. That said, it was clear to me that our students didn’t fully understand how to engage in the process of reflection.
I envisioned something similar to how this 4th grader reflected on her learning experience. Was it too much to ask high school students to think about why they thought the way they did? Was metacognition out of reach? Believing that more practice would help, we asked that our students reflect often on their experiences–from empathy interviews to school visits–and they still struggled. We finally pared down and simplified our approach; we asked a few focused questions and drilled the WHY, and we started to see success. How do you feel about this? Why do you feel that way about it? What does that lead you to think about? Why? Why? Why? We had to embrace our inner toddlers. We realized that there is so much UN-learning that must happen around quick answers and shallow thinking, and that takes time. Here, a great example to illustrate that idea:
doesn’t smell so sweet. I battled a serious case of heartburn reading this recent NPR article by Anya Kamenetz parsing out the different definitions of “personalized learning.” Take a look:
“In fact, in speaking about [personalized learning] with more than a dozen educators, technologists, innovation experts and researchers, I’ve developed a theory: “Personalized learning” has become a Janus-faced word, with at least two meanings in tension:
The use of software to allow each student to proceed through a pre-determined body of knowledge, most often math, at his or her own pace.
A whole new way of doing school, not necessarily focused on technology, where students set their own goals. They work both independently and together on projects that match their interests, while adults facilitate and invest in getting to know each student one-on-one, both their strengths and their challenges.
Which vision of personalization will prevail? Pace alone, or “Personalize it all”? And what proportion of the hype will be realized?”
I spent last year engaged in a deep dive through an experience aptly named Learning Lab looking at this very question: what exactly is personalized learning? With a group of incredibly talented educators, I grappled with an inquiry question around the importance of reflection in this new type of learning, attempting to refine my own definition.
Still working on it.
Learning Lab 2.0 has launched with a new cohort looking at the same overarching theme, and diving into their own inquiries. The range of questions is broad, but personalization in every context has a few things in common:
student voice and choice are paramount
students are partners
teachers act as guides, encouraging and inspiring, providing feedback and probing questions
Part of my issue with Kamenetz’s article comes in this quote:
“At the beginning of a fad there’s a naming problem,”Rich Halverson says. He’s an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spent the last few years traveling around the country to see personalized learning in action at public schools.
Come on! Shifting practice so students drive the learning?? That’s a fad? You understand the heartburn. I hope. If not, here’s my point about the danger: we have to get on the same page about what works for students. The first definition offered (tech-driven pace-focused learning in front of a screen) can’t be seen as a solution. Maybe it’s a part of a much larger whole, but when people make sweeping assumptions about a model like this as a solution to what ails public education, you get this. Instead, let’s come to terms with the fact that students deserve a nuanced definition of personalized learning that always puts them at the center. Zmuda, Curtis, and Ullman’s definition is one I prefer:
Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven model in which students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.
Zmuda, A., Curtis, G., & Ullman, D. (2015). Learning personalized: The evolution of the contemporary classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
I love the idea of “progressively” student-driven, as it acknowledges that students do need some guidance; however, it suggests that students will eventually become capable of driving the ship themselves.
If you haven’t seen Kallick and Zmuda’s Personalized Learning Sound Board yet, it’s a great metaphor for the mixing we must do as educators to find just the right balance for our students:
Let’s acknowledge that we are professionals who understand that traditional teaching methods are not serving the needs of our students today. However, the shift to update isn’t a simple answer but demands we consider the humans at the center of our profession. The definition of personalized learning is as nuanced, multi-faceted and intricate as the students themselves, and that is as it should be.
You don’t know what you don’t know. And ignorance is not necessarily bliss. How do we encourage our students (and even ourselves) to push past this block and discover what lies beyond?
I visited NuVu yesterday for their Student Exhibition Night and was blown away by the young people whose excitement, passion, and willingness to talk about the design process was exquisite. They spoke about projects they had developed–like a mechanism to help seniors stand up (as opposed to rocking back and forth in hopes of creating momentum to propel oneself out of a chair). They shared stunning wearable art designed in collaboration with Heidi Latsky Dance–a company who celebrates diversity in its members–both disabled and not. They created a Door Bot that opens doors for those bound to wheelchairs.
In short, I was impressed. The real bang came the next day, though, when I was able to chat with three girls involved in the designing of costumes for the dance company. One student was from a public school and one from a private–two girls who had clearly developed a friendship through their work together. We spoke about the transition to NuVu, and what challenges they faced. Here’s what they told me:
“We just had to figure it out.”
“Coaches would lead us in a studio for a few hours and then they’d say, ‘Okay, now go do it.’ and we were like,’What?! I don’t know how to do that…” And here’s the beauty:
the coaches didn’t tell them.
Crazy, right?! How many times do your kids pester you for answers and you finally give in and tell them just because it’s easier or you don’t want to listen to them whine anymore? (Okay, maybe it’s just me.)
But that’s not happening at NuVu. Students are figuring shit out. And they’re designing prosthetic hands, interactive clothing that celebrates and brings attention to those lost to police brutality, interactive marketing tools…
Knowing my own tendency to “over help” and thereby cut off at the knees my own kids’ persistence, I pushed on this idea. I wondered how they retrained their brains to adopt a new sort of thinking. “What did you do when you were asked to brainstorm in a studio?” The girls laughed, recalling their first studio where they would throw out an idea followed by an immediate discrediting–“oh, that will never work…” They identified how short-sighted and self-limiting they had been, and how long it took them to develop the skill to think big, to dream the impossible in order to scale it to possible.
This is the beauty of design thinking, and why I think we need to embrace it regularly in our classrooms. Being brave enough to dream the impossible, to share it with a group, and discuss how it might one day become something…that’s the magic of learning. When we are so afraid to fail all the time, how might we redirect? Might we start with our old habits of self-limiting narratives, and push past them to something else?
Authentic project-based learning (like what’s outlined in the Buck Institute’s HQPBL framework) is one way forward.
If we want to graduate creative students who demonstrate skills, are truly lifelong learners, and persist as a matter of course, project-based learning is a clear path toward exactly that.
If you’re not sure, take Sinek’s advice and step outside your box for a few minutes before you return to your classroom.
“She’s just…gone,” she said to me, and I felt her energy–a sadness fueled by intense empathy–and I empathized in return. So many feelings–pride that we have teachers like her who stop into the office before 8 a.m. to check on students’ well being, sadness that we have students who surf couches and show up hungry, hesitation in my response as I tried to remain open to her tears and find words to fill the space where there were none to reassure.
Empathy is powerful. It can lay you flat out if you let it, and it did that to me today. There were tears, those I usually keep boxed up in a tight container, that flowed freely out the sides. I let myself truly feel for others, and yes, it hurt. And in our current political climate, I find myself drawn back to empathy time and again, trying to make sense of things I do not understand.
I don’t understand why some students must find ways to ask if we might have some food to spare–using humor, usually–because they struggle to quiet rumbles of hunger. I don’t understand why students have to live in unhealthy circumstances beyond their control at home, and then come to schools where their voices are rarely heard there either. I don’t understand why some teachers find it so difficult to build real relationships with students.
In tandem with the scant hours of fall daylight, there is darkness in school. But in this darkness, I seek the bright spots. One to note:
we have shifted our priorities this year to make time for things that matter,
one of them being time for students to explore personal interests. On Thursdays, students participate in a 45-minute workshop designed expressly for discovery and exploration. Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:
Encouraging, right? Vermont says we must personalize learning, and so we create a schedule in partnership with students that prioritizes time for them to explore passions. In some instances, it becomes the highlight of their week. It has other unintended and serendipitous consequences: students create new friendships based on common interests; they feel valued and mitigate their stress; they discover new interests that inspire them.
In short, we strengthen culture.
Empathy requires that you feel, and that’s scary for some (including me). Without it though, we find ourselves in tragic situations. I believe our schools should be places of comfort, inspiration, and belonging. Connecting with students, personalizing the school experience, valuing their voice…they aren’t extras. They’re the very foundation upon which we build strong schools, and it’s time we prioritize these shifts. We live in a world where school isn’t just school anymore; it’s the therapist’s office, the doctor, the parent, the family.
Let’s embrace what empathy can teach us about becoming the teachers that students need us to be in this present moment.