Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World: Some Features of Imaginative Ecological Education

A Guest Blog By Gillian Judson

 

Imagination and Place are two concepts that are rarely given the educational importance they are due. Each is often considered, for different reasons, peripheral to “real” learning and the work of mainstream schools. And yet, it isn’t difficult to stir up support for either one. There are obvious benefits of imagination for learning and many teachers are open to learning more about how to connect their students to Place, because, among other reasons, they see the value of developing students’ ecological understanding—a sense of connection with and concern for the natural world—or, increasingly, because they are being mandated to do so as part of their teaching. In addition to being of interest to teachers, if one knows where to look, there is theoretical and practical support for centralizing both of these neglected educational concepts in one’s practice.

 

Dr. Kieran Egan’s (1997, 2005) theory of Imaginative Education (IE) provides a theoretical framework and rationale for incorporating students’ emotional and imaginative lives in teaching and an extensive range of resources to translate this into practice. In IE, content is shaped in ways that connect to the imaginative and emotional lives of students. Imagination is acknowledged, thus, as one of the main workhorses of learning and not just a “hook” for grasping students’ attention. Similarly, there is an increasingly broad base of literature indicating the theoretical importance of Place and Place-Based Education (PBE) for cultivating ecological understanding and practical means for doing so. Bring imaginative engagement and an interest in Place together and we enter the new pedagogical terrain of Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE).

 

Three principles—Feeling, Activeness, and Place—guide an imaginative and ecological approach to teaching (Judson, 2015).

 

Feeling

In order to know how to imaginatively engage their students with a topic teachers must, first, be imaginatively engaged themselves. This puts a spin on the idea of creating “wonder” in the classroom. Indeed, what it suggests is that teachers find, first, what it is that evokes their sense of wonder. This is the emotional connection that will then inform all subsequent planning for teaching. This is the source, often of “the story” on a topic, the emotional and imaginative insight that will inspire the way the teacher shapes her teaching. What the teacher’s initial engagement does is allow for the introduction of the topic to the student in an emotionally and imaginatively engaging way. The teacher’s role in choosing what aspects of a topic to introduce—when and where—is part of all classroom teaching. An IE approach simply makes the teacher’s decision about where or how to begin be informed by emotional and imaginative interests first. From here she uses her knowledge of the ways her students engage emotionally and imaginatively with the world around them, to shape her teaching in a way that leaves students feeling something about it. She employs tools of the imagination—what Egan (2005) calls “cognitive tools”—to engage her students in discovering the wonder in the topic.

 

Activeness

It is important to consider that simply being outside or doing things outside will not necessarily contribute to learning or to students’ sense of connection to nature (Blenkinsop, 2008; Takahashi, 2004). In IEE the aim is to cultivate what Arne Naess (2002) calls activeness. Activeness describes a profound internal form of relationship we can cultivate with the natural world that has the most potential impact on our understanding of nature. “To do a great many things is not enough; what is important is what we do and how it happens. It is those of our actions which affect our whole nature that I call activeness” (Naess, 2002, p. 76). Rather than a form of physical activity, activeness may be better characterized as “lingering in silence” or as “pause” (Naess, 2002, p. 2-3). Our somatic engagement in the world, the attunement of our senses with our surroundings and the engagement of our sense of pattern, musicality, among other tools of the body, contributes to activeness.

 

Place

There is a rich body of literature in PBE that discusses the educational value of students’ engagement in the natural world for making their learning meaningful. It is also argued that a long-term sense of care for the natural world and a sense of connectedness within it stems from direct, physical engagement in nature as a child. So, unlike most pedagogy created in the current climate of objectives-based teaching, IEE is teaching situated. It is connected to the local natural and cultural contexts in which students live and learn, through engagement of the imaginative means in which human beings make sense of place. IEE also considers place-making in imaginative terms; we are imaginative and emotional beings. We use our imaginations in making sense of the world around us. Through the engagement of place-making tools—the sense of relation, the formation of emotional attachments, and creation of special places—increased knowledge of place (including, for example, knowledge of flora and fauna, geological and cultural history, etc.) is paired with affective engagement.

 

Place-making Tools

One of the imaginative means through which oral language users develop a sense of place is through the formation of emotional attachments with particular features of their immediate environments as well as with particular processes or rituals they experience on a frequent basis. So, for example, the teddy bear or “blankie” contributes to the child’s sense of self and world, offering a needed source of comfort and security. That is, children often grow very attached to objects of permanence in their environments. The young child’s sense of self and place is often blurred, as they experience a highly participatory form of engagement in the world as oral language users. In addition to emotional attachments to objects, shared processes or rituals contribute to the child’s sense of belonging in a place, to the meaning of the place and what sets it apart in the child’s mind. One sees, of course, in the adult world, ways in which shared rituals or customs continue to contribute to the sense of place and one’s sense of belonging (e.g. raising of a flag or customary patterns of interacting).

 

Older students will be imaginatively making sense of a situation in ways that reflect their growing sense of an independent, separate reality. In terms of place-making, one notices more direct attempts by children to create special, and often personalized, places of their “own” as in forts and hideouts, personalized lockers or decorated bedrooms. The creation (or also discovery) of special places support a child’s attempt to deal with a new sense of reality by offering a secure place in which he often has autonomy and from which he can creatively—and safely—explore wider social, cultural or natural contexts. Place-making now seems to coincide with more direct forms of creative engagement in the world. A central premise of IEE is that by employing in our teaching, the place-making tools that students are already using to make sense of their situations, we can engage imagination in place-making as part of any unit of study. [For more information on cognitive tools of place-making see Judson (2010), or Fettes & Judson (2011).]

 

Concluding Thoughts

IEE offers means to teach a rich and varied curriculum in ways that acknowledge and nurtures the imaginative life of every child. I hope this far-too-brief introduction to imaginative ecological teaching principles and practices leaves you curious to learn more. (The IEE website: www.ierg.ca/iee or IEE posts).

 

References

Blenkinsop, S. (2008). Imaginative ecological education: Six necessary components. In G. Judson (Ed.), Imagination 360˚: Effective learning through the imagination (pp. 139-148). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Egan, K. (1997). Educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fettes, M. & Judson, G. (2011) Imagination and the cognitive tools of place-making. Journal of Environmental Education, 42 (2), pp. 123-135.

Judson, G. (2015). Engaging Imagination In Ecological Education: Strategies For Teaching. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press.

Judson, G. (2010). A New Approach to Ecological Education: Engaging students’

imaginations in their world. New York: Peter Lang.

Naess, A. (2002). Life’s philosophy: Reason and feeling in a deeper world. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Takahashi, Y. (2004). Personal and social transformation: A complementary process toward ecological consciousness. In E. O’Sullivan, & M. M. Taylor (Eds.), Learning toward an ecological consciousness: Selected transformative practices (pp. 169-182). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

About the Author

Professor Gillian Judson is a consultant, researcher, and educator from Simon Fraser University, teaching courses in cognitive styles, environmental and imaginative education, and the awakening of wonder. She is the author of several books. Her latest publication is a co-authored book entitled Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (Egan, K. & Judson, G. New York: Teachers’ College Press; 2016).

If You’re Not In Control, Who Is?

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘control’? The word ‘control’ can be very ambiguous and slippery. For example, in an English class about ten years ago, a student asked me what I thought was most important to learn. I asked if she meant in school or in life in general. She said both. I replied that there could be several answers to that question. The first thoughts that came to mind were how to love, and then how to pay attention and learn from my own experiences. Then I thought of being able to control or be the master of my self. I asked her what she thought. Instead of answering directly, she responded to my answers. She liked the first but disliked the second.

 

I asked her, “When you hear ‘master of the self,’ what did you hear?”

 

She replied something like: “I hear the word ‘control.’ I hear someone telling me to ‘be in control’ or ‘get yourself together, be more acceptable, fit in. Put up a front. Not let the real me out.’”

 

Another student added, “Being in control is manipulation. My parents do that.’”

 

Another added, “It is fake. So why be in control?”

 

This surprised me and shook me a bit. “If you’re not in control,” I asked, “who is? Or who would you want in control?”

 

One response was “Why be in control?” These students did not want to be the “master” or even in control. “Master” sounded too much like a movie—pompous, or too S&M, joked one student.

 

I can understand not liking the connotation of control as in “control freak” or manipulating, falsifying, or oppressing others. But someone in control is someone who is an authority. An ‘author’ is an originator, the source, the creator of one’s own actions. One student stated that being in control meant speaking and acting their own truth. Many of us agreed with this perspective.

 

In a similar conversation in a Psych class, some students argued against “controlling” the expression of anger. They said to not express anger was oppressive and made it worse. I then asked how they felt when someone got angry at them.

 

“I felt awful.”

 

“Did you feel oppressed,“ I asked?

 

“I felt assaulted, actually. The anger frightened me.”

 

“It inflamed my own anger,” added another student.

 

“So how successful was directly expressing anger in diminishing it?”

 

“Not very.”

 

After a moment of silence, I went on. “Anger can be useful at times, however. But is there a choice other than unconstrained expression of anger and repression?” Students said there was, which we then talked about. To decide what action to take, you do one thing and not another and, thus, you exercise control.

 

There are strains in our culture that mistakenly link throwing off oppression and opposing falsity, with unchecked expression of emotion. That believes freedom is the same as unrestrained action, and the quantity of choices one has is more important than the quality. This view of freedom undermines the sense that each of us has the right and responsibility not only to act when necessary, for our own safety and principles, but to do our best to make our actions appropriate, and serve the well-being, not only of ourselves but others.

 

“Would you be free if you acted on every thought you had? What would happen if you openly acted on every emotion you experienced?” Some joked it would be a relief, different—until they thought about bullying, assaults, road rage, etc. It became clear to students how oppressive the situation would be if they acted on every thought—and how dangerous

 

Even though the testing culture in many schools is making such meaningful discussions more difficult, I think it needs to be done in whatever way teachers can do it, especially after the election. The President models one result of not exercising self-control, and being thoughtless or not caring of how one’s actions affect others. (These discussions might also reveal students who need one-on-one attention.)

 

We all bear a great responsibility to figure out, as best we can, how we, together, shape the fate of the planet and future generations. To do that, we need to study our self and others, to learn how to hear our own interior dialogues, feelings, and sensations, and be a conscious author of who we are. Who do you want in control, a conscious, aware you, or someone else?

 

**Photo by Kathy Morris.

Teaching Yourself and Others How to Learn From Fear, Not Fear It

What are you feeling now? Just ask yourself (or your children, students, friends) the question and listen to and feel what comes up. It’s almost four weeks after the election. Have your feelings changed? How? Promise yourself to be gentle and listen not just to the words but the feelings and sensations that shadow and anchor every word you utter. Listen not just to what appears but how you respond to what appears. Feel your jaw and shoulders, your chest and belly. Where do you feel any tension? What is the quality of it, sharp, heavy, like pins and needles, hot or cold? Notice how your body expands with the inbreath, and lets go, settles down with the outbreath. Notice the sense of calm and quiet that can emerge when you step back and be aware of thoughts, sensations or your surroundings. Then breathe into the area and move on to notice another sensation.

 

This is one way to begin your day. When you act with the totality of your being, you are in harmony. Most fear arises from sensing a need to defend your self from an inner not an outer threat. You might be fighting your own inner battle or maybe you try to end any confusion you have over what is “the right way” by eliminating anyone who adds to the confusion or the complexity. When you do need to fight an actual external threat, study yourself and the situation and know the others involved. You can’t fight what you can’t see.

 

Many of us are feeling anxious and afraid. Many have pointed out that this election is different from any other. When there is so much that is unknown, fear is normal. Fear can be both a friend and an enemy, depending on how you treat it. It is an enemy if you turn away from it and fear it. It is a friend if it energizes you to wake up, notice, and learn from a threatening situation. When you turn away, you feel isolated and jittery. When you reach out to others, you more easily calm your thinking and step outside the dominion of fear.

 

Anxiety takes fear a step further. You add to a fear of the future a sense that you might not be able to face it. You feel inadequate, or fear being exposed as inadequate. You think the situation will mark you and turn others away, so your future might be ripped away. You feel like building a wall around yourself. But if you take action, you feel more open and powerful. If you join with others in taking action, you let go of fear and anxiety, isolation and powerlessness.

 

How you act also depends on how you think about discomfort. If you think it is wrong or abnormal to feel discomfort or stress, you will greet such sensations with fear and anxiety, and turn away from them. Only if you recognize that discomfort can be helpful can you allow yourself to be aware of it. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, and recognize them for what they are, you can act in ways that utilize their energy without them dominating you. You learn from them and let them go.

 

This time of anxiety and uncertainty can also provide the opportunity to learn more about compassion. Compassion is the motivation, the energy to act to reduce suffering wherever you encounter it. When you do this, you might not even think you are being compassionate. You act because the action comes from a deep sense of who you are, in this moment; it is the only thing you can honestly do. You sense what and who is there with you, what feels right, uplifting—or harmful. Boundaries drop away along with fear and anxiety. You are basically selfless in that there is no intermediary between the sense of another’s pain (or your own) and the motivation to reduce it.

 

You can never know all the results or consequences of your actions, so please don’t act solely for some future political or social goal. As many say, you can’t focus only on the ends and forget the means. Such actions are divisive. But you can study your intentions. You can aim to do the best you can, in the way that fits you. Your actions come from your sense of rightness, not from being bullied into doing it.

 

Likewise, you can recognize the limitations and humanity of others, including anyone who would be a leader. Especially when you’re afraid, it is easy to project onto others mythical qualities, an intelligence, ability or moral quality, positive or negative, that is supposedly greater than your own, and thus let leaders make the decisions for you. You know this, so recognize it when it happens and let it go with laughter. To see what is in others you must know it in yourself. And if you feel called to be a leader, recognize that your wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of the vast mass of others. A diversity of other people needs to live in your heart as your guide.

 

A good friend and I were in a bookstore the day after Thanksgiving. He was reading me a funny passage from a book on Hillary Clinton’s childhood, and we were laughing. A woman standing next to us looked up, a bit startled, with some fear in her face, and said, “How can you be laughing at such a moment? I am too terrified to laugh.” I told her I understood. But that I deal with the terror better if I laugh. If I can laugh, I don’t get stuck on any thought or concern and can think more clearly about what to do. She smiled slightly, unsure. We all talked for another moment, and then went our separate ways.

 

So, I am trying to be gentle and kind to myself in these complex and difficult moments, and I wish you the same. And remember, when you are with others, they might be feeling the same way you do, but in their own way. So be kind to them, too. It might help all of us figure out how to best resist a future of hate and fear.

 

How to Let Go of Stress and Save the World

It is easy to forget how your mental attitude affects the world you perceive. It is easy to get so stressed about the problems you perceive in the world and your lives that you can’t act or can’t clearly understand what you face. So not understanding stress can be a significant block to feeling good and acting skillfully.

 

What is stress? Many people think of it as a physiological response to a threat that you can’t control or shape. It is the fight-flight-freeze response, mostly the flight or freeze aspects. But it’s not just that. As Joseph LeDoux makes clear in his new book, Anxious: Understanding The Brain To Understand And Treat Fear And Anxiety, the feeling of fear and anxiety is not simply a physiological response. There is a cognitive component to it.

 

The physiological threat response arises to enable many different kinds of activities, from facing an actual physical threat, such as a knife-wielding robber, to when you think your sense of self is endangered. It can arise when you need to take a test, drive in traffic, talk with a friend about a difficult topic, or write a blog. It can underlie a great many emotions, like fear, worry, anxiety, jealousy and anger.

 

Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, describes steps in the construction of emotion. The first step is arousing attention and energy, what he calls the initial orienting response. The second is appraisal, which includes what we might call feeling and interpreting, labeling stimuli as good or bad, to approach or avoid. Memories enter the picture. The third step is your categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, fear. Without the initial signals to pay attention and to approach a task, motivation is absent; and learning, clear thinking is nearly impossible.

 

You can learn to notice what happens in your body as it occurs. If you don’t become aware of what is going on inside you, you can’t do anything about it. You can notice:

*Location: where the sensations of stress are in your body

*Quality: type of feeling you experience, like discomfort, pins and needles, squeezed or pressured, hot or cold.

*Intensity: strength.

*Direction of motivated action: do you feel like approaching, turning away, or being neutral?

*Mental attitude: what thoughts, images— what sense of who you are arises in your mind?

 

The threat response is thus the combination of awakened energy and attention, added to a sense of being uncomfortable, and the internal pressure to relieve it. Stress, at its earliest stage, is simply awakened energy. It is useful and necessary. What turns awakened energy into unwelcome stress is the interpretation or the stories you construct from the memories and sensations and situation. For example, do you think you are capable and strong enough to handle the situation?

 

Unwelcome stress is, thusly, meeting discomfort or any situation with resistance. It is being uncomfortable with discomfort, afraid of being afraid. Once you resist, your thinking gets further skewed, and limited. Emotional awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of sensations, feelings, thoughts, and images allows you to notice, recognize and thus let go of any emotion before it becomes overwhelming. It allows you to think and act with more clarity, speed, and concern for self and others.

 

Sometimes students express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “if I let go of my feelings, what would be left of me? My emotions are me.” On one level, this is the expression of fear of fear. On another level, mindfulness adds a level of awareness students might not be used to. However, when you let go of fearing fear and other emotions, you notice an even more authentic you, and a deeper realm of feeling.

 

To practice this mindful awareness, take a moment to sit up, possibly close your eyes, and turn inward for a moment. Maybe notice the air entering your nostrils as you breathe in—and breathe out. Or become aware of how your body, as in your shoulders or jaw, expands as you breathe in—and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. You might hear a thought and simply notice it as you breathe in—and let it go as you return your attention to breathing out. Simply take a breath or two, noticing what you do, and then open your eyes, stretch and return fully to the room—awake and refreshed.

 

You can use mindfulness whenever you want to clear your mind: before you enter a class, begin a project, a test, a heavy conversation, or make an important decision. Or when you want to appreciate something more deeply, let go of pain, or take political or social action to reduce inequity, injustice, or suffering.

 

In the US, being constantly busy supposedly signifies you are valued and important. But being on the go all the time means you don’t let your body fully settle. Mindfulness, especially when combined with compassion, gives you the opportunity to let your mind calm and quiet. It can help you discover what you truly feel and guide you through the thinking process. Doing it for just a few minutes at a time can help you better discern which actions are of the most benefit to you and others and help ”save” the world.

Anger

So much anger around lately. Like any emotion, anger can be more complex and multifaceted than it seems. It can save your life, energize you to fight off a threat or oppression. Or it could harm a relationship, fog your thinking, and lead to regret.

 

It’s not the emotional feeling that causes the problems, however. Emotion is a natural response to a stimuli and a motivator to act in a certain way. It directs your way of thinking and remembering. You often create stories in your mind to support and explain your own emotions. It is these stories, how you respond to the emotion, and how you act, that cause the problems or reveal a solution.

 

Anger can arise out of fear and in response to fear. When afraid, you want to turn away and run. When angry, you want to stay and fight or even run toward what frightens you. So it can be powerful and intoxicating. Anger can come as a balm, feel like a cure, or create an identity for you when one is lacking.

 

Think about times you were angry. There is a righteousness to the emotion. You are at a check out line in a big box store. The cashier charges you two dollars more than the labeled price and you notice it. You interpret the situation as a purposeful act. You tell yourself the cashier is a dupe of corporate thieves (which does occur too often). You start to get angry—until the cashier turns red in his face, apologizes, and explains he entered the wrong price in the computer.

 

You might rail against man’s inhumanity to man, or how the political system is rigged and unjust, or how other people’s lack of awareness and responsibility negatively impacts your life. And all this can be true. You feel imposed upon and isolated. You say to yourself you refuse to be a part of the inhumanity. You then use the anger as an identity; you think of yourself as a fighter against evil. You walk around with anger as your shield of righteousness. As a result, you bring anger everywhere you go. You push people away. You ignore or are unaware of how your shield negatively impacts yourself as well as all those you meet and you become what you rail against. How often do you walk into a room full of angry or fearful people and you feel their fear or anger like an assault? Anger is contagious.

 

In our modern world, culture and cultural institutions are arguably the prime influence on human behavior, not “raw nature.” We don’t, on a daily basis, fear attacks by “wild” animals. We can’t pretend that any anger we feel is just a natural response to a threat and must be acted upon as if our existence were threatened. We predominantly feel threatened by or get angry about not a tiger’s claws but a human who belittles, disrespects or treats us unfairly—or by or a systematic attack on our ability to lead a full, meaningful, happy life. It is human society and how other humans treat us and mirror us that we most often fear and that angers us most deeply.

 

We are all part of a system of relationships and must do our best to honor those relationships. How we think we stand in relation to others is extremely important to us. Being treated fairly is extremely important. If our society treats some of us poorly, or actually militates against our ability to get our needs met, we get angry. We feel society doesn’t see us and is denying our humanity. As many writers, activists, and spiritual leaders have pointed out, if one of us is treated poorly, all of us are affected.

 

What can we do? There is no easy answer to this. We can start by studying our own emotional experience and learn to differentiate at least two of the many directions anger can take. There is the anger that arises as we blame others for the pain we cause (to self and others) or we project onto others the anger we do not face. And there is anger that arises when we witness hurt and injustice. The first arises because, ultimately, we want to feel good. We want to feel loved and be loving and we don’t know how. We might judge ourselves too harshly for our mistakes and forget that we are not born with all the knowledge and wisdom we need to survive. We forget learning only comes through making mistakes. We need to learn that to feel loved we must be loving. We need to learn, as much as it is possible, how to let go of this anger and the stories we tell ourselves which fuel it. The second arises because we care and feel empathy. We want to act to end any suffering we witness as if it were our own.

 

Anger at oppression and injustice can spark resistance against it. Yet anger can cloud our thinking. When we’re angry, our ability to perceive can be narrowed to looking for threats, and we isolate ourselves from what we’re angry at. We mentally convert thinking, breathing, feeling people very much like us into enemies filled only with the intent to harm or denigrate us, who exist only as our nemesis or oppressor.

 

You can’t fight what you don’t see. You can’t see what you rail against in anger and push away with hate. You can’t unite with those you push away. When you’re angry, it is easy to lose sight of those who are your natural allies.

 

So, to find answers, you must enter the mind and heart of others to understand what drives them and how they think. Then your anger, as much as it is possible, can give way to the empathy and care which might underlie it, and be replaced with a commitment to take appropriate action guided by emotional awareness and intellectual understanding. Gandhi said something like, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Buddha said something very similar. They weren’t being “nice” when they said this. They were being practical.

Brussels

The attacks in Brussels shake my mind. I read the details of the attacks, 35 dead in two locations, of explosions from suicide bombs, of nails embedded in the bombs, and imagine the feeling of nails striking me. What do these attackers feel? Are they too wrapped up in their doctrines to feel the pain of others? Does the pain of the people of Belgium and other nations somehow alleviate their own pain? And what do our leaders say and feel? Do they think that fueling anger, fear and hatred will stop the violence?

 

It doesn’t. The pain continues. The attacks continue. The “ventilation fallacy” in psychology says “venting” anger does not alleviate it. You might imagine if you just expressed and let loose your anger, the pain of it will be lessened, but it only increases. More dimensions of pain are added to the original emotion. The consequences of the angry outburst, the people you hurt, the guilt is added to the original feeling. There is a gigantic world of possibility between unrestrained expression and suppression. When the emotion expressed is hate, the consequences of expression are in a different league altogether than anger and they spiral out in wider and more chaotic circles.

 

When I hear news of such awful violence, I easily feel the social network and the goodness and beauty of the world are falling apart. Maybe you feel the same. It is too easy to hide away in fear or to let the news of all the attacks numb you to what is happening. But the horror of each attack is not diminished with a new one.  When children are faced with the news of such attacks, what do you, as a parent, teacher, or friend do? I wrote a blog about this in November, following the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Mali. About the need for learning how to be strong in mind and body so as to not meet hate with hate and ignorance, but with understanding, compassion, a critical intellect and a readiness for appropriate action. I would add to what I said earlier the need for a critical inquiry into the force of communion and relationship that makes a community and society possible. When students say there is so much hate, ask them about what they enjoy most in their life. If they love music, ask them about all the people who made the music they hear on their ipod possible. If they love food, ask about all the people who had to work together to make their lunch. Ask them about what makes a class or a friendship work. Ask them what they find beautiful.

 

But even more, educate students about mindful action. They can write to children in Brussel’s schools, as well as in other schools in their area. They can do community service, learn about the effects of inequity and abuse, study the frustration, anxiety and anger in their own communities and learn steps to be taken to improve the social-political network. When faced with fear and hate, they can learn how to recognize the love and cooperation that makes their lives possible. They need to feel the connection they have not only to the victims but to all humans. Instead of giving in to the forces of distortion and destruction, they need to understand that without relationship, no society or community is possible.

Testing For Social-Emotional Skills?

A trend I find encouraging in schools is consciously teaching social-emotional skills. This is often, but not always, accompanied by mindfulness education, or teaching how to be aware of your emotional and thought processes moment-by-moment. So, guess what administrators and politicians want to do with these programs? According to an article by Kate Zernike in the New York Times, “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students Emotional Skills,” they want to use standardized tests to assess students in these programs. I mean, such tests have proven so beneficial with measuring other forms of learning and promoting learning in general, why not test a student’s “grit?”

 

No! Despite the fact that there are many indicators that demonstrate the value of social-emotional learning and mindfulness training in the classroom, all such testing will do is undermine the learning. Testing means teaching to the test. It is the test that indicates whether the standards or indicators of learning have been met. As Zernike asks in her article, how do you incorporate into a standardized test indicators of emotional awareness? Patience? Kindness?

 

Standardized testing motivates students to do well largely through fear of a bad grade. If they don’t pass, students might not move on in grade or complete high school, or their teacher might get a bad evaluation. Fear can undermine any form of learning, so it’s particularly perverse to use it to assess how well students understand their own emotional responses.

 

But wouldn’t a test motivate students to learn “grit” or hardiness in the face of fear? First, you can’t reduce emotional intelligence to having “grit.” Grit is one emotional trait that is very helpful in certain contexts but can be destructive in other contexts. As educator Alfie Kohn pointed out in a critique of “grit,” students need to question if the task they are being asked to persist at completing is worth the effort. Stick-to-itiveness and persistence is only valuable when combined with knowing how to prioritize what should be pursued and with empathy for the implications and consequences of a pursuit. It needs inner awareness of one’s motivation and the ability to critically examine the task itself.

 

Second, social-emotional learning and mindfulness do help students face fear more productively. But such learning does not happen through fear of punishment or a concern with how others assess your skills. To look within, as emotional intelligence requires, means finding your own intrinsic motivation to do so. If you are overly focused on how others assess you, as often happens with standardized testing, you will never learn to accurately perceive what is within you. You will always look in the wrong place. You look at yourself as you imagine others see you, not as felt by yourself.

 

As Zernike points out, in education, what is tested is what is valued. As things stand in the educational establishment, only if students are tested in a subject will it be valued. But this is the problem, not the solution.

 

Many people exercising power and influence over public education in this country, despite all the protests over recent years, think of tests and the simple numbers they generate as the tool for assessment, and they use it to nail down students and teachers. They have what appears to be a learning disability, or rigidity in thinking, as despite the lack of evidence to demonstrate that standardized testing promotes learning, they persist in their behavior. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it the law of the instrument. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as a nail.” Tests generate numbers that can be used to rank students, but just because you have a number doesn’t mean that the number signifies anything. Without such proof, test scores are an illusion of relevance.

 

You need numbers and other data to evaluate the effectiveness of these new programs. So, instead of tests look at drop out rates. Look at attendance. Look at student projects. Look at reduced rates of violence in the classroom. Look at the joyfulness of students. But don’t try to bury emotional learning in irrelevant, if not destructive, test scores.

Stopping Terror

I had planned to write about something positive in education and to share a blog I read about a new “populism” in the democratic party, when I heard on Friday about the killings in Paris. That stopped me. My first response, like so many I heard on the news, was “no.” How can this be happening again? The pain this is causing—I felt fear and then anger and tried to imagine being in Paris or Syria. The situation is both simple and more complex than I can understand. Simple because people were murdered and others are in pain and this is just wrong. It is horrific. It is also complex; there is no easy answer to the situation in Paris today and in Syria and other places in the world, no matter how much I and others want there to be one.

 

Acts of terror are carried out to spread fear though a populace and lead a country, especially a country claiming to be democratic, into a frightening double-bind. Anger and fear can convince people to call for measures of revenge and protection: violent revenge not only against the people who carried out the attack but the belief system and political situation that gave it life. Protection can include all kinds of measures to defend against further attacks. But as we learned from Edward Snowden and subsequent revelations, protection and revenge can lead to over-reaction and the destruction of the rights and liberties necessary to keep democracy alive. To protect democracy, we end it. That is terrorism’s goal. As many people have said, all of us who abhor terror must fight not only against murder and destruction but for democracy, for the rights, equity, humanity that should characterize a government and are our best weapons against terrorist ideology.

 

Society is held together by the most precarious of ties. It is not just buildings and institutions, but relationships, ideas, empathy and dreams. Spread enough fear and you can break the ties that bind us together. Instead, we need to do the opposite. But how do you do that? All I know is that a commitment must be made to not create more harm through the actions taken to make us safer and the world less violent. To eliminate the inhumanity that is ISIL requires studying and untangling the massively tangled web of beliefs, suffering and oppression that gave birth to it. One aspect of ISIL is the absolute belief in the rightness of its ideas as well as its mission to destroy anyone that gets in its way or has different ideas. Fighting them requires not becoming them. It means recognizing that the ideas we hold dear need to be held with some humility and with an awareness of the limits of our powers to understand the world. For the U. S. it means, for one thing, to call for actions that support the French and undermine ISIL but not ones taken only to serve immediate political expediency and influence an election. It means improving the way we care for and support each other, instead of letting fear drive us further apart. (Check out this link.)

 

A report on Al Jazeera said that, instead of hiding, the people of France were out on the streets, in cafes, taking comfort in resisting fear together.  I hope that all of us, in France, the US and other countries will learn how to face evil without becoming evil, to strengthen democracy instead of undermining it.

Awareness Is Political

I woke up this morning about 6 am. It was still dark. I got out of bed, walked around and almost stepped on my 7 month old kitten, Milo. Instead of being freaked out, I was happy, not only that I didn’t step on him but that I could see him, or just see, period. Maybe because of now being a “senior citizen” I am more aware of what someday I will lose. There was fear at the opposite side of the joy, fear of losing sight and my other senses. And hurt. I felt what I imagined Milo might feel if I stepped on him. He would not know why I hurt him.

 

Perception is not just about information. My seeing makes it possible to step around and reach out to pet him. As I sense him, a feeling of approach or avoidance arises, then like, dislike or indifference. Then memories, of how he rolls over to get my attention or how he chases our other cats. There is relationship.

 

Our perceptions and emotions link us to others and our world, a world from which we are never, even for an instance, separate. Yet, do we always feel this? Of course not. We can lose the sense of connection even more easily than we lose the sense of sight. Never forget that sensing connection is a sense. And we pay an enormous price for its’ loss. We pay with violence. We pay with suffering. Once painful emotions are aroused, it is easier to enact them on others. Feeling disconnected or isolated hurts and makes it easier to get angry, blame and hurt others. Thinking gets confused. Manipulation is easy. A population that is hurting is easily manipulated.

 

Empathy is the heart of connection, love and ethical action. It can take different forms. According to Paul Ekman, there is recognizing what another being thinks or feels. There’s feeling with or caring about others, and lastly, being ready to act for their welfare. I feel the pain I could cause Milo and thus shudder at the imagined hurt. Because I experience his pain, I am more careful. Some argue that such empathy will not stop violence or hurt. People often hurt themselves. Others hurt the ones they love even more frequently than those they don’t care about. If empathy doesn’t protect us from hurting those we love, when will it protect us?

 

But examine the hurt that arises with the emotion of love. To love is obviously a highly complex state that comes in all sizes and shapes. Feeling love is feeling the edge between two strong polarities. You feel entirely open and vulnerable, “connected.” You care. You feel joyous and valued. You say “yes” to the world. On the other side, you feel the possibility of loss. With love, you feel alive; you feel the moment strongly, which means you feel its impermanence. From there, it is easy to fear loss, hurt, the world saying “no” to you. You desire security, continuity, even control. When you hurt the one you love, you are trying to stop the fear. But that is the same as stopping the vulnerability, which is to stop the love. You try to protect love by ending it. It is not love that causes the hurt. It is the fear that you can’t love. Living on the edge of a sword is a highly prized skill. When you hurt yourself, instead of feeling too much, you feel too little. You hurt yourself because feeling something, even pain, is preferable to feeling nothing or feeling dead.  There is danger in feeling too little or too much.

 

So, to educate love, empathy and connection, awareness of thoughts and emotions, is a politically and socially responsible act. It makes us better citizens and neighbors. It is difficult to manipulate those who are emotionally and socially aware. It is revolutionary. I wish schools would teach it more. In the late 1960s, the slogan “the personal is political” helped rally the student and women’s movements. Maybe “awareness is political” will rally each of us today.

Anger, Resentment, and Gratitude

I think some of us can remember hearing the following: “I didn’t choose to be here. My parents chose to have sex; I didn’t choose to be born. I am forced to go to school; I didn’t choose to go to school.” We either said this ourselves or heard some of our students or children saying it. There are many ways to argue with these statements, but for now, let’s just listen to them and take them in. What is going on in us or in any person who has similar thoughts or feelings? What is our response to such statements? They’re not unusual but they are powerful. It’s not just a teenager being a teenager. There is real confusion, anger and/or pain being expressed.

 

So, what do you do when you hear these thoughts in your own mind or when your students voice them? Here are a few suggestions. You could re-direct attention. The thoughts arise from something repeating itself over and over again in your mind.  You can’t tell anyone to stop thinking something. But you can give yourself or your students something else to do or think about. You could read something inspiring, a story of courage or achievement or social justice, or a poem that reaches deep into the heart. Or you could organize an activity together, something physical or in nature.

 

If you have practiced mindfulness, you could lead the class in a meditation to quiet the mind, recognize the sensations that go with the thoughts, and let them go.

 

Another approach is to understand the emotion behind the thoughts by going directly into it and explore all of its components. What emotion are you feeling? What triggered the feeling? What sensations do you feel, where? What images arise? What actions do you feel driven to take?  For many people, the emotion arises from not wanting to go along with the status quo, the present reality, political, social or otherwise. It is pushing back against the world. It is a feeling of rebellion. And there is much to rebel against. I wish more of us were rebelling, or fighting to change elements of our human world.

 

It can be disappointment or anger. The anger might be at a hurt you have suffered. Or you might not realize it, but the anger might be from feeling that your life is not meaningful enough. Especially teenagers, whose brains are growing at such a pace that they want a challenge, they want to save the world and make grand discoveries. Anger or resentment can be a cry for depth and meaning.

 

However, when the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” is rampaging through your mind, it can block out anything positive. It can make the world itself a threat that you must guard against. You need some clarity to determine how much of your thinking that the world is awful or needs changing is based on a real understanding of the situation. And, how much is based on your attitude or not being able to let go of something in the past?

 

So, if students can’t find clarity, you can help them explore their own mind with an inquiry practice. First, they need some calm or quiet. You can start off with a meditative technique like focusing attention on the breath. Or you could just have them close their eyes and take 3 slow, full, deep breaths. Then try one of the following practices. If the sun is shining, you could ask them to: focus on the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your face. If it’s cold, you could say: imagine being wrapped in a beautiful quilt. Imagine the warmth and how comforting that could be, how safe it can feel. (Pause.)

 

Then: Legally, you have to be educated in a manner approved by the state. But you can ask: “What do I want from my schooling? How can I participate in that education so it best serves my deepest needs? What are those deep needs?”  Imagine participating in your education so it serves your needs. What would you do differently? What initial steps would you take?

 

Or: What would it be like to transform resentment or anger by changing your life or the world for the better? How would it feel to have a sense of purpose or meaning? Right now, what instance of suffering or injustice would you like to lessen, what situation would you like to change? What first step can you take to make that improvement and make your life more meaningful or purposeful through your actions?

 

Or, you could explore a mind-state very different from anger or resentment, like gratitude. In school, I sometimes ask students: What does gratitude mean to you? What would happen if you felt gratitude for what you’re learning? How does that differ, emotionally, from being bored, indifferent, resentful, or angry? Which attitude helps you learn better? Which gives you more of a sense of power?

 

I teach Karate to middle and high school students. One part of class is learning Katas, which are prearranged series of movements, each of which has a meaning in self-defense. Before each practice of a Kata, you bow. Some students have trouble seeing the meaning in this bow or understand why they must repeat the movements so many times. I then explain that each of the Katas we learn were created by real people, masters of the art, and can go back a hundred years or more. They are like books of great depth that can be read again and again to find new meaning. We bow in respect and gratitude not just to the teacher leading the class, but to the teacher in the Kata or to the teachings embedded in the Kata. I ask them: How does it change your attitude when you think of the master creating the Kata? When you think of its depth and age? When you think that practicing it might somehow give you the ability to save your life or the life of someone you cared about? What is that worth? What is it like to feel that you are learning something that can save lives?

 

When you feel resentful, you can feel your life is not worthwhile. You are saying “no” to a moment. We all want our lives to have a sense of worth and meaning and deserve the chance to create such a life. Anger wants a target to attack. It can point you towards something that needs changing or it can set you against yourself. Gratitude can take you directly into your own experience. It opens you up to the world. What you feel gratitude for, you value. You feel that your life in this very moment is valuable. So, what is it that you feel gratitude for? For your ability to be aware of your own thoughts and sensations? For the clarity of your breath? For the fact that there is something meaningful that you could work on? What is that worth to you?