Teaching In A Period of Anxiety and Threat

How would growing up in an age of the minority-elected President influence our children? If you’re a parent, you might be thinking about this question too often. If you’re a child in a public school, a person of color, a recent immigrant, an LGBT, a Muslim or a Jewish person, a female, a person who believes in civil rights, a free press, or a democrat—the list of who might be threatened is almost endless. How do you teach?

 

Just a few years ago, teachers started noticing a clear increase in anxiety in the children they taught. Now, it’s even worse. Even back before Mr. T. was sworn in or elected, a negative effect was noticed in school children by the SPLC and NEA. Teachers recently have talked about how his election has led to children acting out more, being more argumentative, angry, anxious and less willing to listen to others, as if they were bringing into the classroom the emotions and arguments from home or the media. There’s been an increase in bullying, use of verbal slurs, harassment. So, what do you do?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by your response as a teacher, by all of our responses, than by the situation itself. Your response educates the child in what is possible, in what it means to be a human being. A person becomes a bully, not a clown or a desperate person, not only by his or her actions but by controlling how you perceive them. Your response is your freedom. Schools can begin with programs against bullying and increasing the understanding and practice of empathy; teach social-emotional skills.

 

In November of 2015, I wrote a blog about facing terror. In a way, what I said then is relevant now. “How do you talk with your children, or if you are a teacher, with your students, about… any acts of terror and violence, [or the new administration] or whenever something dreadful happens and you feel frightened or pissed off?  You might feel numb, scared, mute. You might want to cry out for revenge, or cry out to stop the killing. All understandable. All emotion is understandable. But what do you do with it? And how do you teach your children or students about it?”

 

“This is a complex question and I think answering it needs to be part of the discussion in families and in the curriculum. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching children how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students learn about the situation and learn about the attacks, what led to them and what might be done to prevent further violence.”

 

“First, I suggest starting by feeling and hearing what is going on in yourself. You have to be honest and willing to face uncomfortable feelings and look deeply into your own ways of thinking. To get out of the way of a thrown object you have to first see it. Then you need to hear from students. What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen? [Or what do you feel about the administration?] By listening, you say to yourself and your students, ‘you are strong enough to face this and I care enough to listen.’ You teach empathy and emotional awareness.”

 

Ask students: How can you feel more comfortable and less anxious here, in the classroom? Work together with students to make explicit what you and the students need in order to create a supportive, caring atmosphere—that is within your power. Ask the children open-ended questions followed with more explicit ones. For example, What does caring look like to you? Is being kind important to you? What is kindness? What do you feel when someone is kind to you? What about being heard? What about feeling the discussion is relevant to your life?

 

If you can, lead the students in imaginative inquiry practices using questions based on student responses. For example, if they pick out kindness as one characteristic of a supportive classroom, go with it. Start with a short mindfulness practice. Say to them: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and either close your eyes partly or fully, or let them rest on a blank surface in front of you. Can you feel your breath? Feel yourself take a gentle breath in. Then feel it go out. Do that again; focus on your breathing in—and then breathing out. No hurry. Put your attention on the area around your mouth and notice how your mouth feels as you breathe in. Then notice what happens as you breathe out. Do the same with your shoulders. Notice how your shoulders respond, expand as you breathe in. Notice how your shoulders let go, relax as you breathe out.

 

Now let come to mind the word kindness. Did you ever see someone being kind? Or meet someone you considered kind? What did he or she do that was kind? Just notice it in your mind and body. Who was the person who was kind? Who was she or he kind to? What makes an action kind? What words come to mind along with kindness?

 

What do you imagine the person felt when he or she was treated with kindness? Just imagine that feeling. What do you think the person felt who was kind? Just sit for a moment with the feeling of kindness, or being kind.

 

Once you share what you and the students think about kindness or caring, and what is necessary to create the supportive community children say they need, pledge to each other that you will do all you can to act accordingly. Also, if possible, add to the curriculum other social-emotional forms of learning to help children be more aware of how their actions affect others, affect their own emotions and the atmosphere in the classroom and their own sense of empowerment.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. How do you face what is difficult? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, stress, being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life. Only if you know that discomfort can be helpful and is not abnormal 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. You can’t always control what arises in your life, or mind, but you can determine your response.

 

The more aware you are of your own mental and emotional processes, the more freedom you have in your actions and the more readily you learn. How do you teach this? Start as you did with the mindfulness practice you used with kindness. Then ask students to: notice any sensations that arise. Do it as you would if you were on the shore of a stream and were seeing and hearing the sounds of the water, noticing any stones in the bed of the stream. Notice where the sensations are, how they begin and end. They are like the water flowing and bends in the course of the stream. Then go to other places in the body. Notice also any thoughts. They are like whirlpools in the water. Just keep your attention on noticing what arises and dissipates, and, after you notice something, return your awareness to the breath. If your mind drifts away and you notice it, or you lose focus on the breath and realize it, the realization means you are now found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that, emphasize that.

 

This is just the beginning. I would also recommend intense physical exercise and the study of martial arts, for example, to develop inner discipline, gratitude, patience, and confidence. Physical strength and conditioning can aid mental clarity and focus. I would study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss “What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy?” I’d add media literacy to the curriculum so students learn to spot bias, and possibly even how to detect lies as part of the study of emotion. And compassion: we need to dig deeply into what compassion is, for ourselves and for others. But these topics are for another day.

 

What are you doing, if you’re a teacher, to help your students? If you’re a parent, to help your children? If you’re in a relationship, to help your partner? If you’re feeling anxious yourself—what are you doing to help you face adversity with as clear a mind as you can bring to the task?

8

Compassionate Critical Thinking: A Workshop

We are living through a time that challenges us to learn how to think compassionately, clearly and critically—to think in a manner that facilitates awareness of our own emotions and thought processes while elucidating what is happening to those around us. This workshop will explore how to use practices of inquiry and imagination, as well as mindful and compassionate questioning, to better understand and teach course material and critical thinking.

 

The approach is described in my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, published in October, 2016, by Rowman & Littlefield. It was developed over 30 years of teaching. All the techniques help students improve focus, find more meaning in classroom studies, and so are more engaged in their education. Many take only a few minutes and all were used in actual classes.

 

The workshop is part of Ithaca Loves Teachers Week. It will include experiential exercises and discussion. It is open to teachers, administrators and others interested in developing and teaching empathy and critical thinking. For more background, go to my website: irarabois.com.

 

The workshop will be Thursday, February 23, 2:00 – 3:15 pm, at the Tompkins County Public Library, Cornell Reading Room.

An Open Mind

 

I was recently meditating, at home, in the early afternoon. Outside, intense snow squalls alternated with a few minutes of sunshine. Schools started two hours late that morning because of the weather, and before meditating I had wondered if the after-school class that I was supposed to teach would be cancelled. I concentrated on my breath and soon became calm and focused and lost all sense of school and snow. Then the phone rang. My wife picked it up somewhere in the house. I couldn’t hear the conversation but knew it was the school calling about the class and I began to wonder, again, if it would be cancelled. I tried to return my focus to the breath, but couldn’t do it by increasing my concentration. So, I tried another strategy. I made my response and interest in the call the object of awareness. I simply noticed what was there, in me, without judging it. That did it. My mind calmed.

 

By shifting attention to what was there in my own mind and body, and being open to it, my mind became the state of openness. The result was both calm and insight.

 

Why do I have this drive to have an answer? To know is to hold information in mind and be able to use that information, to comprehend and own in myself. Even more, it is a drive for a concept to fit reality into, or this is one way to understand it. In the past, I thought that the drive for answers was a common and primal human drive. It was part of learning and growing up; humans were naturally driven to better understand the world and themselves—unless it was educated out of them. And putting what you knew into words to form a worldview was part of developing an identity.

 

You create explanations and stories to order your life. Having an explanation of any sort is often more important than its accuracy. Thus, you feel uncomfortable when you don’t-know. You take it as something missing, a lack, a hole in your universe. You then hate not-knowing, as it leads you to worry or feel anxious. Part of the joy of solving puzzles or watching a mystery movie is that, for a moment, you feel the anxiety of not-knowing, but in a controlled way. You prove to yourself that this situation can be faced and overcome. It is like an inoculation against fear. The puzzle creates just enough anxiety that by solving the puzzle you demonstrate your control over not-knowing.

 

But this day, I realized this explanation was not enough. I dislike not-knowing only to the degree that I am wedded to an outcome or idea, only to the degree that I cling to one answer, fear another, or think I am only capable of handling certain types of situations.

 

It is easy to cling to ideas, and think knowing is only about putting experiences into words. You value the memory over the “thing” or experience itself, the story about your trip to Africa in the past over the experience of a moment of your life right now. And by focusing so much on the words and explanations, you easily lose perspective on the important role not-knowing plays in your life.

 

There is a second type of not-knowing, an experience of your world being fully there, alive, not lacking. Every moment begins with this not-knowing. If the present moment were known and put into words, it would already be past. Daniel Siegel and other neuroscientists describe stages in the formation of emotion. The first is an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Only later is memory activated, energy directed, liking and disliking begun, emotion and meaning created. In this sense, not-knowing is a step you need to go through to learn and understand anything. It is your original contact with the world. It is a non-verbal or incommunicable sort of knowing, the taste, the touch, the joy and agony of a body twisting in space, the rush of concentrated attention. 

 

In Buddhism, not-knowing is to perceive without preconceived ideas. It is to hold what you know lightly, and to put observation and experience before concept. It is a silence of concept mind so you can hear the world more clearly.

 

In the first sense of knowing, where you emphasize knowing as conceptualizing, you can miss, not fully engage in, the only moment you ever live in, the present. Your life becomes a memory, a story or explanation, and is lived almost secondhand. It is something you read about in your own mind or listen for in the words of others, not what you live each moment.

 

When you understand yourself in this almost secondhand manner, you cling to ideas and it is easier to get into energetic disagreements about points of view. When you think you know and have the explanation of an event, you feel in control. When you threaten a person’s explanation, you threaten their world. And when people in power and in the headlines manipulate information, say one thing and mean something entirely different, and lie repeatedly, even obviously, they are attempting to take away your power by undermining your sense that there is a clear reality out there. They can create psychological and social chaos. The lie is not just a lie. It is an attempt to undermine your sense of control over your life. It is an attempt to get you to live as if your life were a memory. With a truth, you can have a two-way conversation; a lie is an attempt to make it one-way.

 

To not-know in the second way, you can’t be manipulated so easily because you welcome and are fully present in your immediate experience. Thus, to be open to whatever arises in your mind, body and the world around you, and to be able to utilize both forms of knowing and not-knowing, is a revolutionary act. To face your fear and anxiety is a form of resistance to the powerful. It is to return to where all action begins and all thought is born. And that is a very powerful state.

 

*Two Resources Relevant to This Post:

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, by Rodney Smith

 

kid

Undermining the Public (In Order to Rip Us Off?)

Yesterday, Mr. T spoke to members of the National Sheriffs Association and said: “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” According to the Washington Post, he blamed the news media for not publicizing this development, and then added, “But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.” But according to the Post, Politifact, and the FBI, this claim by him is clearly false. In 1980, the murder rate was 10.2 per 100,000 residents. In 2014 it was 4.4. In 2015, it did go up to 4.9, less than half of the 1980 rate. Violent crime in America in general has gone down. But not in the America Mr. T sees. He sees, or tries to get us to feel, that the rate is going up. Why? To create fear. To create a sense of society falling apart so he can ride in and save us.

 

Likewise, on 2/6 Politifact reported on Mr. T’s comment that the US news media, regarding terrorist attacks, are “dishonest” and it has “gotten to the point where it’s [terrorist attacks are] not even being reported.” He tells us that there is so much more extremist violence happening and we are not safe. But, of course, the violence committed by Muslims from other nations is being constantly reported, maybe even too much. And, as Democracy Now, CNN, and other respected media report, if there isn’t any violence, Mr. T and his associates will lie or manufacture “fake news” to make us think there is. For example, Kellyanne Conway talking about a “Bowling Green Massacre” that never took place. Why? To create a sense of distrust in the media and a fear of the other, of other people, of our society falling apart so he, or HE, can ride in to save us.

 

But he has no plans to save anyone. In fact, this is the same strategy started in the Reagan administration to undermine public schools. Diane Ravitch argued in her book Reign of Error that different corporations, working with political institutions and individual politicians, are leading an effort to undermine public schools by undermining teachers, teacher unions, and the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system.

 

The strategy calls for publicizing deceptive and often inaccurate information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all later proved untrue. According to Edutopia and government statistics, Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor, white and African-American, Latino, Native-American, was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning. Betsy DeVos and the destruction she might wreak is the end result.

 

In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote The Shock Doctrine. Klein’s book argued that when people feel they are in a crisis, they support doctrines, policies, laws that they never would have supported otherwise. Crises can be of all kinds; economic, public health, national security, education. Mr. T. is shocking. He is creating a crisis so he, with the help of some large corporations and his billionaire buddies, can step in and sell the solution.

 

As I said in an earlier blog, we live in relationship with others and our world. This relationship, and our very lives, is more fragile than we like to recognize. If society falls apart, it is not so easy to piece it back together. Mr. T is not a populist working for the common good, but someone working to undermine the sense of relationship that underlies a society and then reconfigure it to fit his interests. By favoring the very few over the whole, his policies undermine the public good and he weakens and isolates himself and his cohorts ever further from everyone else. His delusion and hunger for power threatens every person, maybe every living being on this planet.

 

Only by understanding even those you oppose can you fight them. Only by working to create a society that prioritizes relationships that are mutual, inclusive, caring, and honest can we, as a species, live well, and possibly, live at all.

 

*For information on a foiled white supremacist terrorist plan to massacre African-Americans and Jewish people in Bowling Green, Ohio, see ProPublica post.