My Roommate Was A Totem

We all have things we fear. For several people I know, spiders are high on their list. For me, it was only big, hairy ones. There is something so primal about them.

In 1969, I served in the Peace Corps in a small village in the jungle of Sierra Leone, which is on the equator in West Africa. My home was the guesthouse of the local paramount chief, one of the more powerful men in the country. It was a large cement block structure, one of the few in the village that wasn’t made of mud. He preferred the traditional mud hut to a cement building. And I grew to understand his reasoning. On the many days the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more, his mud home was much cooler than mine made of cement. And my roommate was a Mende spider.

To see the rest of the story, go to Open Thought Vortex Literary Magazine.

 

Why Teach? Why Do Anything?

“Why become a teacher? Why chose one profession or job over another? Why do anything? I have to admit that after high school, I told myself I would never teach in a public school. I found education valuable, but the school I had attended was too big and restrictive. I wanted to do something with my life that was meaningful, alive, creative, like write novels, plays or poetry or do something adventurous….

I think teaching is … is one of the most meaningful things you can do. After a day of teaching is over, you don’t have to find other ways to make the world a better place—you do it daily….”

 

To read the rest of this blog, please go to the Good Men Project, which just published it today. It is a re-write of one of my earlier posts.

 

Let Love Live

I’m sure you, too, are amazed at scenes like this: You’re watching your child at play, or a puppy running around the yard. Or you’re walking in the woods and see a kit (baby fox) or a butterfly.

 

Or—I am sitting in bed, a magazine on my lap. My wife is next to me, doing a puzzle. In between us, near our feet, are two cats, sleeping. I look at them, at all of us, and feel awe. Ok, the cats are simply sleeping, my wife, puzzling. But there is such trust on that bed. These beings want to be here, with me, with each other. They care. Or we care.

 

One of the cats, Milo, starts twitching, as if dreaming. He wraps his front paws around and over his head, as if to hide. I lean over and touch his back, and the shaking stops. He relaxes, releases his head and turns over, showing me his belly. There is such vulnerability there, delicacy. I give myself to you, and you give it back, enhanced.

 

I am reading an article in the September issue of Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom For Our Time. It is a wonderful conversation between two Buddhist meditators and educators, Sharon Salzberg and Bell Hooks, about “The Power of Real Love.” Sharon talks of growing up and thinking that love is something given by others, but instead, it is an ability, a capacity, maybe even a responsibility we have in ourselves. Bell Hooks talks of love as residing in our actions, not just in our feelings. But in this day, in this political climate, where fear and hate are so frequently in the news—How do we love? How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and care when the forces of domination seem to surround us?

 

Actions taken out of love can be the most difficult and painful in our lives—and the most liberating. There is more power in the touch of love than can be conceived and dreamed in fear and hate. Fear can be a message to wake up and observe more closely or to turn away. But it is built on opposition, and is unstable. It lasts only as long as we maintain a threat or an enemy, and a wall. Those outside the wall are rejected; those inside the wall are suspect. Such fear needs our compliance with it in order to succeed.

 

And this is our choice each day. You, me, all of us still have this choice. Will we touch and be touched by what is happening to those who share the earth with us? Will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn what is going on, to care and to act? Will we allow love to live in us, or will we cover our heads and hearts with fear?

 

**And thank you to Bell Hooks and Sharon Salzberg (and Lion’s Roar) for the conversation and teachings.

The Impoverishment of Main Street Tax Plan

The destructive Republican denial of health care bills have temporarily been defeated, so now the administration and many Republican congressional leaders are calling for tax cuts and a revised tax code. Once again, they are dangling in front of Americans something many of us desire, in this case more money and a simpler tax code, but the reality is something far different.

 

Remember, these are the same people who proposed health care legislation supported, at one point, by only 12% of Americans. It would have denied health insurance to up to 32 million people now covered by the ACA and undermined it for millions more. In this tax bill, they are taking aim once again at the economic life and health care of most Americans in order to give tax cuts to the wealthy. If it’s a new day, and these Republicans are in power, it’s a new assault on what so many of us hold dear.

 

First of all, the legislation was conceived behind closed doors by only a small group of Republicans, who are also planning how to prevent a Democratic filibuster. Secondly, the bill would flatten the number of tax brackets from seven to three and give tax cuts mainly to the rich and corporations. The poorest of us would actually face a 2% rate hike (somewhat mitigated by an increase in the standard deduction and a larger child tax credit), while the rich get a 4% cut. It would cut the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax. Mr. T says he would not benefit from this tax cut, but depending on what his actual income is, he could be saving millions.

 

Possibly to get the support of Senator Lisa Murkowski and other Republicans, the bill includes a provision opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.

 

The tax plan would cost possibly $2.4 trillion over ten years. How would it be paid for? Supporters say the decrease in taxes would lead to an increase in the economy and thus in government income. But this is highly questionable. The trickle down theory, which states that giving more money to the rich would lead to more jobs and income for the poor and middle class, did not work in the Reagan or Bush years or any other time. President Bush greatly increased the deficit (by 2019, his cuts would be responsible for 40% of the national debt) and his economic policies led to the great recession of 2007, a great increase in unemployment and income inequality. President Reagan did cut taxes in his first year in office. But tax revenues dropped precipitously, the debt increased to almost $3 trillion, unemployment and income inequality soared⏤but he had enough sense to actually eliminate many of his tax cuts when he realized his tax plan was causing dire consequences.

 

This new tax proposal would lead to an increase in the disparity between rich and poor and would raise the deficit considerably just when the government is calling for increases in defense spending, and infrastructure in the US badly needs an overhaul.

 

Democrats say Republicans plan to pay for the tax cuts by cutting the programs the poor and middle class depend on: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. ⏤just as, back in May, they planned to do with the budget. As Bernie Sanders put it, the plan would be Robin Hood in reverse: taking from the poor and middle class to give to the rich. The tax cut would be the vehicle for the few to undermine the rights, power, and freedom of the many. It must be opposed.

Especially Today, We Need to Study History

I used to teach a high school class on the history of human ideas. I noticed that the students in the class often had trouble accepting that people were ever substantially different than who they are now—that society could be very different, beliefs very different, life very different. Or if they could accept the differences, they couldn’t feel the difference. We were always what we are now. We move through the world as if what is in front of us now was always there in the past.

 

I myself wonder about this. How different would I feel about life if I had lived in Sumeria in 3500 BCE or India in 450 BCE? Even though I traveled a lot when I was younger and even lived in places very different from where I live now, I still have only a limited idea of how different the differences between cultures and times in history could be.

 

But I know that without my experiences in other cultures, and without some knowledge of history, my understanding of the world today would be severely limited. And even more, my understanding of what is possible would be limited. History is not simply a timeline of events and people. It is a panorama of possibilities and lessons about what it means to be human.

 

Yet, for several years, schools have been forced to decrease the study of history, and the humanities, in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). This is not simply an attempt to counter a decrease in interest in the sciences. The concern for developing student understanding of themselves as whole people is being replaced with a concern for meeting the expectations of employers. The New York Times reported that several Republican politicians have portrayed liberal arts education as expendable, a frivolous luxury taxpayers should not be expected to pay for.

 

In a time when many politicians and news outlets try to wrap our minds in false news, and shock us into inaction and compliance, we desperately need an understanding that these events we live through—this is all history. Situations change. There are truths. Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (and others) famously said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” or allow it to be repeated. Without studying history, my understanding not only of what once was but what might be, or of how political and social structures have changed and will continue to change, would be constricted. And, thus, my belief in and ability to engage in political action would be constricted. Without a sense of history and truth, we cannot understand what is real. We cannot influence history in a conscious, deliberate, and liberating way if we do not feel that we are part of making it.

 

So one element of the study of history in schools must include listening for the souls of those who came to this earth before us, as well as those we share the planet with now. It must include lessons in empathy and compassion, so students can psychologically place themselves, as much as is possible and appropriate, into the historical situation studied. After immersing students in studying facts about a time in history, a teacher could lead them in imaginatively picturing themselves in a specific situation in that time period, like attending the Ekklesia, or Assembly of male citizens (the Congress) in the Athens of 450 BCE, or of participating in the demonstration in 1917 in Washington, D. C. led by the National Woman’s Party, to win women the right to vote. Ninety-seven suffragists were arrested during the protest for “obstructing traffic.”

 

Teachers can ask students to pick a spot in the town or city they live in, and then research, create a timeline of how the spot looked in the past. They can decide on the dates and number of intervals to portray, maybe starting 600 years ago. This is one way to actually feel how and that change occurs.

 

Even more, ask students, on the first day of classes: What are the biggest problems you see in the world today? After sharing these, ask: which of these problems is central? In my history class, the final assessment entailed choosing one problem and following it through history, and in the different cultures we studied. They would have to describe and analyze the nature and extent of the problem, and give an overview of the beliefs and conditions (social, technological, religious, philosophical, etc.) that gave rise to it. In this way, their own questions became the heart of the class.

 

Another element of the study of history is confronting the ethical questions that abound in our lives. Factual questions in schools cannot always be disconnected from ethical ones without paying a price a society can ill afford. Questions about the science of atoms, for example, can be followed with the questions of how or if such knowledge should be used. In LACS (the school where I taught for 27 years), one teacher, Chris Sperry, taught a wonderful course called “Facing History and Ourselves,” an in-depth inquiry into the holocaust, not just through a textbook linking of dates and events, but through letters, news accounts, photos and eyewitness testimony, novels and stories, psychological studies and poetry. Students put themselves into the issues of the time period in order to understand how they would have felt and acted, and thus have a better idea how they might feel and act in today’s world.

 

Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, aims to help us do just that, to take part deliberately in shaping history, so we, together, will write a history of saving democracy from the tyranny which now imperils it. One lesson is “Do not obey in advance.” Do not believe, do not follow, do not let fear overwhelm us just because it comes from an authority.

 

And ”Defend Institutions.” Do not deceive yourself into thinking that any institution, political, social, or educational will continue to exist just because it “always” has existed. Do not imagine that what protects, feeds, listens to us now will do so in the future. There are no institutions without people supporting them.

 

Republican politicians have been working to suppress the vote and undermine the institutions of our democracy. They have been working to eliminate citizens of color from State voting roles, demanding means of identification some voters do not have, in order to make it more difficult for them to vote. They are attacking public schools, the EPA, the free press. Right now Sinclair Media, through the collusion of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, is attempting to circumvent rules protecting competition and diversity in the media. They are aiming to expand its reach into 72% of American households, mostly through getting control of local media, in order to broadcast Trump propaganda. (Congress this week will be discussing whether to keep Pai as FCC Chairman. Consider calling your Congressperson to express opposition to Pai & the expansion of Sinclair Media.) In times like these, we must defend our institutions.

 

Snyder warns us to “Beware the one party state.” “Take responsibility for the face of the world.” And “Beware paramilitaries.” Beware militarization. Beware the use of generals in the political sphere of the government. Read the book. It is short. It is one small way to take a big step.

 

It is too easy to forget that history is the story of all of us. It is a tale about relationships, not just dates, and not mysterious “historical forces.” It is a tale of human suffering caused not just by weather and environment, but by humans. And it is a tale of love, caring, insight as well as greed and delusion. It is about the whole reality of human life and how to be humane, how to recognize the humanity of all of us. And only when the teaching of history speaks to the whole reality of human life will it help students contribute to improving that life. In this time in history, our continued history depends upon how well we learn and teach these lessons.

I Can’t Believe It

I look at the new Graham-Cassidy health care bill that was proposed in the Senate and have trouble believing any politician would propose such legislation at all, let alone four times this year. It is a slightly changed version of previous examples of Republican denial of health care legislation that were unsuccessful, except this time, it gives more power to individual states to determine the final shape health care will take.

 

15 million people could lose their health care immediately under this bill, 32 million by 2027. This does not include all the people whose insurance rates would go up so much that the quality of their lives would be undermined. The bill would destroy the protections against insurance companies denying coverage for people with preexisting conditions, or raising lifetime caps on payments or raising premiums exponentially. It would cut Medicaid. Almost one-half of births in the US and one-half of the people covered by Medicaid are children, 14% are people with disabilities. It would cut funding for Planned Parenthood and change where federal health care funding goes, taking it from blue states to give to red ones. [I don’t even want to get into how Medicare and other social programs are under the gun in this bill and Republican budget plans.]

 

Why propose legislation that is so blatantly wrong, so blatantly opposed to the best interests of most Americans, and do it again and again? Do they actually think it would be good for the country? Or is it, as many have suggested, a cynical political move, an attempt to deliver a promise to their constituents to repeal anything with President Obama’s name on it? Are they doing it to serve the interests of the super rich who pay for their campaigns and whose interests they primarily serve? Do they think if Medicaid is cut, there will be money to enable tax cuts to the wealthy in the budget?

 

If they are doing it because they think it will serve the interests of their constituents, then I’m really confused. I understand that red state politicians and voters might be happy to take money away from blue states. But other than that, people will be hurt by this bill whether they are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

 

I think they are either hiding the intent of the bill or they believe the government has no role to play in delivering or protecting health care—or the health—of people. They believe that the best way to serve others is to do nothing to help them. They believe only if a person can pay for it do they deserve it. They believe the only responsibility each person has regarding others is to protect one’s own self-interest. The only value of others is what they can get for you or how they can serve you. The people who have power and money deserve that power and money. Thus, politicians only have one role—to protect the interests of the rich.

 

This leaves each of us isolated behind a wall of our own imagining, and the only protection we have is the power of the guns we own or control. This is not the sort of nation I support or think most Americans believe in. We’re better than this. We’re not just creatures isolated from others by the way we think of them. When I look within, I find others at the depths of who I am, not as objects to use but as fellow beings I care about and who care about me.

 

Many Republicans have been lying about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) for years. They have been saying Obamacare takes away choice, isn’t working and is causing unaffordable rate increases, when in fact it is working (although it needs fixing). There have been rate hikes, but those hikes are below the levels that existed before the ACA. For example, according to a Forbes magazine report on statistics by the US Department of Health and Human Services, premium rate hikes from 2010 to 2015 were below those common in earlier years, especially 2004 to 2010. And the increases that have been observed are partly due to efforts by Republican politicians to cause those rate hikes.

 

How have many Republican politicians tried to undermine the ACA? Let’s go back to 2014-15, to Marco Rubio and other Republicans, who attacked what are called “risk corridor” federal payments. The ACA is meant to cover everyone. One fear of proponents of the ACA was that there would be too many sick people on the roles of insurance companies and too little money from premiums, so the ACA was structured to use federal funds to cover the risks (or “risk corridors”) undertaken by insurance companies. Republicans, however, fought against these payments and in 2014 inserted a provision into a spending bill to reduce the risk payments. Because of these attacks by Rubio and company, only 13% of what insurance companies were expecting was paid in 2015. Insurance companies then had to raise rates to make up for this deficit.

 

President Trump further worked to destabilize the ACA by threatening to withhold subsidies to help poorer Americans pay their premiums. Because of this threat, insurance companies talked about possibly raising premiums.

 

The ACA has been met with distortions and/or lies ever since it was first proposed. We could go back to 2009 and Sarah Palin’s false claims that Democrats were trying to create “death panels” in the new health care law (the ACA) to determine if seniors and the disabled were worthy of care. In recent weeks, there have been claims that Democrats rushed through the ACA without hearings and were just as secretive as Republicans have been in the house and Senate. Wrong. Do your own fact checking (with reliable information data bases).

 

The Republicans, from day one, excluded Democrats from playing a role in crafting any of their 2017 health care bills. They debated behind closed doors and held no hearings. They tried to rush through their bills before the CBO could analyze the legislation or voters organize (although they didn’t succeed in this effort), or sometimes even allow Senators to fully read the bill. They initiated a “reconciliation” process in the Senate that limits debate to 20 hours, limits Democrats from adding any substantive amendments. And instead of the normal procedure, where such major legislation would require 60 votes to pass, they would only need a simple majority to pass their bill.

 

In contrast, the ACA was debated in three House committees and two in the Senate. It was subject to hours of bipartisan debate that allowed for amendments. The contents of the bill were provided to members of both parties throughout the debate process. It took nine months to pass and, don’t forget, it was based on a model developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and pushed by Romney to become policy in Massachusetts. (And if you want another example of Republican distortions of the latest bill, listen to Jimmy Kimmel’s piece on You Tube about his interactions with Senator Cassidy.)

 

The ACA is not perfect and not the best imaginable legislation. It is complex and cumbersome. But millions of people are insured now that wouldn’t have been otherwise. There are now federal protections for individuals with preexisting conditions, for comprehensive coverage, etc, that weren’t there before. And it is clear that Republican politicians have been working to demonize Obamacare or drive up the premiums so more people will lose or dislike their insurance and thus support Republican efforts to repeal it.

 

If you are concerned about health care, about economic freedom or equity, concerned about the wellbeing of family members, neighbors, your business and the future of this country, please speak up. Call your Senators, and especially call Republican Senators and tell them what you think of their bill, write letters, protest in any way you can. Try to wake up their better nature. The health and wellbeing of a majority of Americans is on the line.

 

*Update: Senator John McCain announced today (Friday, 9/22), that he will oppose the bill. One more Republican is needed to stop the legislation (for now).

Some phone numbers to call:

Capito, West Virginia: 202 224 6472

Collins, Maine: 202 224 2523

McCain, Arizona: 202 224 2235. Thank him for coming out against the bill.

Murkowsky, Alaska: 202 224 6665

My Cat Taught Me To Hear the World Speak

Humans have had pets or animal companions for thousands of years. They have protected us, helped feed us and, in times of stress, they have been a source of great comfort. Their non-human minds have confused and fascinated us. They have also taught us a great deal.

 

I was returning home earlier this summer, after a long walk up my hill in a very rural area of New York, when I saw a small animal a hundred yards or more downhill from me. It was black and, at first, I couldn’t tell if it was a large bird, maybe a raven, or one of my three cats. As I got a little closer, and the animal just sat there, I realized it must be my cat Max.

 

I called out to him, and he started up the hill to meet me as I walked down towards him. As he got close, I stopped. He stood up on his back legs and rubbed his head against my hand, as if urging me to pet him, and I couldn’t help but comply. His giving such attention to me led to my opening up to him.

 

I then tried to continue to walk home, but Max made it difficult. He walked a figure eight between my feet, rubbing against me as frequently as he could. Why do cats do this? When he walks with me, it’s as if he is trying to weave a spell that would halt me in my tracks. I stopped to pet him. He sat down and stared off at part of the scene around him. And I did the same. Maybe that’s all he wanted. Maybe he was telling me to slow down, look and listen. Smell the roses.

 

I noticed a dead branch of a maple tree supported by an evergreen. I noticed blackberry bushes, and little wild strawberries. Thirty years ago stately trees lined the road. Then the road crew came with their big machines and devastated the trees, cutting them down so the road could be made wider and the plow could clear away the snow. This, at first, outraged most of us who lived here. Two neighbors chained themselves to their favorite trees. Now, we’re glad the road is plowed and the trees are returning.

 

I listened to the gentle wind, birdcalls, insect cries and it sounded like the world was purring to me. If we give the world a chance, it speaks to us.

 

Not that Max or any cat is “perfect.” There are things he does that make me angry or cringe. But because of him I listen more to what the world around me has to say. Sometimes it purrs. Other times, it cries or rages. I listen because without this land, what was I? For Max, the land, the road, the trees, the other animals were not just part of his home—they were part of who he was.

 

This, this scene all around me—without it, I didn’t exist. Not just that it was part of my identity. My lungs breathe in sky, so when I speak, I speak sky talk. To walk forward, I press back against the earth, so each step I take is the earth walking. One movement of many feet. We humans have such powerful words in our heads we easily lose sight of what nourishes those words. My cat taught me this today. In this day and age of false talk, we need to be reminded of such truths or we might lose it all.

 

In these days of hurricanes and other disasters, I feel fortunate to live in a place where the earth is now gentle⏤and I am distressed seeing what so many have lost, homes and possessions, friends or family, and pets. I know everything can change at any moment. This is even more of a reason to listen, carefully. Even more reason to appreciate what I have and to work to preserve the environment that sustains us all.

Natural and Human Disasters

I had planned to post a more relaxing, reflective blog, but the latest reports from Florida stopped me. The suffering I see on the news is so powerful that I can almost know what it is like for my own home and life to be threatened. I feel my heart beating more quickly, thoughts race, and the world seems darker, like the storm clouds are racing towards me, not Florida.

 

This is made worse by hearing about the fires on the West coast and memories of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. It is made worse by the political and social disasters, of the hate riot in Charlottesville, and the human disaster, the prejudices, shortsightedness, lack of empathy and caring expressed by the President’s response to Charlottesville, his actions to end DACA, and his first trip to Texas after Harvey. It can feel like the earth itself has lost its center, weeping one minute, angry the next. And yet here, right now, in central New York, it is cool and beautiful.

 

These physical hurricanes make the greed and shortsightedness crystal clear. Before Harvey, the Washington Post and other reputable news organizations reported that the President proposed cutting funding for FEMA, for long term preparedness for disasters; for HUD, which helps rebuild homes, parks, and hospitals; the National Weather Service, which forecasts extreme storms; and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which does crucial research and applies that research to help coastal residents prepare for disasters. In the middle of August, he signed an executive order which, along with other things, rolled back standards set by President Obama requiring that federal infrastructure projects take climate change into account. During the election, he claimed, in a debate with Hillary Clinton, that global warming was a myth perpetuated by China. Despite denying later on that he said this, he still nominated climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

 

And all along, the number and severity of weather disasters have been increasing. According to NOAA, the number of weather-related disasters which caused a billion dollars or more in damage have increased from 5.5 per year, starting in 1980; then for the last 5 years of this study, 2012-2016, the average was 10.6. This year might exceed that. Yet, despite his denials and his proposed cuts to government services, he says to the people of Houston that he cares about their well-being. His supporters, like Rush Limbaugh, even say that the press is hyping, exaggerating the dangers of Irma “to advance [a] climate agenda” and create panic in order to sell products. And then he leaves Florida.

 

Other Republicans say “don’t bring up Global Warming” during a hurricane, don’t politicize the suffering from these natural events. I agree that our first priority should be safety. But after that, understanding why the number of natural disasters are increasing is crucial to preparing for and creating policies to slow down our deteriorating climate. We must take into account how the increased temperature and water vapor over the Caribbean and Gulf, due to Global Warming, are adding fuel to the storms. To ignore global warming is like saying don’t take facts into consideration when you think. It is like the President and his cohorts are saying: Don’t think rationally. Don’t care about others. Don’t consider the implications of our policies.

 

The timing of these hurricanes, after so many other human hurricanes and disasters, makes crystal clear just how lacking in foresight, empathy, and understanding, just how delusional these politicians are. They themselves are a hurricane wind trying to devastate the economic stability and the remnants of political power that remain in the hands of the poor and middle class. As investigative journalist Naomi Klein pointed out, they are using natural, corporate and politician-created forms of disaster to get us to feel fear and accept or ignore policies that we would never accept otherwise. But hurricanes devastate the world for everyone.

 

So, please. We all have to help the people of Florida, Louisiana and Texas in any way we can. But the best way to help them long term, and help us all, is to learn all we can of the science of global warming. Practice compassion and mindfulness to keep our thinking as clear as possible. Call out politicians to stop the policies based on hate, short-term greed, and denial of science. Give the EPA back to scientists who know what they’re doing. Give to environmental organizations and those working to end this disaster of an administration. Vote, Demonstrate. Join with others who are caring people. To recover long term from these physical disasters we will have to put aside differences and work together to end this political disaster.

Living and Teaching In This Age of Anxiety and Threat

How do you teach when so many people feel and are threatened and the federal government is controlled by people who do not have your well-being in mind? How would growing up in this age, with this minority-elected President, influence your 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, Muslim or a Jewish person, 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?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by a teacher’s response, 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 how others respond to their actions. 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. I asked: “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? 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, ask them to close their eyes and answer in their own mind the following questions: What does ‘kindness’ mean to you? What words come to mind when you hear the word ‘kindness’? What does it look like? How do you feel when someone is kind to you? Who could you be kind to today and how would you do it? Then ask them to record and then share with the class what came to mind.

 

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.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. Ask students: How do you face what is difficult? Deconstruct what happens when you feel stressed, threatened, or anxious. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, 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.

 

Ask: What happens to your breathing when stressed? When stressed, your breathing gets more shallow and quick. When you notice this, deliberately take one–three longer, deeper breaths before you consider what actions to take.

 

What about your thoughts? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, or of being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. The novelist, G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life.

 

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. To teach this, you could have mindful moments in your classroom, where you ask students to close their eyes for a moment, and allow themselves to be aware of their breathing. Or start a class with a moment of silence. Or, if you practice mindfulness, start the day with a mindfulness practice. Always practice on your own before you do it with students. If you haven’t already done so, study how to lead students in such practices.

 

Say to students: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and at ease, 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.

 

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. You might focus on your shoulders. Simply notice your shoulders rise as you breathe in. And relax, settle down, as you breathe out. Then go to another place in the body. Notice how you body expands as you breathe in, and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. Notice also any thoughts. They are part of the water flowing. If your mind drifts away, or you lose focus on the breath, simply notice it. When you notice something, it means you are found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that. Just notice what arises with the inhalation, and let it go with the exhalation.

 

Take another, deep breath, open your eyes, and return your awareness to the classroom. Ask them to: look round and notice how you feel now. And then write in a journal or share how the experience was for them. Did they notice their thoughts or sensations? Do they feel more relaxed now then they did before?

 

You could ask students: What actions can you take to change their community or the nation to be a better place? How could they help others? By taking action, students feel empowered.

 

If physical exercise isn’t part of the school day or your day, add it somehow. It grounds you. Fear closes you off, divides you. When you engage both the mind and body, you feel whole, more patient, confident and you think more clearly. Take a walk in the woods, study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss with students, “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 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?

 

**This blog was also published by the Bad Ass Teachers Blogspot.

 

 

 

 

A Guest Blog: Gratitude Can Change Your Classroom and Your Life, by Owen Griffith

Gratitude Can Change your Classroom and your Life:

Guest Blog by Owen M. Griffith

 

Teaching is a challenging endeavor. With all the demands on a teacher’s time and energy, it is easy to lose the enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom. In addition, teachers have recently had new requirements added to their load, including standardized testing and dealing with changing curriculums.

However, there is good news. Recent research and personal experience have shown that gratitude, a simple yet powerful tool, may be applied in our classrooms to improve the culture, as well as to raise students’ grades and goals.

The Challenges and the Miracles of the First Year

Of all the things I have done in my life, getting through my first year of teaching was by far my most challenging undertaking. During that first year, I am thankful that I would occasionally reach those transcendent moments where I did connect with the students and felt the magic that happens when the classroom unites in learning.

Many nights, I would wake up at 3 AM, haunted by all the things going wrong with my teaching. This is when I would do a personal gratitude list and still find the good things happening among all the apparent problems. This kept me going through those darkest hours. Just when I thought of quitting and going back to my old career, a major miracle happened.

 

Robert

Robert was a tough 7th grader who didn’t seem to care about school or anything else. By his own admission, he was on the brink of joining a gang and failing every subject. When I would pass out the science assignment for the day, he would say, “Mr. G., science doesn’t mean anything in my life.”

Then, he would ceremoniously crumple up the assignment and throw it in the trash saying, “I’ll take an ‘F’ for the day.” This bothered me tremendously, and I tried different things to reach him, but nothing seemed to get through.

After Winter Break, one day I handed out a new assignment about the scientific method. Surprisingly, Robert looked intently at the page and said, “Will you help me with this Mr. G?”

After what he said registered in my brain, I quickly went to his desk and guided him through the scientific method. On the way home that night, I found myself smiling and wondering what happened to Robert. The next thing that ran through my mind was, “Will this change last, or was it a one day anomaly?”

The next day, we delved further into the scientific method and Robert asked more questions. Even more shocking, he started helping some of his fellow students who used to throw the papers away right along with Robert.

Robert’s turnaround came at my darkest hour in the classroom. I don’t know if I would have kept going if it hadn’t been for this minor miracle. But I realized it wasn’t just a minor miracle. When a student who was thinking about joining a gang and failing every subject turned around and not only got an A in my science class, but also got straight As in every subject by the end of the year, helped other students in academics, and stayed out of trouble, I realized I was a small part of a major miracle.

When I asked Robert what had happened, he said, “You never gave up on me and kept trying with me Mr. G.” I was reminded of a saying from a pedagogy professor who would gently remind us, “All it takes to change a student’s life is the appropriate adult at the appropriate time.”

 

Gratitude – The Missing Element in the Classroom

To start the new year of teaching, I knew I needed to interject something powerful and positive into my classroom. One day as we were planning for the first day of school, I had the inspiration of trying gratitude in the classroom. I realized that this could be a breakthrough. If it worked for me and others, it would work for the students.

So, when the students arrived, we started a gratitude journal from the first day of class. That was over ten years ago, and as those original students enter college now, many of them still keep their gratitude logs, but some have updated them to their computers or iPhone.

Gratitude was one of the missing elements for me in the classroom, bringing about a positive and optimistic culture that only seemed to improve as the year went on. Furthermore, gratitude had a cascading effect that gave me more energy to devote to every aspect of teaching, from planning lessons to dealing with conflict between students, to keeping the students interested in school as the year dragged on.

 

The Gifts of Gratitude

Teaching gratitude promotes a positive classroom culture, as well as enables schools to elevate students’ engagement and academic achievement. In addition, an attitude of gratitude allows teachers to improve their own lives, as well as their students’ lives.

The many benefits of gratitude include:

  • Challenging the culture of complaining and replacing it with gratitude
  • Combatting materialism and entitlement with gratitude and altruism
  • Understanding the barriers to implementing gratitude and dispelling them
  • Healing losses in life with gratitude for students and educators
  • Balancing our busy lives with mindfulness in conjunction with gratitude
  • Helping teenagers utilize gratitude successfully and overcoming their resistance
  • Encouraging the entire families of our students to embrace gratitude and a variety of activities to help it become a permanent part of their lives

Owen M. Griffith is an educator and author living in Northern Georgia. His work has appeared on Edutopia and Huffington Post. This article is taken from his book, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching. Grounded in scientific research, this book delves into numerous integral aspects of gratitude as it relates to education. Success stories and step-by-step instructions are also included in order to implement gratitude in the classroom and schools.

Order Owen’s book directly from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers through 12/31/17 and save 20% with discount code RLEGEN17.

Owen’s book is also available on Amazon, and be sure to check out Owen’s blog at http://spirituallyteaching.blogspot.com/.