- When and where do we have a platform to have conversations as a community?
- How might we build relationships with our students in order to better meet their non-academic needs?
- How might we strengthen ties within our buildings, school district and community in order to wrap-around our students?
- What are some ways we can let students know that we are there for them, and make them aware of the resources within the community that can support them and their families in times of emotional or financial need?
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On Monday night, I participated in a Community Conversations event in Dallas. Though it was my first time to attend, these meetings—initially a response to the unthinkable violence in Dallas and elsewhere over the summer—have been taking place once a month since July.
For two and a half hours, a group of mostly strangers—young, old, white, black, Christian, Jewish, atheist, straight, gay, male, female—gathered to talk, to listen, to ask questions, and to seek to understand one another. That evening, we talked about our beliefs. We shared stories about violence and prejudice. We lamented the turbulent political climate. We made ourselves vulnerable, sharing thoughts many of us had never vocalized before. We faced truths about ourselves and one other. No topic was off limits: religion, race, politics, social media, education, parenting, fear, bigotry. We didn’t always agree, but we did always listen and seek to understand.
That evening was a sharp contrast to what I have seen blowing up on Facebook and Twitter in recent months with regard to the upcoming election. People on both sides are spewing opinions as if they were facts, posting and reposting videos and fake news stories as if they were truths, and ridiculing and/or attacking anyone who doesn’t share their political stance. No one is listening. No one is seeking to understand.
According to brain researchers, when people are in a state of extreme stress, fear, panic, or trauma, their brains enters a state of “fight, flight, or freeze” as a means of self-protection. The “upstairs” brain shuts down, and the “downstairs” brain takes over as they enter alarm mode. When the brain is in alarm mode, no learning occurs since self-preservation is the brain’s sole concern.
It seems as if the brains of most everyone in my social media network have shifted into alarm mode. So much anxiety, fear, and panic exist that the thinking parts of our brains have been hijacked by our downstairs brains. Calm discussion and intellectual discourse have disappeared, only to be replaced by angry rants, fearful diatribes, and vitriolic attacks. Sadly, we are hearing the same things from the candidates themselves.
As educators, our classrooms are microcosms of the world. Students of all backgrounds and beliefs gather to be educated. But so much can get the way of that objective. For one thing, many students come to us dealing with a lot of emotional noise and trauma. Their brains aren’t ready for learning because they’re in alarm mode, always vigilant because they’re never sure where the next attack is coming from. Sometimes, the students’ trauma is due to life circumstances outside of school; other students are living the trauma in our classrooms on a daily basis as they face the cruelty of growing up in a social environment that isn’t always kind or supportive.
Students at Momentous Institute—a lab school in Dallas educating urban children from three years old to 5th grade, many of whom come from trauma backgrounds—learn about their own emotional well-being as part of their everyday curriculum. One technique the students use to help manage their stress involves a jar filled with glitter suspended in a liquid. The students are taught to think of the jar in terms of their own emotional well-being. They shake up the jars and observe the tiny specks of glitter whirling wildly, and they equate that with their own feelings when they’re in alarm mode, when stress, fear, anger, and trauma have taken over. The students learn to watch the jar mindfully and wait for the glitter to settle, just as sometimes they need to pause, take some deep breaths, and settle their own emotional glitter before they’re ready to learn.
Our nation needs to settle its glitter. Our social media feeds need to settle their glitter.
Our students need to settle theirs, too.
We can’t do much to make the myriad of issues our students face outside of school disappear, but we do have some control over what goes on while students are in our classrooms. The efforts we take to build community—to allow our students to interact with, learn about, gain respect for, and grow to trust others who may not be like them—are not wasted. When our classrooms and hallways become emotionally safe spaces for students, we open new possibilities for intellectual and personal growth.
Since the outside world isn’t setting much of a good example of how to engage in civil discourse, how to discuss a topic, how to weigh multiple sides of an issue, how to disagree without attacking, and—perhaps most importantly—how to listen, we must teach our students these habits ourselves. If a student leaves school with a disposition for empathetic listening and a desire to understand that outweighs his need to be understood, we will have done work that will change his life forever.
My first visit to Community Conversations underscored for me my own need to have dialogue with people who are not like me. By seeking to understand others, I gain empathy for them. I may not change my mind, but I learn more about who they are and where they are coming from. And I see that, even though we may have wildly disparate experiences and be seemingly polar opposites in terms of opinions, we share many basic human needs in common.
So many of our negative interactions with others stem from fear, ignorance, or lack of understanding. This is why creating a safe space, building community, and fostering authentic dialogue should be top priorities in every educator’s practice. If we can learn to listen to one another, to seek to understand others, and to settle our glitter, we can live and learn peacefully together in school and in the wider world.
English Language Arts Instructional Specialist