COVID-19 and Education

Being in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis is by far the craziest situation I have ever lived through. This is probably true for most of us. The implications for education are potentially endless! A good friend and colleague said that this situation is “magnifying or amplifying” everything that we collectively struggle with in schools. And it is. Students are not engaged. This is because they don’t have to be. They are not sitting at desks, in rows, and forced to stare forward. In some cases students are home alone, they don’t have access consistent food, to technology, and the Internet. Students can keep their phones out, they can open tabs, they can sleep, text a friend…the system is no longer able to control them!

When we are more worried about more test scores, grades, and “falling behind” than about the health, safety, and security of our students then we have truly missed the point what we can learn from all of this.

What if we use this crisis to spur real change in education to reexamine the fundamental purpose of education itself? What questions should we ask? Who should we ask? What if we designed our system to support students’ social emotional needs as the main component of what we do? I start wondering: What would be a more valuable course right now? Would it be “Shakespeare’s Life and Work” or something like “Public Health and Awareness“, “Algebra” or “The Science of Well-being“? What if graduation requirements became centered around gaining real-life skills and functional knowledge revolving around mental health and well-being, equity, justice, public health, digital literacy, political discourse, and financial literacy instead of what we have been doing since before anyone reading this was in school.

What do you think?

The Importance of Empathy

Relationships are the key to creating a safe and optimal learning environments. But, this idea about relationships extends beyond the classroom. It is pervasive in all aspects of our lives. How do we create and maintain relationships? I love the work that Jayson Gaddis is doing to address the concern that relationships are a learned process. We are not born with all the skills needed to maintain proper relationships with our self and others. We all need help in this area.

I believe that the skill most needed to help with this problem is empathy. Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Author and researcher, Brené Brown describes the differences between the two. She states that: sympathy drives disconnection, whereas, empathy drive connection.

Why is empathy important? My belief is that love is fueled by our ability to truly and deeply connect with other people. When we give another person space to be seen and heard as they are and for who they are, then we are showing that person love. Giving another human uninterrupted, focused, and devoted attention is a hard thing to do.

Empathy is the key to maintaining human connection. I am not sure if empathy is something we are born with, but I do believe that we can learn, with practice and awareness, to be more empathetic, understanding, and connected.

In my next post I will share an activity that I do with students to bring awareness to listening and attention.

Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program #IYLEP19

For two weeks this summer, I was the Program Coordinator for a summer program called the Iraqi Young Leadership Exchange Program (IYLEP).  This is the second year I have been in this role and I have been very fortunate to be able to be a part of this program. IYLEP is a program that brings a group of Iraqi students to the US for 4 weeks. The first week is in Vermont, then the next two are in one of four host cities, and then the students travel to Washington DC for the last week. 

Iraqi teens choose to apply to be part of this program. From what the students have shared with me, it’s a highly selective process, and a spot in the program is very sought after. I wanted to share a few things that have really impressed me about these students(and families) that I have worked with over the last two years. 

First, as a parent, it’s difficult for me to wrap my brain around how hard it must be to send your child to another country, let alone a country that has been at the center of so much controversy, tension and, simply put, war. I really don’t know how I would react if my teenage child approached me to ask to travel to Iraq. The courage they need to have to travel from their home in Iraq, to the US, for four weeks is no small thing . The  students arrive here with an open-mind and an accepting nature of the kids.  They stay with host families for two weeks, and with that comes getting used to a new home, new people, new foods, new routines, a language barrier (a few students shared that their primary English teacher was YouTube). Having New York as a destination brings excitement, until they realize that Rochester, New York and New York City are two very different things and that the famous NYC from movies and television is unreachable for a quick day trip.

As our busy two weeks began, I especially enjoyed observing how quickly the US and Iraqi students bonded and came together as a group. This is something we work on and teach, but the cool part is how this happens genuinely and organically. There is a real sense of connection, love, and caring for each other that occurs during our two weeks together.

During our time together, we covered a lot of ground through the city and beyond, to immerse ourselves in a variety of different cultural and skill building experiences.

We ended our time together with a day trip to Niagara Falls and an exposition where we shared our experiences and learning with the community.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity, to work with and to get to know the students who have been a part of this program. I applaud their bravery, and willingness to travel so many miles to learn, grow and share their culture and perspective. I can only speak for myself, but I know that I am forever changed by this experience and I hope that it has left a similar mark on each of the individuals who were able to be a part of this unique program.

Relationships and Learning

Many schools have committees titled something like “Teaching and Learning” where teachers come together to discuss how to improve teaching. What if, instead, schools organized a committee called “relationships and learning”? What if this committee included students?

Changing the role to being the developers of relationships and the name “teacher” to “mentor” or “guide” really alters how we view the role of the teacher, and the focus of what is happening in a classroom. It shifts from teacher-centered to learning-centered.

Our job as teachers isn’t to teach content, it’s to teach children first and foremost!