Steven Universe and Mindfulness

Another post about cartoons. I swear, kids get all the good cartoons these days!

Mindfulness is a hot topic in education right now. I see it come up on Twitter a lot, and many of my teacher and principal friends share links about it on Facebook.

So I think it’s interesting to see this reflected in children’s entertainment as well. In a recent episode of Steven Universe, one character mentors another in the art of staying focused despite distracting thoughts, particularly ones that elicit negative emotional responses like regret, anger, and fear.

And now that I think about it, I doubt this is the only such example I can find in children’s entertainment. If I dug a little deeper, I’m sure I could find examples from PBS’s Sesame Street and Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender.

It’s actually a pretty common thread for cartoons and kids’ shows to teach social and emotional lessons through narrative. But I don’t remember shows from my childhood doing quite as good a job with lessons that are otherwise difficult to put into words and on the screen.

Binary of Feelings: Oversimplifying the Spectrum of Human Experience

In reading more on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, I read this opinion and many things about it resonated with me. I especially appreciate this bit about moving the conversation forward:

The rub lies in how we move the conversation forward. Free speech is a right, but it’s also a test for both the speaker and audience. It demands grace and conscientiousness. Criticism of America won’t always be accurate, it won’t always be fair, and it won’t always be delivered in an articulate fashion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing this out. But we need space to disagree on views of America without making the leap to that’s un-American or you aren’t patriotic or you don’t support the troops. These are nothing more than verbal grenades, McCarthyisms designed to denigrate the speaker at the expense of engaging their ideas. It’s cheap, it’s dumb, and it’s beneath us.

Another friend posted this link to a comic by the Oatmeal (some language may be unsafe for work). “I’m not ‘happy’ because our definition of happy isn’t very good. It’s a monochromatic word used to describe rich, painful spectrum of human feeling.” Especially after reading Ross Richendrfer’s Whose America Is It?, it got me to thinking about how many feelings we treat as binary: if you’re not happy, you must be unhappy. If you don’t love America the way I love America, then you must hate America.
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And what problems does this really cause? In a post about undemocratic schools, Will Richardson describes the “race to the bottom” in campaign rhetoric, and how our binary polarization feeds it. Acknowledging spectrum would make room for nuance but might be too complicated for us.

We’ve become a nation of dull-witted consumers of whatever partisan drivel we might subscribe to, preferring  just to cement whatever worldview we already have rather than engage in some type of reasoned conversation that negotiates where the “truth” might actually be.

And this is a scary thing. It’s no wonder one candidate for president proclaims “I love the poorly educated,” because that’s a great way of getting elected these days.

This isn’t good for the health of democracy overall.

Seeing the world critically and not simply accepting what is is a fundamental part of what democratic societies need their citizens to do… I’m talking about “reasoned conversation” of an intellectual type that I don’t think we’ve seen at all this year in the primaries or general election. In fact, at least in politics, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen two candidates just sit down at a table and have a conversation about something they disagree on with the intent of understanding the other side more fully.

When we treat these issues like a binary, we’re taking shortcuts, we’re jumping to conclusions. We’re putting people into boxes without taking time and energy to try to see and understand their perspective. We’re kind of turning into the mob from the end of Beauty and the Beast.

So what do we do? We begin by acknowledging complexities both in ourselves and in other people. By remembering that we can’t always know someone else’s point of view without listening to them first. Beyond that, I don’t know. I want to build more empathy, cooperation, and democracy into my life and into my classroom. I stand open for suggestions.

School Week Round-Up: Week Two

Oh my goodness, it’s already been another week?

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Still largely in the setting-up phase, getting used to routines. This takes a little longer for me than most teachers, I think, because I teach an area where so much is trained more than taught.  I try to instruct students in basics of computer use, but so many technology skills develop through repeated use.

And, I only have students once a week. So the routines of transition and direction and troubleshooting feel very rehearsed to me, because I do them every day. But not so for the students.

Ultimately I will be very excited when the routines become fluid enough that I can start facilitating lessons instead of just reinforcing routines.

Support: I feel like we had a better week all around with this. We are, as a school, becoming more familiar with our technology — kids and grown-ups alike. As I predicted, the issues we had with second grade using Chromebooks helped us better prepare for when third and first graders took the diagnostic.

Things I Did Well: Something happened in a second grade class today. In introducing students to Google Classroom, I asked them a question: “What is your favorite kind of candy?” Students happily responded with many missed spellings of the word “chocolate,” among other things. I also allowed them to comment on one another’s responses. I figured this would be a good way to start learning how we communicate online. Students want to be clear so that their peers can understand them. Anyway, what I call “the inevitable thing” happened – the kind of thing that many teachers fear deep down inside. A student wrote something inappropriate! It has teachers shaking in their boots. I’ve feared it myself. We’re afraid the tools will get abused and misused and it scares some folks off tech entirely. What if we can’t stop that kind of thing from happening? What if kids get exposed to inappropriate things!?

Well, I’ve given up on believing “the inevitable thing” will never happen. Because it inevitably does. I don’t have to invite inappropriate things in my classroom, and I certainly don’t have to celebrate them, but I do want kids to know how to handle them when they see them. And another student did see the inappropriate before I did. And they did handle it well! They told me right away so I could delete it and have a conversation with the child who posted it. Turns out it was a misspelling that got out of control. They typed out “ass” and meant to hit “delete” so they could spell “awesome,” but they hit “enter” instead. And, once posted, a comment cannot be edited! But this child was right chagrined so I believe they were telling the truth. Obviously if mild cusses keep appearing I’ll be glancing sidelong their way, but since you can’t post anonymously on Google Classroom, I don’t think that will be happening.

So, we all survived “Mild Cuss-Gate.” Well learned all around, everyone.

Things I Will Do Better: I also had a classroom management challenge. Sometimes it really is a balancing act, when multiple students need a little guidance, and one or two students need more close supervision, and you’re only one adult. How do you prioritize actual human children? Sometimes I did okay. Sometimes I did less than okay. And at least once I utterly failed. Classroom management was the biggest challenge of my early career; and while I’ve spent a lot of time and effort improving it overall, I still have my struggles in this area.

Cold Prickly: Remember how I was going to eat lunch in the cafeteria with the kids every day? I found a downside.

Warm Fuzzy: This week I told a first grader I liked her hairstyle. She told me if I liked it, I should try to wear my hair that way. So I did!

braidsShe wore it better, to be honest. I think the other adults thought I looked goofy; many kids told me I looked beautiful. I think everyone was correct.

Tomorrow’s a teacher work day, so kids got a four day weekend and teachers get a three day weekend. Well deserved all around, I say! Looking forward to more September!

Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem

Here comes another hot take nobody asked for.

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Colin Kaepernick is an American football quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. At a recent preseason game, he declined to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Some time after, he explained:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick pays attention to issues of race (and other social issues) in the United States; even a casual glance at his Twitter reveals this about him. This is not new. But sitting during the national anthem is something that created shockwaves across social media platforms. I would wager that most reactions are angry, scandalized people who vehemently disagree with him. Some folks are a bit softer, reminding others that freedom of speech means that the government allows speech you don’t agree with, like whatever the opposite of patriotism is. A lot of the latter takes on the tone of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

But there’s the rub, for me: I don’t disapprove what Kaepernick says, and I defend his right to say it. And I feel so strongly about not disapproving that I felt the need to break it down and discuss it with myself.

Firstly, the concept of respect and how we convey it and demonstrate it is not as universal as many seem to think. Yes, we are taught to stand during the national anthem (and men take off their hats). But I don’t think choosing to sit is inherently disrespectful. If he wanted to show outright disrespect, there are a number of rude gestures he could have employed. But choosing to sit seems more like… more like not showing “the proper amount” of respect, rather than actual disrespect. And “the proper amount” of anything is really up for debate, and varies largely across our population.

Secondly, I strongly feel there are so many ways to be a good American. Let me explain: sometimes my spouse is a good spouse because he does things for me. Sometimes he’s a good spouse because he supports me. And sometimes he’s a good spouse because he calls me on my nonsense when I’m being awful. Some people are good Americans because they sacrifice for this country; some people are good Americans because they support this country in less direct ways. And some people are good Americans because they remind us that our country falls short of its own ideals for many Americans, and they try to move us closer to those ideals. Reflexively we don’t like to be reminded of our imperfections, or imperfections in the things we love. But I would rather attend to a painful, true reminder from someone in that last group; then hear another hollow recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from anybody else. After all, if we all conform to the same uniform demonstrations of banal patriotism, who will challenge us to make positive changes?

I don’t know who Mike Reed is, but a friend of mine shared this image of a post he made on Facebook:

qbYou have as much a right to free speech as Colin Kaepernick does, and you are well within your rights to answer his free speech with your own. But I urge you to think about what, exactly, you are trying to say, and how exactly you’re saying it.

Because Colin Kaepernick certainly did.

Edited to Add (8/31/16 7:23am): It occurs to me, too, now that many people who feel offended by Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem feel strongly about the symbols of our country. It’s possible that these symbols – the song, the flag – only represent the things that are good about the United States. And that’s not inherently wrong. But it is narrow-minded. Clearly the song and the flag do not mean the same things to Colin Kaepernick as they do to many vocal people on social media. And symbols can mean different things to different people. But I think there’s a big problem in assuming conformity – that the symbols do and should mean the same things to all people. Because that leaves no room for differing viewpoints to be voiced and heard, and without that, we live in an echo chamber. Without dissent, the right to free speech seems meaningless.

Teachers, Challenge Your Misconceptions in 2016

That’s my younger brother there, bound for an Ivy League university this fall. He’s a smart guy, but even smart people fall into the trap of believing something that’s not quite true because someone with authority told you.

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I don’t blame my father. I think the whole “sky blue because it reflects the ocean” is a pretty common scientific misconception. And when kids “learn” things at a very young age, they may spend years taking them for granted without even examining their ideas closely until they face a direct challenge. This is well-documented in science, but I remember having some false beliefs about Catholic teaching that I got from my mother giving me short, simple answers — and me filling in the blanks for myself. Kids might do this on their own, too, by observing simple cause and effect in everyday life. A child might notice that water freezes when cold and becomes hard ice, whereas cheese melts and becomes gooey when exposed to heat. This child might become very confused when gooey cookie batter becomes hard, blackened discs when left in a hot oven for too long. Maybe the right idea enters their head, but sometimes they come up with their own private explanation that’s actually far off the mark.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve become more familiar with as an adult. I’ve said things to students that seemed, to me, like passing remarks — but a student took them to be carved in stone. I try to be careful and admit when I don’t know something, maybe even model how to find it out. But I also try to guide students through evaluating sources such as those on the Internet, since I don’t want them to accept everything they hear and read unquestioningly for the rest of their lives.

So, I forgive children this mindset. And I forgive the adults who tell them things. Kids in certain stages of development have to have very concrete ideas that we can hopefully move towards more abstract ones. But this happens at different speeds for different children. Some kids can wrap their minds around theoretical ideas with relative ease; others, like my brother, graduate high school without fully understanding how sunlight gets scattered by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s also not entirely children who fall into this trap, either. Adults might have misconceptions about any number of things, and if you don’t pause to examine them, you might never recognize that they’re misconceptions at all. And this is not something that has to do with intelligence. Sherlock Holmes famously had no idea how the solar system worked, which most sixth graders could probably reasonably explain. Smart people fall into wrong ideas all the time. The fact that we can filter the sources that reach us through online news and social media doesn’t help this; humans tend to choose to listen to things we already agree with. We have to continuously question the authorities we trust and examine our beliefs.

I personally strive to confront my ideas when I encounter information that provokes deeper thought, and sometimes I have to seek out a larger variety of perspectives in order to do so. I hope that doing so makes me a better model for my students, and helps me better understand them as they struggle to reconcile difficult concepts.

Yesterday Was a Good Day

Yesterday was a good day. And I wanted to write about it, because last week I was feeling pretty down about teaching. (I find it a little demoralizing to give standardized tests.)

But yesterday was fun. It was many of the things that make this career feel like a good and worthwhile choice.

First, it was May the 4th – “Star Wars Day.” I came in wearing leggings emblazoned with the Star Wars logo down the leg — they were XL child size, because I am an XL child. They were surprisingly comfortable. I also wore a Darth Vader mask and cape and played the Imperial March from my phone. Even the kids who didn’t understand why I was acting this way really got a kick out of it.

My morning announcements crew also ran with the theme.

And it’s entirely possible that I repeated this joke a few dozen times.

Then, I submitted a flyer for approval to distribute through the schools. I’m trying to start a 4-H club in my city. There are 4-H clubs in the rural areas that surround our city, but not one within the city itself. I am hoping to do this because I was in 4-H as a kid. I didn’t do any livestock or stereotypically “country” projects. I did mostly sewing and creative arts. These days 4-H also has a lot of STEM projects students could try. My point is, 4-H is not just for country kids. It’s a way for students to extend learning throughout the summer through projects that involve choice and self-determination. There are also scholarships and other opportunities open to students who do 4-H, and I want the kids in my school district to have access to that.

Anyway, my point is, my flyer got approved so I’ll hopefully get that out to the schools late this week or by next Monday. It feels like a really concrete step forward. (It is too late to sign up for competitive judging with 4-H projects, but I actually find this a relief – some of the pressure is off and we can focus on building the club itself.) It feels good to feel like I’ve accomplished something, even though it means there is much more work to be done still.

Yesterday I also had students working on an endangered animals research project, but that took some interesting turns that I think merits its own post. Stay tuned!

5 Things Kids Can Learn from Video Games

So I recently read Alice Keeler’s post on 5 Things Teachers Can Learn From Video Games. I come down on the pro-gaming side, and have since the days of Bubble Bobble on the original NES. So if your kids are into video games, do not distress. They might be learning.

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Video games can help your kid with decision-making. Specifically, budgetary ones. Many video games have their own economies, where you can pay for better gear or more lives or whatever. You often have to earn money of some kind and save up. Sometimes you have to make decisions because you can only hold or afford so much in game. And I would rather practice make the wrong choice about what to spend my money on in a video game than in real life.

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Not every video game economy is equally imaginary.

Video games can help kids make friends and build social skills.
Video games can help us learn to be patient, persistent, and face up to challenges. They can help us learn to handle frustration and disappointment. Plus, they are a common hobby these days, and even though kids aren’t supposed to play them at school, it doesn’t stop a lot of cafeteria conversations revolving around them. And often communities are built around video games, whether in or outside of the game itself. I for one participate on Nintendo’s Miiverse; it’s a good place to ask for help if you’re stuck on something in a game, or just journal or comment on your gaming experience. In fact, the most polite argument I think I’ve ever been in during all my years on the Internet was on Miiverse.

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Taking turns! Sharing! Yay!

 

Video games can make your brain do work. Problem-solving is an important part of many video games. Often you have to come at a challenge from new and different directions. That’s learning in progress. They get immediate feedback from the game to tell whether or not their ideas work, and they can learn from it and try again until they succeed. (With breaks if needed, of course.)

Video games can also be an outlet for creative expression, perhaps as part of the game itself, or within the community around it.

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The Legend of Zelda series of games are well-known for the puzzles, among other things.

Video games might inspire your kid to learn more. Kids who want to learn more about a game, or improve their game experience, might seek out books about the game. If books do not exist, they may take to the Internet and scour message boards or other resources to find answers. I also see kids write about their gaming experiences — maybe they’re journaling their experiences; maybe they’re sharing tips and tricks; maybe they’re creating a story for their game character and going more the fictional route. Either way, video games, like any hobby, can spark kids’ interest in a topic and open them up to new kinds of learning experiences.

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Team Science actually lost to Team Art, but I think we still get the picture.

There are psychological benefits to gaming. Sure, I’ve already listed some, but some studies show that video gamers show improvements in basic visual processes, attention and vigilance, executive functioning, and some job-related skills.

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Granted, not every video game is an appropriate choice for every kid (the same way that not every book, movie, or TV show is an appropriate choice for every kid). But that doesn’t condemn the whole medium; even games not purported to be “educational” can provide unique and useful learning experiences.

Disclaimer: I drew all this art (because nerd alert) using Nintendo Wii U Pad or 3DS. Characters depicted are property of Nintendo.

 

On Fiction and Fandom

Yesterday, after other holiday festivities had wrapped up, we went and saw the new Star Wars movie. When we came home, there was a lot of discussion of what we liked, what we didn’t like, comparing it to previous Star Wars movies, etc.i-m-a-nerd-md

I could go into the specifics about our discussion, but I won’t. And it’s not because I’m afraid to spoil you. I just wanted to talk about fiction and fandom in general.

When I was a student in school, I was taught how to structure an argument about something from a work of fiction using various skills. I learned to clarify what I was reading, summarize, make predictions, ask questions about it. I learned to compare and contrast; cite my sources; describe and evaluate; interpret the meaning of a passage; and organize my thoughts, mostly in writing. And while I’m sure I do these things in my everyday life — like comparing and contrasting prices in a grocery store, for instance — the times when it is most obvious to me that I’m using what I learned in school is when I am being my absolute nerdiest. Specifically, when I am being both nerdy and socializing with other people.

We had dinner with friends the other week and spent a huge amount of time discussing the character development on the new Muppets show (I am particularly interested in what they’re doing with Miss Piggy). In the car on the way here, I turned on the Hamilton soundtrack to demonstrate how the freshness of the hip hop music distinguishes the newness of certain ideas in Hamilton’s time, even though now we take those same ideas for granted as old and part of history. Even as I write, my niece is on the couch next to me, acting out a story with her Lego people, which is a way for her to make sense of things.

Fiction matters, because it can help us make sense of the world. Fandom matters — fandom is being part of a community of fans, and a community can help us grow and shape and challenge ourselves and our ideas. (Online fandom is where I first felt comfortable disagreeing with others, and also where I learned to disagree in constructive ways.)
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It’s very likely that I will start using this blog to explore some ideas that come from fiction and fandom. Why? Because I’m the “teacher off topic.” Just because the school day is over and I’m home enjoying my favorite hobbies, doesn’t mean I’ve turned off my brain and stopped learning.

Expect more nerdiness in the future!

The War on Clutter

A week or so ago I wrote about invisible work, particularly about valuing the people who do it. Sometimes that person is me.

Clutter happens. In our domestic environs we call it “Caitlin creep.” I let my things start to take over all sorts of flat surfaces, like a kudzu of crapola. But, de-cluttering is a hard task for me to motivate myself to do. Why do if I’m just going to need to do it again later? Like making the bed… why make the bed if I’m just going to end up sleeping in it? I’ll be making it again in twenty-four hours.

Then I realized that having the bed made has a positive effect on my psyche. When I come home after work to a bedroom with an unmade bed, it feels like AAUAUAUAUUUAAUUUAAGH. But when I come home after work to a bedroom with a made bed, it feels like *satisfied sigh*. The bed is the centerpiece of the room where I sleep and also keep my clothing, so when the bed is made, the room feels more put together, even if I’m rocking a floordrobe in front of the closet. When the inner sanctuary of my home feels more put together, it helps my brain feel more put together, even if I’ve still got a to-do list a mile long.

The surfaces in other parts of the apartment feel similarly. The bathroom feels more clean when the counter is clear of hair products. The kitchen feels more clean when the counter is clear of utensils and food containers. And we do generally keep those surfaces pretty clear, because we primp and cook almost every day; we keep them clear so they’re ready to use.

The less frequently used surfaces, however, tend to be clutter magnets. And I really wanted to get surfaces done because we need space for gift-wrapping, plus we have someone coming in tomorrow to look at a malfunctioning appliance.

So, I decided to use two strategies:

  1. Before and after photos. Taking pictures before cleaning and after cleaning help you see the progress you have made, so that even if you don’t get a surface entirely clear, you still feel like you’ve accomplished something. Also, blogging bonus: taking photos and posting them online force me to look at my living space more objectively. For example, looking at the photos, the same book appeared in two different before photos. So I did the thing where I tried to reduce mess in one area, by increasing mess in another. (Don’t worry, it made it home to the bookshelf.) Also, I really need to empty the bottles recycling bin.
  2. Timer. Giving myself a definite start time and a definite end time for a task forces me to do that task in the time allotted. Otherwise, I could tell myself to do something, you know, when I get to it… as long as it gets done… like, by the end of the day maybe? No, that doesn’t work. I am too good at procrastinating. So I took my before photos, turned on an episode of Doctor Who, and then took my after photos during the doo doo doo as the credits rolled.

Did I make every surface one hundred percent clear? No, but I definitely made progress, even with the table in the bottom photos. And now, looking at that photos, I am seeing things that are there temporarily (gift receipts on the arm of the loveseat will be packaged with presents soon) and things that need new permanent homes (what am I going to do with those Halloween cups the week before Christmas?). So while I know I’m not done, I know the steps I am going to take next.

The basic way I worked was a lite version of UfYH, which is a link you should only click if you are okay with obscenity. There’s an app version you can get for iOS called Unfilth Your Habitat, but the Google Play/Android version has the real, mature-rated name. (“Unfilth” is a euphemism for the app title only; the app itself contains 100% of the profanity). If you don’t mind the vocabulary, though, it’s got loads of great advice about housekeeping for people with less-than-positive attitudes towards housekeeping, for whatever reason. I find I also apply a lot of the fundamentals in my classroom, or with school-related work. And when my classroom is mostly organized, I feel more in control of it, and more self-possessed.

I Was Wrong About Some Other Things

Yesterday I wrote about how you can lose an argument even if you’re correct.

You can also win an argument, even if you’re wrong. Or, at the very least, you can make it so you don’t lose that argument. You can stop the argument.

  • You can stop the argument by distracting from it.
  • You can stop the argument by placating others and going along with what they want.
  • You can stop the argument by laying out loads of blame on everyone and everything.
  • You can stop the argument by making it extremely uncomfortable to continue arguing.

I cop to having used these methods from time to time. But, overall I do not recommend them. Students will never learn to resolve interpersonal conflicts on their own if we interfere by distracting them. (Don’t fight, guys, let’s go play on the swings wheee!) They learn not to respect a teacher who’s just trying to make it to dismissal, so yes, fine, we’ll just watch an episode of The Magic School Bus. Students won’t be honest with a teacher who thinks that everything is somebody’s fault. (Would you trust someone that ready to censure?) And, yes, you can grind all sorts of monkey business to a halt with the threat of serious consequence (at our school, that would be the dreaded WHOLE CLASS CLIP-DOWN), but that kind of intimidation quickly loses its power when you employ it one time too many times.

So I’m not saying that doing any of the above makes you a bad teacher. It’s just what you do in a bad moment, when you’re not your best self. However, if the bad moments keep on coming, and these strategies comprise the most recently used file in your classroom management folder, then it might be time to step back and reflect on what’s not working. And by “reflect” I literally mean “take a look in the mirror.”

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(Because it’s you. You are the element that is not working. And causing other things to also not work.)

Maybe it’s just me, but I always had the mindset that disagreeing was a problem, therefore arguments were a problem, therefore arguments are bad. It’s okay to argue. And it’s okay not to win an argument. It’s even okay if an argument has no winners! Don’t shy away from conflict just because you’re scared of it. And don’t feel like you always have to come out on top — it’s a cliché, but pick your battles. And don’t pick the ones where you think you can prevail; pick the ones that really matter to you, even if you have as much chance of winning as a chicken has of having teeth.

And so, when I have a bad moment and am not my best self, I admit it. I think about what I could have done in the moment instead. And then I forgive myself and move on. I can’t go back and undo my mistake, but at least I can carry it with me, ready to deploy what I’ve learned in the next bad moment, when I have a new choice and ability to keep trying to be my best self.