by Jean Prokott
Part of an educator's job description includes insomnia, but nobody tells you that at teacher-school. It's more on-the-job training. The sleeplessness is nerves, mostly--did I remember to print those worksheets? how is that student's mental health? what if my zipper is down tomorrow?--but it's also anxiety-ridden in that instead of counting sheep, we spend hypnagogic moments counting our failures.
We make hundreds of decisions a day, and a healthy portion of them are mistakes. Failing hurts, and it is uncomfortable, yet we tell our students they learn through failure. It's only fair we know this for ourselves.
To reframe, we're counting the moments we learned. If a lesson plan goes awry, the students watch you flounder (if they're paying attention). If, like me, you say the phrase Netflix and chill in class thinking it's literally about relaxing while watching Gilmore Girls, you're going to sit in that for a while, and you're going to save Urban Dictionary to your Favorites bar.
Physiologically, we can attribute this to the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and which hangs out next to the hippocampus, where memories are retrieved. We recollect emotional experiences more precisely and colorfully because our brains are built that way. Theoretically, as educators, we know Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD), which they did teach us in teacher-school, and which explores the sweet spot of comprehension. In a parallel, one can look at this as emotional intelligence, this sweet spot where you feel just uncomfortable enough to remember. A student ignores or forgets a class where they are not emotionally or intellectually challenged. A student does not feel safe or confident in a class that challenges them, content or skill-wise, too much.
Our job is to hover in the ZPD. It's not easy to create these moments for our students, to get their hippocampi to remember how we made them feel and what we taught them. Especially because every student's ZPD is different. So is mine, so is yours. And they fluctuate.
But, as I mentioned before, we must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. Teachers might not experience the anxiety of feeling intellectually or emotionally unsafe in our classrooms (not to be flippant, but aside from the fact that a student could kill me with a gun, or that I could be fired for saying the "wrong" thing). However, educators can find themselves complacent in the nucleus of the ZPD. Not because of laziness, but because of survival. In those rare circumstances when opportunity and time presents itself to us, we should strive for the next layer.
Education, as its own institutional beast, struggles to evolve on its own. For one cog to move, myriad others in the government and community must be greased. Fortunately, (hopefully), teachers have control over their classrooms. To move to the outer ring, we can challenge ourselves with new curriculum, new projects instead of tests, cross-curricular activities if the school structure can be manipulated for it. With support from our administrators and colleagues, we can set plans in motion for "hard conversations."
It isn't a leap to explore how this, too, is exactly how poetry works. (Everything is a metaphor, even a metaphor.) Third Eye Education is ever grateful for the conversation and new poems from poet Taylor Mali, who opened a door to the joy of discomfort by way of poetry, teaching, and shaking dice for a symbolic gamble.
Mali's new poems, "Momentum," and "Are You Going to Come for Me'' explore the Gestaltian circumstances when we're thrust from our comfort zones. Mali tackles how one new experience can change our big picture.
In "Momentum," the speaker challenges his sister on the accuracy of her memories with their father: "I repeated a story he had only ever told to me [...] his brothers locked him in a windowless shed—/ piled firewood against the door outside—and dared him/to escape in under five minutes." While the speaker uses the story as evidence of "joy," his sister interprets the story as evidence of "destroying everything around him to become free," which warps the memory of his father. This discomfort leads the speaker to rearrange his past relationship with his father, and perhaps to question whether any of his memories can be trusted. I think, here, of how this ties to the lessons I've learned in my classroom. How might I look at my prior discomforts now, as a seasoned teacher? Discomfort breeds when our Truths are challenged. Do we accept this, or do we double-down?
Speaking of “discomfort,” the next poem contains content
that might make some uncomfortable. But isn’t that the point?
by Heather M. F. Lyke
It’s almost June: a month full of farmers’ markets, graduation parties, and fairs. (If we're lucky, this summer we will have all of that again.) June is also the month of Pride (read about the origin of Pride and other such details here in this CNN article).
Spring and summer are a great time to reflect on our educational practices. Combine that with Pride Month in June, and it’s only fitting to reflect on how our practices specifically impact our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families. How can we as educators work toward a space where all—including our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families—feel safe and welcome in our classrooms and schools?
To compile a list of ideas on this topic, I anonymously surveyed three dozen LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies, many of whom are current or former students of schools in Southeast Minnesota (SEMN) and some of whom currently work in SEMN schools. I looked for what themes arose from their feedback, and resoundingly these were the four key takeaways:
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There is a creative energy and a passion for new ideas that often comes from the collaboration and conversation between individuals. For our podcast team, that is what makes the time devoted to our efforts more than worth every minute spent. This is also the root of why our team walked away with so many new ideas and revitalized energy after our discussion with four of Minnesota’s 2021 Teacher of the Year nominees.
For the full conversation and elaboration on each of the above resources be sure to listen to the full podcast discussion (released April 27, 2021).
Snapshot of a Collegial Conversation
Cultural Exploration and Understanding:
One clear thread that came up during our conversations was a desire to expand one’s personal understanding of bias, racism, and cultures other than one’s own. Some of the resources shared were:
- Zaragosa Vargas’s book Crucible of Struggle: A History of Mexican Americans from Colonial Times to the Present Era
- Bettina Love’s book We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom and her Teaching to Thrive podcast that she co-hosts with Chelsey Culley-Love
- Jason Reynolds’ Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You—especially the audio version.
- Alan Brennert’s Moloka’i
Two professionals in the field come up often, including in this conversation, when talking about teacher leadership—specifically in the area of instructional coaching. A portion of our conversation kept circling back to the works of Jim Knight and Elena Aguilar.
Inspiration from Outside Education:
It may be hard to believe, but educators do take breaks from time to time—spread our wings outside our field. That said, we never fly too far from the tree of education that roots us to the profession, often discovering ideas and tools that lead us back to the field we love. Such as was found with:
- Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.
- Scott Ellsworth’s The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph
- Mark Barden’s A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It's Everyone's Business
- Dessa’s memoir Our Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love
- Carly Israel’s memoir Seconds and Inches
Bringing Conversations into Classrooms
Rich conversations need to happen in classrooms too. As Goodall noted, it is in conversations where the “explosive development of our intellect” comes into play. There is a thirst for learning that happens naturally and sporadically when we bounce ideas off of each other: in podcast conversations and in classrooms.
- Terry Heick’s Teach Thought article, “20 Types Of Questions For Teaching Critical Thinking”
- Larry Ferlazzo’s Education Week article, “Integrating Critical Thinking Into the Classroom”
- Matt Goldman’s Ted Talk, “The Search for ‘Ah ha’ Moments”
with Shannon Helgeson, Suzette Rowen, Tami Rhea, & Natalia Benjamin | 4.26.2021
We have the pleasure of digging into innovation, inspiration, and influances with four of Minnesota's Teacher of the Year Nominees.
Shannon Helgeson is an instructional coach with Winona Area Public Schools with prior experience as a classroom social studies teacher.
Suzette Rowen, a master of reading and science, is a kindergarten teacher for Dover-Eyota Schools, coordinates district relicensure and the school woods.
Tami Rhea is the K-12 Media Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools, coordinates STEM Village for SE MN, and teaches coding to secondary students.
Natalia Benjamin is an EL and Ethnic Studies teacher for the Rochester Public Schools and a Cultural Competency trainer for Education Minnesota.
Heather M. F. Lyke is the Teaching & Learning Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools and author of numerous articles focusing on quality education.
I work with everyone in my role at Dover-Eyota schools, both in classrooms and outside of them. Collaborativly, staff and I work with students, or we meet to plan for future work with students: anything to help students grow. This year, whether it be during an online check-in or over an outdoor beer after work, conversations have been particularly interesting. This week alone, four staff have made note of how much more they are grinding their teeth this year versus past years. I can relate.
I also grind my teeth. Five years ago, it was so bad a doctor said I needed to wear a stint on my bottom teeth at night to relax my jaw muscles at night: that stint lasted me four years. Last spring, I had a new one made--less than twelve months later, I have litterally cracked my stint because the night grinding and jaw tension has increased that much during this pandemic. But doesn't that crack simply highlight my humanity?
This has been a school year like no other. Our staff, students, and community are having to navigate more stress and more negativity than many have had to process in years past. Knowing that, what can we do?
For that, we lean on Amit Sood:
With the pump installed and the radon back to less than 2.0 pCi/L, our sleep quality crawled back to normal. Then I had a brilliant idea--why not take radon levels down to zero? Just to compensate for the years of radiation. Few quick clicks on the internet, and I knew that wasn’t possible. Radon is part of the natural environment. Its level can be reduced, but not eliminated.
It turns out this is true for most other toxins. The normal blood mercury level is less than 10 micrograms/liter. It isn't zero. Even if you never enjoyed grilled mackerel or a tuna sandwich, you still will have some mercury in your body. The same is true for lead, arsenic, aluminum, and now micro-plastics.
“Isn’t that true also for negative thoughts?” I thought.
Every week I think thoughts I would rather not think. Being alive is being imperfect.
Here are three ways you can leverage these insights:
- Accept and embrace your negative thoughts, knowing that they are universal and also because they serve a purpose. Rational fears keep you safe. Healthy envy can push you to work harder. A resilient mind has space for both positive and negative. In fact, extreme positive can be a net negative.
- Just as you can mitigate high mercury or lead levels, you can decrease your negative thoughts if they are usurping too much space. Fill your mind with gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, meaning, and hope, and you’ll see toxic anger, fear, and envy exiting your headspace.
- Have compassion for those mired in negativity. They may have faced a rough tide in the past, may have vulnerable genotype, and more. Deep down, they are hurting. Your compassionate engagement will help their self-worth and might start their journey toward freedom and healing.
If you agree with the preceding, then...
Here is your challenge:
Just for today, choose to accept one mildly annoying aspect of one person in your life. Remember that an excellent first step to help others improve is to accept them as they are. And also, that people don’t like to be improved; they want to be validated.
Dr. Sood, my dentist (and my pocketbook) thank you for this. I suspect my colleagues' dentists will be thanking you, too.
Dr. Amit Sood is one of the world's leading experts on resilience and wellbeing, executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and the creator of the Resilient Option program. He has also athored many articles and books, including The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.
Heather M. F. Lyke is the Teaching & Learning Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools and author of numerous articles focusing on quality education.
You see, as a kid I didn’t have any tangible women in my life with whom I really identified—at least not holistically. My day to day life was filled with men—my father, my older brothers, and most of my friends. And then there was my mom: my mom, who was 100% sugar, and spice, and everything nice—while I, on the other hand, was mainly spice. Unlike my mother, I enjoyed changing the oil with my dad, going fishing with my brothers, and shingling roofs with my guy friends. However, I wasn’t ‘one of the guys’ either: I had a Caboodle full of banana clips and Bonne Bell, Yankee Candle was my favorite store in the mall, and I wore Love’s Baby Soft every day of junior high. So, instead, I found kinship in Mallory from The Baby-Sitter’s Club series, in Jo from Little Women, and in June Osborn [Offred] in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The thing is, each of these friends were introduced to me by teachers. I met Mallory at Jefferson Elementary when Mr. Vanort pointed out the series to me one day in the Library. I met Jo at Kellogg when Mrs. Ollenberg noted in the margin of one of my journal entries that I might enjoy it. And, I met June at Mayo when Ms. Evans set her own personal copy on my desk and said I should read it over winter break (I still have that copy, by the way: if you’re reading this Ms. Evans, let me know if you want it back).
Unfortunately, for many students, it’s uncommon for them to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and while the diversity we are seeing in children’s and young adult literature is on the rise, it still doesn’t match our student population.
For me, this was certainly true. My world view expanded greatly through literature. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of being black, poor, and female in America. Cisneros' The House on Mango Street helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of poverty and immigration. Dorris' A Yellow Raft in Blue Water helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of holding on to one's heritage when one is Native American and/or biracial.
Book List Resources:
- American Indians in Children’s Literature “Best Books” list
- IRIS Center’s “Children’s Books: Portrayals of People with Disabilities”
- National Public Radio’s “Book Concierge”
- When applying the filters ‘Young Adult’ and ‘Identity and Culture’ to the 2020 books, this curated list is created.
- It defaults to the 2020 list, but one can always go back to explore books published in previous years.
- The NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Blog, Literacy & NCTE—specifically these posts:
- “Build your Stack: Our Classroom Libraries Evolve as We Grow and Learn”
- “Build your Stack: Culturally-Affirming Adult Reads That Will Push Your Classroom Thinking”
- “Build Your Stack: Widening Our Lens by Bringing Books from around the Globe into K-12 Classrooms”
- “Diversity in Graphic Novels”
- “Culturally Sustaining and Inclusive YA Literature: Valuing the Knowledge, Stories, and Truths of Adolescent Life”
- “Book Recommendations for the African American Read-In” (scroll toward the bottom for YA texts)
We Need Diverse Books’ subsite “Where to Find Diverse Books”
- Also, explore more suggested titles on Twitter: #WNDB
Reading Challenges that Honor Diversity in Literature:
- Rochester Public Library’s “Open Book Challenge”
- MacMillan Publishers’ “Reading Without Walls” challenge
The Academy of American Poets subsite “Teach This Poem”
- Educators can also sign up to receive a weekly email including one poem and supporting resources
National Education Association’s subsite “Read Across America”
- Also, explore more suggested titles on Twitter: #ReadAcrossAmerica
No matter what your role in education, you could be that staff member who hands out mirrors to and opens windows for our students. It’s important that we all work together to guarantee our students are able to see themselves reflected in the books they read and ensure that they’re able to build empathy for those who are different from them.
My childhood would have been rough without characters like Mallory, Jo, and June. My worldview would have been much thinner without authors like Hurston, Cisneros, or Dorris. To this day, I am grateful for those teachers who introduced me to these close friends and who showed me more of the world.
These protagonists taught me that being smart and outspoken, being strong-willed and brash was admirable—even if I was a woman. These authors taught me to empathize with others different from myself. Now, imagine what lessons our students will learn if we just introduce each of them to a wider array of books.