Each summer the school district I work in hosts a summer leadership academy. The goal of this academy is to promote best practice from within, by empowering our outstanding teachers to provide innovative professional development in a variety of disciplines on a variety of topics. The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the important lessons I learned from attending this year’s inspiring academy.
The academy began with a riveting keynote from Dr. Michelle Borba, a renowned educator and motivational speaker. A few of the key points that resonated with me were the idea of teaching the whole child (heart) and not just his or her head. As an art teacher, I often focus on the heart of the child. Artmaking is about the heart of the artist. I agree with Dr. Borba, in such a high stakes testing environment, educators and administrators often ignore or worse, cut back on time in the arts. We constantly hear that our students need to be more creative, yet most people in positions of authority do not know how to teach creativity, let alone provide an environment for creativity to flourish. The art room is a place where students are free to express themselves, learn how to communicate, take risks, learn from failure and work through ambiguity. The art room provides an environment in which students can combine learning focused toward both the head and heart to make sense of the world around them.
Dr. Borba spoke about the increase in anxiety and stress among students today. Students have created a brick wall barrier to learning for “fear of being wrong.” Often unwilling to take risks, these students are uncomfortable with ambiguity and freeze up when presented with open-ended problems. They are anxious about tests, class rank, grade point averages and things that are of little significance in the job world they will hopefully be a part of. They are stressed about family, friends, relationships and things that are not addressed in school, yet have a monumental impact on learning. The art room provides a space to work through these issues. The art room can provide a space for creative problem-solving. It is a place where students are required to engage in the creative process where formative assessment is built in. Failing is a part of the process and not the end product. In the art room, students can work through relationship issues by expressing suppressed feelings that otherwise might never surface. It is a space where the students can work through open-ended problems that promote divergent thinking, as opposed to the convergent thinking that most other disciplines require.
I appreciate Dr. Borba’s focus on the whole child. She also spoke about the need for empathy, compassion and respect. These “soft skills” are essential to success in life. Today, bullying is prevalent in all areas of schooling. I feel it is because many students don’t know how to be empathetic, compassionate or respectful. Many students have not been taught how to exhibit these three characteristics. If we spent as much time teaching about empathy, as we do math, I think our educational system would make big strides in all areas. The ripple effect of learning about empathy, compassion and respect would resonate in all areas of school and life outside of school as well.
Dr. Borba spoke about the lack of hope our students have today. They are constantly bombarded by “doom and gloom.” Everywhere they look they see, hear, and feel hopelessness. This portion of the keynote was particularly compelling for me. Both as an educator, to make sure I am providing my students with glimmers of hope, and perhaps more importantly it resonated with me as a parent. I realized how much my own children have been exposed to the sadness and despair of our world. She made the point that we should be talking about the good, the amazing, and the beauty of life with our students and children. Teach them there is hope, happiness and beauty in the world.
As a result of Dr Borba’s speech, I adjusted our nightly routine for my 5 and 6 year olds. Now, every night before bed I ask my children four questions. “What was the best thing that happened today?” I ask this to get them to reflect on the good parts of today. I want them to go to sleep remembering the fun they had. “What is something you are looking forward to tomorrow?” I ask them this to get them excited about a new day. Each day brings new adventures and I want them to start out excited about what is to come. “What is something in the future you are looking forward to?” I ask them this question to help them understand there is always something out there to work towards and look forward to. The excitement and anticipation of something coming up is just as fun as the actual event. Lastly, “What makes you super happy right now?” I ask them this final question to take a look within and think about what truly makes them happy right now in the moment. Honoring the fact that this will change by the minute and that is ok. I ask these questions every night with the understanding that the answers will change as each day goes by. I will see my children grow with each answer they give and watch how the world around them changes too. I ask these questions to get them to focus on the hope, happiness, and excitement of life.
Dr. Borba spoke about how the research is showing that these children represent the first generation showing signs of stress and anxiety at such a young age. The world is tough for our children today. Testing has overtaken our schools. The news is riddled with negativity. Many of our children come from re-defined homes and families. All of these and many other factors have had an impact on the children of this generation.
I think as educators, we need to focus on the whole child, mind and heart, by considering the arts as important as math and science. I think we need to teach “soft skills” such as respect, empathy and compassion as essential skills. Lastly, I think we need to teach our children in our homes and the students in our schools, that there is hope in this world.