Becoming Compassionate

Jimmy wasn't considered to be a popular student in high school.  He had few friends and was from the less affluent side of town.  Jimmy and I were in the same grade.  I don't recall if he was bullied, but I also can't remember people being nice to him either.  Despite his pleasant affect, keen sense of humor and service to his community (he volunteered with the fire department) he was mostly "unnoticed".  I vividly recall walking to chemistry class one afternoon and down the hallway I could see Jimmy, clearly in distress on one knee outside of the boys' bathroom, getting sick.  And what for what seemed like an eternity, students just walked on by, either not noticing him or not caring enough to stop and see if he needed help.  Person after person.  Nobody noticed. Nobody helped.  They just walked right by.

Nate did stop.  He dropped his books, ran over to Jimmy, put his arm around him and asked for help from a gathering . Then another student stopped to help, and another, and another.  Within a minute, some students got Jimmy on his feet and into the bathroom.  A few students went to get a teacher.  Other students blocked off the area due to the mess on the floor.   It only took one person.  One person to notice someone was in need and to have the empathy to know that they needed help and the compassion to act on it. One person's act of kindness inspired many others to do the same.

It has been a long time since I graduated high school.  Despite the passage of time, I often think about that experience.  I can picture student after student walking by Jimmy, and then Nate rushing to his side causing a domino effect of compassion.  Why did Nate stop?  Why didn't one of those people who walked right by him stop?  The experience also reminds of the power that one person has to create change and inspire others to act with compassion.  Many of the people who passed him by were "good" people, yet they didn't stop to help.  What was happening at that moment that prevented them from doing so?  It is understandable that people, especially children, can become unsure how to respond in a situation like this.  It doesn't make them mean or unable to be compassionate,  just unsure.  Unsure what they can do to help,  if the person wants the attention of potential helpers, or how that person will respond by them offering help.

If you have never listened to NPR's TED Radio Hour, I encourage you to give it a shot.  Every Friday, a new episode is posted.  Previous episodes have covered a wide variety of topics, including: environmental issues, food, brain science, athletics, overcoming adversity.  This past week's episode, "Just A Little Nicer", explored the topic of compassion: can it be taught, the neuroscience that explains it, and are humans increasingly less able to demonstrate it.   Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who helped ignite an intelligence revolution with his book Emotional Intelligence, was featured in the show.  The latest research on social neuroscience, he reports, can explain why how in some moments we can be compassionate and while in other moments we are too self-absorbed to help others.   He shares a story of a man that he came across a "unnoticed" man in a subway stairwell that was clearly in need of help, and what happened after he stopped to provide assistance.  How he told the story took me right back to that high school hallway, remembering the story of an "unnoticed" student.

According to Goleman, the good news is that we can all become more compassionate.  We can teach ourselves, and our children, that through practicing kindness (ex: students writing positive messages to peers and adults in their lives) and mindfulness exercises (ex: breathing exercises, meditation) that take us out of our state's of self-absorption.  However, there is a major concern, that I think is shared by most of us who didn't have a cell phone until we were working adults.  How do we "transfer" to our children the skillsets needed to engage empathically with others when their primary form of communication takes place on a masked, sometimes anonymous, digital platform (texting, instagram, etc..) rather than face-to-face?  How this will impact the future of personal engagement, relationships and compassion won't be fully understood for years, if not generations.  Goleman ominously states, that with our increasing dependence on digital communication we are perhaps "starving the social brain" and engaging in an "unprecedented experiment with an entire generation." We are witnessing, he argues, our diminished cognitive ability to relate with others.

This may be our greatest challenge as educators in the 21st century: how to teach our children to be compassionate citizens in an era of virtual communication.

Daniel Goleman's interview, including brief excerpts from his popular TED talk, is linked below.


Writing again...

Our students write a lot.  In my daily walkthroughs of classrooms I regularly see students writing in journals, notebooks, and Google Classroom.  Through the iterative writing process of writing, editing and rewriting we want our students to be able to make claims and share stories that are rich in language, supported by evidence, and skillfully crafted and organized.

As a "lead learner" I think it is important to model what we expect of our students.  I want them to demonstrate good character and be kind; I should conduct myself in the same manner.  I want them to become avid readers; I need to find the time to read what they are reading.  I want them to write; well, I need to also.

In the bottom right of this page you can see some of my old posts from this blog.  I had put down the figurative pen for a bit of time and by sharing this re-introduction publicly, I am making a commitment to get back to writing and sharing.

We all want our children to become proficient readers and confident math students.  So, we are told, we need to encourage this at work and home- we need to read with our children, model a love for independent reading,  and use everyday actions and routines to discuss math (recipes, miles, money, etc.).  When was the last time we, teachers and parents, have been told to write more with or for our children?  We certainly don't hear that message very often.  The lesson for me is the same as it is for students: the more I do it, the better I will become.

Welcome (back) to my blog.


Natural Stimulant

What is it about the fall season that inspires us to get outside? Whether it is the inviting colors, the crisp air, the sounds of rustling leaves, or even the looming confinement that comes with the cold winter months, we seem especially content to escape the trappings of technology and busy schedules and explore and play outside.

I, personally, enjoy hiking at this time of year. I didn't very much when I was younger.  It wasn't something that my family regularly did with the exception of our annual trek up a small mountain in the state of Maine.  Many years later, I have developed a deep appreciation for exploring the more wild and natural beauty of this country. Being able to spend time walking in the woods, up a mountain, along a river or around a lake helps me relax, improves my health, and, would you believe, increases my ability to use my brain.

As part of its series on the 100th anniversary of our national parks, National Geographic magazine featured a story last winter on nature and the brain, "This Is Your Brain On Nature". The story features the work of University of Utah cognitive psychology professor David Strayer, a leading expert on attention science. Strayer's research reveals, according to the author, "that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue...such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover." What happens when you try to memorize facts, solve problems, and tackle a complex task when you are tired, stressed, or mentally exhausted? Typically, the result is failure, frustration, and a need to start over.  The brain needs escape and rest.  Exposure to our natural world the research suggests, allows our brains to rest and recover and ultimately increase our ability to effectively function through our school/work problems and projects.  

Dr. Strayer's work was also featured in a highly recommended article in Outside magazine. The author summarizes the increasingly popular hypothesis that "the constant demands of emails, notifications, and general busy-ness put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the region involved in multitasking and higher-order thinking (like critical thinking and problem solving). Those small demands add up to drain our attentional resources, making us distracted and cognitively fatigued—which in turn makes it more difficult to focus, think deeply, and come up with new ideas."  Dr. Strayer uses electric brain activity tests (EEGs) and creative problem solving tasks to prove this connection between natural escape and improved cognitive ability.  The results have revealed the benefits to include increased creative thinking, improved ability to focus, and more active imagination.  Critics may argue that television, video games, or just sitting on the couch may also provide the brain this escape.  Dr. Strayer, as he describes in the article, argues that nature allows our brain to enter a state of soft fascination and that it is only nature that “you can watch without getting bored, but it’s not in itself mentally taxing. It can be mesmerizing… it’s a gentle capturing of attention.  And it frees your mind to wander, which is one of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing."

I find the connection between nature and the brain to be very intriguing. I am motivated to find new and effective ways to incorporate "nature" into the student experience.  I imagine the most effective thing we can do as leaders of children, is to model for them the importance and benefits of putting the 21st century on pause, and getting "back to nature".

What are your family's favorite natural escapes?  

Book Suggestion: Dr. Strayer's work on attention is also featured in this powerful book about the dangers of texting and driving- a great topic for a future post.