Seventh Shift: Steering Your Ship When The Waters Are Rough

Seventh Shift: Steering Your Ship When The Waters Are Rough

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my own ship” (Louisa May Alcott).

Last night I went to my son’s back to school night. His teacher shared a strategy with us she called Active Apologies. “When I ask a student to apologize to another student, they aren’t making that choice, I am,” She told us. “Also, sorry is a word, and unless it is followed by an action, it doesn’t have a positive impact or result in a change in behavior.”

When a child is asked to apologize in her class, the child has to take action on the apology. She can ask her classmate to sit with her at lunch; she can write a kind note; there are so many things she can do to not only say, but show that she is sorry.

I love this. 

I almost jumped up out of my chair and started clapping. She is not only teaching her students the importance of accountability and owning their mistakes, but she is also teaching them the difference between words and actions. It is what you do that matters most, I believe, more than what you say. As my colleague Daniel says, “words are just wind.” 

I believe that teaching students means not only teaching them how to divide, form a hypothesis or write a complete sentence. Teaching means equipping students with strategies for how to develop and use their internal compass in order to make good choices and take action, especially when things get tough in and out of the classroom. 

We all have feelings. We all have thoughts and opinions. Sometimes they are positive, and sometimes they are not. There has to be space in our classrooms to teach students how to become aware of their emotions, and how to navigate those emotions when the waters are rough.

I feel like the waters  are very rough right now. Our students and our children feel this too.

Words are powerful. When we don’t pause and think before we speak, we can be hurtful and unkind. My son’s teacher is onto something. If we say something, we can’t just say it, and move on. We need to follow it with action. But how do we know what action to take?

“Trump is a bad man. I hate him,” My son says at the dinner table. He says it in a nonchalant tone, the same way that he says he hates wearing jeans, eating bananas, and the color green. This is the same child who thoughtfully asks me how my day was, and who holds his stepbrother’s hand when they cross the street.

I wanted to say, “hate is a very strong word. Are you sure that is the word that describes how you feel?” But I couldn’t say that to my son because I am angry. I am sad. I am horrified by the events that are taking place in our country, and I am feeling a lot of feelings. The question that has been keeping me up at night is,  how do we talk to our students and children about what is happening in our country? How do we support them to become aware of their feelings, and keep going? It’s really hard. Should we talk about it? Should we not talk about it? What can we do? I’ve stopped watching the news because each time I turn it on I see things happening that are so horrible, and so inhumane that I have to stop what I am doing and put my hand on my heart to steady myself.

I told my son to eat his carrots. I will circle back to what he said about the president, but I am still searching for the best approach. Many teachers I work with feel the same about responding to their students.

As a teacher you spend more time with your students than some of their parents do. Your students are or maybe have already looked to you to explain what inexplicable things are happening. How do you answer their questions when your own feelings are so strong and your disbelief is so present?

How do we teach ourselves and our students to cope? To listen? To love? To heal?

If we don’t teach ourselves and our students these skills, the alternative is anger, division, paralysis, fear, and shame. The stakes are too high. So while it may feel that getting through your list of whole class novels is important, and yes, it is, I would argue that what is more important is teaching students how to become aware of and process their emotions. They don’t teach that in graduate school, at least they didn’t at mine. It is a small shift, but an important one. Do we teach content? Do we teach skills? Do we teach both, and if we do, what content and what skills are most important in the society we are living in today?

When I first started teaching I thought my job was to teach content. The title of the book mattered. There is a literary canon after all. I am so grateful that the more I taught the more my students showed me that what they really needed to learn and practice were skills. These skills were academic, but they were also social and emotional skills. By the end of my time in the classroom, the skill that I felt was most important to teach my students was self-awareness.

How do you teach self-awareness? How do you connect teaching social-emotional skills to your subject matter?

I was working with a teacher last week who is very passionate about having a class meeting. She wants to create a time and space in her classroom where her students can talk about empathy and kindness and develop strong relationships with each other.

“The problem is, she told me, “it feels like the class meeting is entirely separate from the rest of the class.”

“The curriculum,” she described, “doesn’t include texts or lessons that support students to make connections to the topics they cover in class meeting.”

I nodded my head. She was onto something. We know that part of higher level thinking skills involves making connections and synthesizing information (Thanks, Bloom’s Taxonomy). If we don’t support our students to see these connections, the learning feels compartmentalized.

We talked about how important it was to her that the students were able to apply the skills they were learning in class meeting, and the topics that came up to the novels they were reading, and the essays they were writing.

We talked about The Four Voices, which is a strategy for developing self-awareness, and how we could modify it to support students to name and process their feelings, while also using the same lens to think about the characters they were reading about, and analyze a text. 

The idea is that we are receiving different messages as we navigate our way through our day, our years, our lives. Some of these messages come from our mind through thoughts. Other messages come from our heart through feelings. Some messages we experience through our bodies, and others come from our deepest sense of intuition, our soul.

My children, who are almost five and six don’t have self-awareness yet. The night before the first day of school, Cian had an upset stomach. I believe that was his body voice expressing anxiety about the upcoming change and new school year. One of the ways I hope to support my children as they grow up is to help them become aware of what they are feeling, what the four voices are telling them, and how they can best use that information.

This strategy has also been helpful in my professional and personal life. When I am trying to make a difficult decision, I rely on this fame to bring awareness to my thoughts and feelings. I look for patterns, and those patterns help me determine my next steps.

The sentence starters shared below provide an entry point to the work, but there is no right or wrong way to approach this strategy. You can give students a topic, and ask them to use the quadrant below in order to explore their response to the topic. You can give students a word or a phrase, and they can investigate their four voices.

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Students can apply the same strategy to explore dynamic characters in a text or a historical figure. What is the character saying? What is the character doing? What is the character feeling? What does the character believe? It is always exciting when students begin to identify patterns. They often see contrasts and contradictions between the different voices, and how these patterns contribute to why the character is dynamic.

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It may be helpful to look at the types of questions that you ask your students. In schools, we ask students to use their Mind voice. We ask questions like, “what is the answer?” and “what do you think?” “What do you know?” Asking students questions that allow them to access and explore the other voices can lead to deeper thinking and increased self-awareness.

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For younger students, it can be helpful to give them the outline of a heart, the outline of a body, the outline of head, and focus on mind, heart, and body to start. If you are trying to support younger students to express their worries and fears, it can be helpful to give them the outline of a tiger or another powerful animal, and ask them to write down or draw what they are afraid of. Once they have done that, the next step is to color in the animal. The process of bringing awareness to their feelings, and then coloring over everything they have written and drawn can help them see that their worries and fears can go away. As Rumi said, “no feeling is final.” Drawing over the fears empowers the students and takes the power away from their worries.

The teacher I was working with talked about how she could use The Four Voices in the class meetings, and then use the same frame as the students were analyzing dynamic characters in the whole class novel. It is an experiment that we are doing to see if this strategy helps students make connections between class meeting and the novel.

I would also encourage you to use The Four Voices Strategy in order to help your students access and process their emotions when they see something on the news or hear something said that makes them feel worried and fearful. The frame can provide students with a tangible strategy they can rely on to help navigate their emotions during difficult times.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers And All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. Try It Before You Teach It

If The Four Voices are new to you, try using the strategy yourself before you use it with students. One of my favorite coaching strategies is called Hot Mess. The strategy is simple. Whatever you are about to do or try for the first time, anticipate what could go wrong/what might be challenging. For example, if you are about to have a debate in your class about a controversial topic, and you want to use The Four Voices Questions, anticipate what your students’ responses may be, and how you will facilitate the discussion and support your students. Being able to have a difficult conversation and listen to different viewpoints is an important skill, but it is a hard skill to develop and practice.

2. Adapt It As Needed

With any strategy I share on this blog, you should always know that you can pull from it what is helpful, and modify it as needed. Start small. Start by introducing one voice to your students, and then build from there. Many students have never been asked how they feel or what they believe in a classroom. If student’s experience of school has been centered around memorization, and recall, then asking the student to think about how she feels and what she believes is a big shift in her thinking. Plan with your students in mind rather than yourself. Meet your students where they are.

3. Share The Why Behind The What

I believe that anytime you introduce something new to your students that it is important to name that for them, and explain why, and what’s in it for them. It is also helpful to ask them for their feedback on their experience. Is this strategy helpful? How is it helpful? If it isn’t helpful, what might they change to make it more useful? Do they like the strategy? I always told my students that curriculum is a conversation and learning is linked. If you use this strategy for a class meeting, try also using it with your content. Provide opportunities for your students to make connections and see how this strategy can be used as they read and write and as they learn how to navigate their daily lives, especially when the conversations are hard, and the waters are rough.


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