Picture the poet Mary Oliver perched on a boulder that is itself perched on top of a Western Massachusetts mountain. That’s what I see, anyway, when I read my favorite poem of hers, “What I Have Learned So Far”:
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of —indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
Be ignited, or be gone indeed.
I often use this poem to prompt intention-setting and reflection both inside and outside the classroom. A big part of my why in teaching is a sense of urgency around creating critical learning experiences for our world’s future leaders. I think feeling ignited about this work is necessary. My students — teenaged people of many backgrounds and identities — eventually settle in and get it.
We must ignite their humanity if we’re to inspire their growth.
It turns out that teenagers are human beings, and human beings are hardwired to consider narrative. It also turns out that being able to offer an insightful and informed human narrative helps us to relate to one another and learn a great deal in the process.
If we have created the best conditions for their learning, they also feel ignited. When we don’t create those conditions, a lot more than four years of learning is at stake — our work, after all, is about educating students in a way that allows them to live their best lives long after they leave our schools.
The educational environment has occupied a whopping 87 percent of my life. When I think of the most important things I have learned so far in education, the sack of gems that I carry with me include the following:
- Connection (to peers and mentors) creates an important foundation for deep learning and growth.
- We all benefit a great deal from feeling known, seen, heard, and valued.
- Self-awareness and agency are collective activities that can transform realities.
- What teenagers learn in these years is critical for their identity development (and not limited to academic content).
- Communities benefit when their members see themselves as practitioners who have a lot to learn.
These gems were hard-earned and critically important. They also kept my colleagues and me in the business of learning what types of experiences and engagement in the educational environment are in the best interest of — and in service to — students.
Building a School that Feels
When educational environments are at their best, their cultures value social and emotional learning as essential to academic learning. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has joined the list of educational buzzwords that people think they understand, but tend to overstand. The most common understanding probably is that SEL is learning about “feelings” as opposed to “academic content.”
I think that distinction is trash — not to mention counterproductive and even dangerous. It’s no secret to young folks of all ages and their caregivers that students are facing high anxiety, stress, and pressure on all fronts, issues of bullying and hazing (on and offline), and cultures that are not responsive enough to student health and wellness. To think about SEL as an experience that should only happen outside of the classroom reinforces the terrible message that these aspects of their world are disconnected.
One of my favorite definitions of SEL comes from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, which defines SEL as the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
This definition encompasses the skills that are particularly useful for teenagers to practice. With a curriculum like the Mastery School of Hawken’s—where students will engage in solving real problems, high collaboration, and learning transferable skills— attention to SEL maximizes each student’s learning, growth, and transformation potential. SEL practice adds depth to educational experience and gives us all the ability to articulate what we have learned and why it matters.
The Ingredients to Being Well
I know I’m lucky. In my education, I sought out experiences and connections that too many students don’t receive. These experiences contributed to me feeling a sense of belonging, connectedness, and purpose, and that made all the difference.
But don’t take my word for it. A 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index surveyed 30,000 recent college graduates’ sense of well-being. The study found that people who answered yes to six statements in two areas (experiential and support) are the people who identified as experiencing a sense of well-being after college. The statements by category are:
- I had at least one professor at college who made me excited about learning.
- My professors at college cared about me as a person.
- I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams
- I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
- I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom.
- I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending college.
These findings suggest three significant truths:
- Engagement in work and well-being weren’t determined by where students went to school.
- Engagement in work and well-being were determined by what students experienced while at the school
- Too few students experience support in all those areas, but those who do are thriving in all aspects of well-being
What was most fascinating about this study (the first of its kind) was that only 3 percent of respondents agreed to all six of these statements. Those who did agree with those statements experienced a deep-learning experience and support and were the rare bunch who identified as thriving in their well-being and engaged in their work lives.
The Gallup study focused on college graduates, but I believe — and I am certainly not alone — that the four or five years before college are crucial for preparing for the types of experiences and connections the study illuminated. Adolescents do not suddenly benefit from deep learning experiences and support from adults in college. It is a process and practice that they are both implicitly and explicitly exposed to from birth.
Given what we know about changes to learning experiences and wellness in higher education in response to student needs, we can imagine that the high school experience can be a helpful partner in this work of becoming human.
This is work that schools should commit to because the emotional and psychological health of students is not an ancillary aspect of education. In fact, it is what determines the culture of a school and what allows students to grow intellectually and beyond.
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