School's out. Politics is in. Five months of presidential political combat lie ahead. So I'm psyched to revisit the challenge of effectively educating kids to be active participants in our democratic processes. I plan to post a number of columns over the next months that focus on student voice, the teaching of democracy, civic engagement and political literacy. I'm hoping some of you will join the discussion and toss in your two cents.
In her Wall Street Journal editorial, What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind?, University of California at Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik highlights two key areas of the brain that dictate adolescent and human development: (1) emotion and motivation and (2) control.
She cites Berkeley pediatrician and developmental psychologist Ronald Dahl who uses the perfect metaphor to describe adolescence: "Today's adolescents develop an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake."
As an inner-city elementary school teacher for 34 years, I made up and tested my original curricula in emotional intelligence, character education, values clarification, writing, reading, thinking, creativity, poetry and vocabulary. Call me an educator, developer, researcher and experimentalist in the classroom.
"Your clicks have consequences," says Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet. Johnson writes about the impact of consuming a poor information diet, "unhealthful information deep-fried in our own preconceptions."
Along with Dr. Allen N. Mendler, my close friend and co-author of several books, I have spent a great deal of time promoting the use of consequences over punishments. We define a punishment as what is done to us (detentions, suspensions, checkmarks on public boards, calls home), and a consequence as what we do to ourselves (learning new behavior, helping others). This new behavioral and social contract system uses values, rules and consequences as the main components of an effective school or classroom plan for discipline.
For many of you in the northern hemisphere, the school year is coming to a close, and with it comes a likely drop in the stressors that build up and promote teacher (and administrator) burnout. It therefore may not seem timely to suggest interventions to prevent or reduce burnout. However, it is often not until we are away from a high-stress situation for a while that the brain can move out of reactive survival mode and into a relaxed state where it can ponder the big picture.
Today's high school students are creative and have a strong aptitude for technology. And many of us are interested in making our high school experience better, not just for ourselves, but for our peers as well. Studying and a strong work ethic will always help to take students to the next level, and are certainly perfectly viable options to create one's own path to success. But many of us are available and interested in helping our schools innovate through new technologies.
Students and teacher need to develop positive and trusting relationships in an effective classroom. It is also critical that all students, especially English-language learners, develop trusting and enriching relationships with each other. There are many activities which can be used for both introductory purposes and throughout the year to build and maintain positive relationships in the classroom. Some activities which work well to introduce students to each other and to the teacher can be used again at later points in the year as students' interests change and as they gain new life experiences. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it contains several suggestions we have found successful and which could easily be adapted for use with different levels of students.
My former student, Brenda, graduated with a BA in psychology from Mills College, in Oakland, just a few days ago. Brenda was eight when I met her; she was a third grader in my class in an overcrowded, underfunded school in deep east Oakland. She was sweet and bright and we connected.