yes, please: my reflection on the learning and the brain conference

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to represent Graded at the Learning and the Brain Conference in San Francisco. The focus this year was on Educating with Empathy. Yes, please.

If one of the goals was to make my brain hurt, it worked. Terms like neurons and amygdala and periaqueductal gray and neuroplasticity and vagus nerve and lizard brain and lions and tigers and bears oh my are just running around my cererbral cortex.

Ouch.

But it was all worth it. Ultimately, I left this conference feeling validated, inspired and concerned.

It’s always a good feeling when you’re listening to the experts telling you what to do and you’re like, “Holllllah! I already do that! And that!” Many times throughout the conference, I felt that way. For example, the bedrock of who I am as a teacher is that students must feel good in my classroom. If they don’t, they won’t learn. I remember reading about this when getting my Masters in language acquisition. But more importantly, I have seen this, day in and day out in my classroom. At this conference, I learned even the brain research supports this idea. If students do not feel comfortable in a classroom, the part of their brain responsible for learning literally shuts. off. (What part of the brain? Yep, good question. That’s in that soupy swirl somewhere in my head, but I’m sure you can Google it.)

Even more validating though is my work with mindfulness in the classroom (See here.) I do it every single day with students to start class. If I don’t immediately begin with it, students are like, “Ms, aren’t we doing a mindful moment?” Sometimes, my students lead it, and that is just breathtakingly beautiful. One of the greatest joys is to see the student survey data: for example, from last year to this year, more students report doing mindfulness on their own outside of the classroom. Ugh one more, yes please!

The brain research is aflame with support of mindfulness practices; mindfulness has been shown to correlate with increases in empathy, health, productivity and memory while decreasing stress. One more time: yes, please! Especially important is the research into metta meditation, or lovingkindness mindfulness, which has been shown to improve the outlook of teenagers toward other humans. All together now, yes please!

But of course, the conference wasn’t only validating, it was also inspiring. I walked out of Douglas Fisher’s session on collaboration with concrete strategies on building effective collaborative models in my classroom. Did you know, his district is one of the few to do well on high-stakes testing (ugh, not everything, but something) even through changing multiple administrations. When thinking about why, he said two things: 1, our kids always know WHY they’re doing what they’re doing and 2, the majority of classroom time is spent on student collaboration.

Here we go again. Yes please.

I also learned some concrete strategies from Jeff Zwiers about how to foster meaningful academic conversation in my classroom. Sometimes in my class, I feel like student conversations are just 52 or so different mic drops, with nobody listening and responding to each other in an authentic way. Zwiers talked about this in terms of building ideas and how you teach students to do that. It was very helpful. I plan on using this with Socratic seminars for sure!

Even with all this validation and inspiration, I cannot stop thinking about the heavy weight of one of the last presentations by Dr. Sara Konrath I attended called “Are Teens and College Students Becoming Less Empathetic?” Wow. Just wow. Without citing a bunch of studies, let me just give the gist of our current teenage situation…

Increasing: narcissism, dismissive attitudes, materialism, volunteering rates (associated with a rise in requirements), mental health problems, GPAs, IQ, ACT scores, self-control (yep, you read that right), ambition (although not attainment), and perfectionism. Aren’t you just exhausted reading that list? I am.

But…wait…here are the declines: security, empathy (both in perspective taking and concern), care for others, the pursuit of meaning in life, socializing with others outside of family, and donations to charities.

These lists are depressing. And I am only reading them.

Can you imagine what it feels like to be a teenager today?

I didn’t leave that session with many answers. Just lots of questions. How can I support such a uniquely pained generation? How can I set them up for success? How can I change the culture so that they change their families so that they change the future?

And it just comes full circle, doesn’t it? Compassion. Mindfulness. Teaching the heart, and not just the mind.

Yes, please.

#barkenport: our first time hosting friends overseas

In the days when Dave was getting paid to hike (it wasn’t all a walk in the park, ha), he made a friend. Chris and he shared military backgrounds, formative religious experiences, and a love of music and craft beer–not to mention all the ups and downs that came with the trails (#trailpunsfordays). It’s not often Dave connects with someone on this level, so naturally, I was curious to find out what his wife was like…and more importantly, would we connect?

We did. Allison is a teacher, so there, the end. Just kidding. I also discovered we share the love of God, the fear of anxiety, and many perspectives of the Midwest. None of these are light subjects: but that’s how I like my friends…deep and meaningful.

So…Dave and I were absolutely thrilled when they did the unthinkable: they made a trip to Brazil happen!

Here they are arriving, after three planes and a scary amount of hours.

Since they arrived on Christmas day, we made a special request of Santa to make a stop here with some Brazil gear and beach toys–and of course, champagne for the grownups.

That night, we made sure to fill their bellies with a traditional Brazilian churrasco: fire-grilled steak, chicken and sausage; garlic bread; veggies.

Chris might have had just a little bit to much fun with the skewers…

Not to worry though…we worked that off in our apartment’s indoor futsal court, of which the boys fell in love and for which they begged on a daily basis 🙂

(That actually became one of my favorite parts. Eventually, we brought down games and adult beverages to the game room and we played while they played. It was great!)

After an exhausting night of settling in–after an exhausting bout of travel–we were off to Rio together. I mean, come on, you can’t come to Brazil and not see the beaches of Rio! While there, we spent lazy days at the beaches and one crazy, whirlwind day of sightseeing.

We came back to Sampa just in time to celebrate New Year’s Eve on our beautiful balcony, where we danced, played with glow sticks, watched Brazilian coverage of events we didn’t understand and enjoyed multiple fireworks (noises or sounds). Don’t mind the blurriness of these photos…because let’s be real, when aren’t NYE pics blurry when you’re too busy being with friends!?

Once we hit the new year, we all realized the Barkers had only wet their appetite for Brazilian beaches. So, we booked a last minute getaway to Santos: the sea of sand dollars (win) and poop floating in the water (fail). We enjoyed shots on the beach, drip castles and reflections, and one helluva sunset that included a car fire and a rainbow (#nofilter).

All these trips and big moments don’t even include the small moments…which might even be my favorite. Cooking together. Games. Slow conversations on the porch. Naps. Field trips (packed in our car like sardines) to the malls for delicious coffee and snacks…and the hunt for the perfect Havanas. The boys’ addiction (justified!) to acai. Once again, seeing our new home with eyes of foreigners.

Naturally, as the time arrived for the Barker’s departure, my heart grew sad. I was crying at the drop of a hat. Allison said it’s because they brought a little piece of home with them.

But, no, it’s not that.

It’s because, without a doubt and with no better way to say it, we absolutely fell in love with the Barkers. Including their kids. Most definitely their kids. Cayden and Corbin are just delightful little boys, and to see them play together was a joy. So cheers to you Chris and Allison for being fantastic parents. You should be proud.

The Barkers leaving with a piece of our heart…

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