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.

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