A framework for building resiliency education in the public school system.
I recently came across a video promoting a book called “Story Wars” dealing with the importance of empowered marketing that can help give consumers the tools and knowledge they need to make informed and socially responsible decisions.
The video is brilliant in making the case to learn more about the book (I am almost tempted to order), yet the glaring message I took from the story in the video is that we as a culture are not connected to a meaningful myth that is self-sustaining. In other words, the myths we have attached to are mainly consumer based or based on a system that has nothing to do with the laws of the natural world.
There are few, if any, current myths having to do with what Climate Change, the ever-present war on terror, or the continuous stream of media really means to us as individuals and a connected global society. Not only that, the stories we do have also fall short on the universally important themes of sustainability, self-reflection, empathy and creative individualism. Are we unable to tell our own stories, and therefore have to hire marketers to do it for us? Or are we just telling ourselves the WRONG stories: stories that are fear-based, lack the total imaginative potential of humanity, or will fit into 6 second bytes of time that we spend between 2 meaningless acts as we go about our day?
My thought is we have to re-learn how to interpret the events in our lives, as individuals and communities, to be able to tell and share the stories that truly signify what we are going through. When we can do this collective re-interpretation, we can approach the problems and trials of each day with a wisdom founded on understanding the context of our lives by having a deeper lens with which to view the world. This needs to start with kids as young as 5, before they are told their imaginations aren’t “real” and won’t matter in the world. I say we have “personal myth-making” class as a part of every student’s upbringing- start at elementary school and go until graduation. Then, hopefully, the stories we tell ourselves and others can be true reflections, not only of who we are, but of what we hope to be.
When I was deemed old enough starting in 7th grade, I was left home alone during the hours between school letting out and my parents arriving home from work. This spacious period of 2 hours was enough to relax in front of the TV, play video games, have an adventure outside, never do homework, and hang out with friends who also were left alone during that pivotal 4 to 6pm window.
What started as innocent play changed as some of my classmates began experimenting with drugs, mainly alcohol and weed. I started hearing about these endeavors at school, but because I lived far enough away from the town center I was often not a part of the activities. Hearing what my friends were doing and not being able to participate created a huge desire to know what was going on. This desire coupled with the time spent alone at home led me to experiment with trying what was in my parents liquor cabinet, or later attempting to make a pipe and smoke some weed that someone had given me. As 7th grade turned to 8th, I soon found myself a part of some of these “extracurricular” experimentation activities after-school as a way of satisfying a desire to fit in and ultimately understand what the buzz was all about.
If not for sports and organized after-school programs and activities I was involved in at this time in my life, I may have continued down the road of experimentation with substance to perhaps meet greater consequence. After-school activities starting as early as 6th grade gave me a structure that created greater resilience and a healthier environment, allowing me to develop safer habits with friends. Even if I didnt choose to get involved in some after-school events, my parents always encouraged me to stay busy with something that kept me ‘focused on what was important’. This encouragement was enough to get me to do things that ultimately shaped who I am today.
Many of my old classmates did in fact suffer greater consequence from repeated experimentation with drugs and alcohol that starting during the 6th-8th grade period. They were also the kids I remember as having little involvement in community after-school programming. Later in high school, they became the ‘ex’-cool kids that struggled to maintain good grades and stay out of trouble. I look back at the after-school opportunities I had to participate in; sports, hanging out in a teen center, playing games in the park, building planter boxes in a community garden; and I realize that giving young people a task to work towards together can greatly help in building the capacity within themselves to make smarter decisions while also collaborating on creating healthier ways to hang out.
I propose that communities get together and discuss ways to keep kids meaningfully involved after school- create a mini-sports league, build a garden, start a youth club, create team-building activities, etc. The possibilities are endless. In short, a community needs to create space to engage youth while also having a discussion about what youth are doing, in order for the youth themselves to understand the motives and consequence of their actions.
For more information on activities for youth in Marin County, check out these links and/or email for more information:
Coalition Connection: Working to change community norms with respect to underage drinking. Visit website for more info. http://www.thecoalitionconnection.com.
Ross Valley Coalition for healthy youth: A new coalition starting to create healthy norms and activities to build a healthy community and prevent youth alcohol and drug abuse. Email for more info at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fairfax Youth Club: A new after-school program starting in the Fairfax Community Center at 16 Park Rd, open M-Th from 4-6pm. There is an OPEN HOUSE on Wednesday the 17th from 4-6pm with information on healthy activities for youth.
Zach Laurie is the co-founder of Roots to Branches, an organization that seeks to create safe and dynamic learning experiences for youth. Roots to Branches runs in-school community service projects and after-school youth programs. Their website is http://www.rootstobranches.org.
In a recent conversation with one of our youth group facilitators and a superintendent to schools, we discussed how the value of learning is really only met when a student can personally connect with the subject and make it meaningful. This led us to what we, as facilitators and teachers, need to do to inculcate this personal connection to learning within a classroom and student environment. We realized that in order for learning to be personally meaningful to students, the act of teaching had to be just as (if not more) personally meaningful to teachers and educators. Here is an emailed paragraph from one of our facilitators before she left to attend a Changemaker Workshop:
“When I think of future generations, what concerns me is their disconnection – from self, community, and the natural world – especially with the increasing use of cell phones and computers. It’s up to us to pass along to our children what it means to be connected, what it means to be a compassionate humans living in a way that serves all beings in the web of life.
Recently I was walking past a school playground and noticed a group of elementary school kids playing a game: two teams on either side of a central line were building hoop structures, and then throwing soft balls towards the opposing side to knock the structures down. Asking the Physical Education instructor about the game revealed its name: Castle Ball (here is a link to a high school lesson plan).
As I watched, I noticed the game required a collaborative effort on each team’s part: some had to construct the hoop structures while others threw balls to knock the opposing team’s structures down (a mixture of offense and defense, which we know from last night’s Super Bowl is VERY important). The first team to knock down all of the opposing structures won.
It was clear the kids enjoyed the physicality of the exercise, the competition AND the cooperation, yet I couldn’t help but think something was missing: how could the game be framed to make it personally meaningful to all participants? I realized that many times in education the lesson or activity is framed in a “follow these instructions but don’t ask why” framework.
I then began to think about how to make Castle Ball meaningful, even connecting it to personal responsibility and sustainability. One idea would be to start with a lesson on ecosystems, and how an ecosystem is an interconnected web of relationships that rely on each other to coexist. This could dovetail into building hoop castles where each hoop represents a key part of an ecosystem: clean water, fresh air, topsoil with nutrients, bacterial and fungal organisms, vegetation, animals, etc. Depending on the grade level, the lesson could even include socio-political aspects such as environmental legislation and responsible citizens. Once the students learned to build healthy ecosystems (in this case represented by hoops leaning against one another), the second part of the lesson would introduce what degrades ecosystems: air and water pollution, free-radical chemicals, overdevelopment, poaching of animals, erosion of topsoil, etc. Each of these “ecosystem enemies” would be represented by the balls used to throw at the hoop castles to knock them down.
Sound like a stretch? Perhaps. Yet with planning and correct framing of an exercise, any educational lesson can be imbued with meaning with metaphor and a bit of imagination. Last I checked, youth had plenty of imagination to go around, and if they don’t they should. After all, once Castle Ball becomes about protecting and destroying ecosystems, it raises the stakes considerably doesn’t it?
In the story A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the protagonist Sheherazade faces death at the hand of a King unless she can tell a string of stories that prevent him from taking her life once dawn breaks. The side of the story less known is why the King has gotten to his current state: grief stricken from an unfaithful Queen, the King decides to take his vengeance on the kingdom by wedding and then sacrificing a new Queen every night. Sheherazade willingly decides to become the next Queen to prevent the unnecessary killings, as she knows she holds the power of storytelling that can slowly unravel the grief the King holds in his heart, thereby saving the kingdom.
Stories, or myths, such as these were told to provide valuable lessons to society. In the case of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, we learn that unconsciously acting out on grief can create harm to others, and by utilizing inherent and powerful gifts we can help others. Myths were told as ways to remind people the importance of knowing ones place as an individual in a larger collective society; to create meaning as to how individual actions help and contribute to the larger world. Today, our myths have been diluted and in many ways subdued by technology and science: in a world where facts and logic are at our fingertips, where is room for the personal meaning-making that myth provides?
At R2B, we believe the trend of myth and making meaning is necessary to create individuals who can identify their gifts and use them for greater good. A way to do this is to create service learning projects that bring the individual out into the world, where societal talents can be honed and put to the test. As students in schools and individuals from corporations engage in service learning projects, they begin to act upon latent and hidden skills thus identifying personal meaning in a shared environment. In other words, service learning helps individuals establish roles to create a personal myth that is then shared with a collective audience. This process, once repeated and implemented in all spheres of society, can create a wave of actions that lead to nothing short of “saving the kingdom”…we’d like to start with the educational system.