Hamilton in High School

My family is growing weary of hearing me quote Hamilton, but like yoga, I see the parallels throughout daily life.  Plus, I like the catchy show tunes and rap verses.

Recently, I found myself trying to talk less, smile more all in the spirit of truly listening to a distressed high school senior whom I will call Hamilton.

DISCLAIMER: I don’t know much about his story except that he is struggling to get by, has at least a few adults trying to put him in his place and, I believe, is smart, determined, competent and struggling to make his way in the world as he searches for how and where he can become a new man.

I am also trying to talk less in general as I hone my listening skills.  I’ve facilitated professional development with teachers around listening.  I’ve taught kids of all ages about listening, I’ve read about listening.  But like most people, I’m not innately a good listener. It takes effort and practice.  In my coach training, we’re focusing on reflective and empathetic listening.  One of the mantras is “listen twice as much as you speak.”   

In my role at a local high school, it is not uncommon for another faculty member to escort a student to my space to have them “sit a bit” or “just do some work.”  My comfortable and spacious place is intended for college and career exploration but de facto, it can be a holding place for kids when other adults aren’t sure where to put them.  I see this as an opportunity to connect with kids, to offer a safe, quiet place for a short time and ideally, to listen to what’s going on with them.  Sometimes, it’s a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys, but everyone needs to have a place to chill and fit in, and if I can be that island, I’m happy to do so.

A teacher who was monitoring a room known by an acronym I don’t even know the full definition of (it has something to do with discipline and detention and is about as barren and sterile as any institution) slid into my room and asked if Hamilton could come down for a bit.  He is, she surmised, “A bit worried about college and school.”

Well, alrighty. “…take up a collection and send him…

When she gave me his actual name, I told her we had worked together before.  He had been all over the place with where he might apply now that it was January of his senior year.  Shortly thereafter, Hamilton appeared before me, dragging his feet and examining the floor tiles.  I was determined to put my reflective listening in action so I could find out what was going on with this kid because his body language told me he was feeling like a beaten dog.

Best laid intentions, but this Hamilton was not conversant.

I tried many versions of “What’s going on?” “And tell me what brought you here?” and “So, waatz up?”  He didn’t lift his head and his arms went further into his sweatshirt pocket the more I inquired. Time to cut him some slack and offer words, much like one does with a preschooler who doesn’t yet have words.

Me: So, we chatted before when you came in to look at schools, right?

Hamilton: Yeah.

Me: And you were thinking about schools all over the country. It seemed like you were looking to get out of the area?

Hamilton: Yeah. I dunno…

Me: Ok, so now you need a game plan?

Hamilton: Head turns away.

Me: It’s not too late, but there is work you need to get on and I can help, I think.

Hamilton: Body hunches over the table.

I gently ask a few more questions, hunting for clues as to what he’s done about colleges.  Turns out other than taking the SATs he’s done diddly.  I ask if he is serious and wants my help, and he looks up at me and makes eye contact for the first time.  His ebony eyes are glistening, with tears precariously balancing on the lower edge of his eyes.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Inhale. Exhale.

 I see the hurt and shame here. Who knows what got him to the holding pen down the hall. 

Dreikur’s roots of misbehavior scroll through my brain:  Attention? No. Power? Maybe. Revenge? No. Helplessness? Definitely.  He wasn’t just acting out, he’s afraid and feels trapped.  “…helpless…

Then he went and did something that got him ushered out of class and here we sit. “…the world turned upside down…”

“I know this is hard and maybe overwhelming. But it’s not too late. We can find options, but you’re going to have to work,”  I assure him.  I tell him about an upcoming community college visit and the local Black College Expo that offers on the spot admissions.  He looks at me, nodding.  I tell him to come back in a bit and I will have some info for him to take home and read – and hopefully –  discuss with his adults.  Normally, I wouldn’t just dig up documents and hand them off, that’s on the kids.  But this kid seemed to feel like nobody is on his side. “… it must be nice. It must be nice to have Washington by your side…”

I get him back in the room and he is looking even more dejected. I summoned a cheerful but not too cheery tone of voice and smile a lot. I show him how the community college admissions process works and explain that if he came to work in this space, he could do it in no time, and I’d be there to help.  Plus, he’d have an admissions decision within a week.  Befuddled, he looked at me as I acknowledged, it might not be ideal, but it gives him an option.

Me:  Does any of this sound like a plan that gives you some choices?

Hamilton:  Nods and pulls the paperwork closer to point at the “apply here” link.  “…get the job done…”

Me: Think you can come in next week and we’ll do that?

Hamilton: Nods.

Me:   Let me hear it…

Hamilton: Yeah, yes, ma’am. I will come. Thanks… 

As he stands up, he towers over me and  I see his eyes are, again, wet.  I nodded my head and smiled. “…there are moments where the words don’t reach…”

This kid wasn’t misbehaving in class just to piss people off. Like so many high schoolers, he is worried about the uncharted path ahead. Perhaps he is realizing he should have done things differently, made different choices. He was feeling stuck, trapped, without choices and maybe without support.  We’ve all been there and it’s crappy.

I tried listening, even when he was barely able to speak. Empathy and reassurance it had to be, talking less, smiling more.

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Here’s to talking less, smiling more!

Hopes & Dreams Revised: Learning to Feel

In graduate school, I observed highly skilled and passionate teachers and wondered how they worked their magic. Later, I’d see similar magic as a young teacher at the Harley School.  I soon learned part of the magic was Responsive Classroom. Being the Type A person I was (am?), I dug in to learn more.


Each year, I deliberately followed the Responsive Classroom’s outline for the first six weeks of school. It was clear the hopes and dreams part had a lasting impact. I saw kids from prekindergarten through middle school ponder what they wanted to do for the year – an enlightening and empowering process for them and for me.  It wasn’t always neat and easy, but with conversation and stories, we got into some deep thinking. Every kid I ever taught was able to articulate what they wanted to accomplish or feel during the year. 

I saved gems like this:

This process gave way to our class rules. Every time one of us slipped and forgot to “do the rules,” we had our class guidelines and shared hopes to buoy us.  It was a beautiful series of miracles in the classroom – not always perfect, but yet miraculous.  This included revisiting those hopes and dreams mid-year, partly to keep them fresh and honestly, in large part because we all know what a two-week winter break does to a classroom routine.  Continue reading “Hopes & Dreams Revised: Learning to Feel”

Breathe and Listen in 5 Steps

“Feelings come and go like clouds in the sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s been a week for most of us.  Lots of waiting gave way to floods thoughts and emotions.  There has been no shortage of voices, on the same page and on diametrically opposing views. 

But it’s hard to do our best listening and speaking when we are anxious, stressed, busy or our mind is somewhere other than here.  Feelings can fill our brain and we begin to identify with those feelings. We tell ourselves our feelings, especially the vivid ones, are THE reality. Or that they define us. Or that they are permanent unchanging truths.

Wrong.

Feelings are just feelings.  They change.  They do not define us. They can cause use to act irrationally, impulsively, passionately. They can also interfere with our ability and willingness to listen. We may know this intellectually, but it’s often so very hard to rein in those monkeys in our mind known as feelings.  And when those monkeys are swinging around having their own kind of circus, our mind has a very difficult time focusing on the task at hand, the person in front of us, or the topic of discussion.  Those monkeys require tools to reign them in so that we can be more focused.  More than once this week, I found myself talking to someone and my head was somewhere else. My own personal squad of monkeys was swinging from their trapeze and joining each other by tails and hands.

 

Source: http://fineartamerica.com
Source: http://fineartamerica.com

At one point, I even said to someone, “Yeah, I’m not quite sure what her response was because I really wasn’t listening…” I realized after the fact, I  had let the monkeys rule my mind.   In another conversation,  the driver who had recently rear-ended me was giving me intricate details of his family.  As we wrapped up the conversation finally with the  impetus for the call, I found myself still thinking about this man’s’ family stories. I had missed the essential information. Ha! Caught that monkey!  I took a few deep breaths and then asked him to repeat the important details.

There’s an essential connection between breathing and listening.  In heated conversations or debates, this is hard to remember to activate our breath to bring greater awareness.  But it takes just seconds. The simple act of breathing calms the body’s nervous system and brings us present.  A study published by JAMA found a growing awareness among doctors that being mindful and using the breath improves not only their own stress but the ways they engage with patients, which inherently involves listening. You don’t need to be an M.D. to stop, breathe and listen better.  

And when we’re calm, we are better able to listen. 

In five simple steps, you can practice this: 

  1. Mind awareness. Recognize when your mind is elsewhere – it’s almost always elsewhere. Notice what’s happening with those monkeys, especially w hen you’re involved in something important, serious, heated, etc.  Just pause for a moment and witness where your mind is. I like to envision myself as the circus master with a rope, whipping it in a circle, rounding up those thoughts and then lashing all those that are unnecessary ones right out of the circus ring known as my mind.
  2. Feel. Take just a moment to feel the physical sensations in your body. For some, it’s pure tension. For others, it’s a tingling in extremities. For others, it might be discomfort in the belly or a headache. Just notice.
  3. Inhale deeply. Let that lower belly fill up, then pause. Continue inhaling deeply and fill your rib cage. Pause again. Inhale one more time and feel the air rise to your collarbone. Pause and relax those shoulders (that are probably pretty darn close to your ears).  Hold that air in for a bit, until  you start to feel any bit of stress. Then slowly exhale from your collarbone, then ribs, then let that bellow drop back to your spine.  Do this two to four more times. Close your eyes if it helps shut out stimulation that might be distracting. If you’re in face to face conversation you can still do this,try employing the “talk less, smile more” strategy. Stop talking, breathe deeply and let a small smile lift the corners of your mouth while you breathe.
  4. Let Go and Ground Take a moment and just notice where your thoughts are. Let passing thoughts pass. Ground yourself by concentrating  on an object in front of you – someone’s eyes, the chair they are seated in, something on the horizon.  
  5. Connect and listen. Now focus on listening to what’s being said, not on what those feelings are in your mind and body.  Set aside your response and arguments and take in what’s being said. With those monkeys  a bit better controlled, the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that processes and listens. 

 

Here’s to deeper breathing and better listening!

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lisa

 

 

 

LWells

 

 

 

Judy Judger, Parent

It’s been a while since I wrote. Maybe you missed me or maybe you didn’t notice.  I did write, but like most writers, only a small percentage of what I write ever shows up where others will read, and lately, most of my writing was crap.  Writing is one of those things I  file under my mom-judging practice.  I know…. there’s no point in that.  (My self-criticism was mitigated after listening to the inaugural episode of #AmWriting With Jess and KJ as  they celebrated procrastination and writing.). A story on the  Today Show this week reminded me how unproductive mom-judging is, no matter what the source, so it was time to stop judging and revise some writing.

writing

Most of us do  shame and judge ourselves at some point unless we work hard to combat the tiny heckler that rides on our shoulder.  When I’m aware enough to notice that heckler, I try to say hello and then I say goodbye.  Sort of like welcoming an unexpected guest to a cocktail party and quickly dispatching them on an unsuspecting guest who will engage in conversation with them when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do it yourself.

 

I’m also aware of how often we  – parents, teachers, caregivers – all judge each other and ourselves. My curiosity was piqued by my friend Cynthia’s post,  Keeping Things Cool,  where she identifies the many flaws in Judy Judgers‘ visits and why we need to keep our own Judy under wraps, or at least far away from us at the internal cocktail party.  Judging others rarely serves us, right? If you really feel the need to speak your truth to friend or foe, then for goodness’ sake, take a deep breath and find a way to do this respectfully, maybe even in the future when you can respond rather than react. Nothing wrong with constructive criticism nor speaking the truth, but there is also no need to rush to judgment, inflict shame, or rip someone apart just for sport.

 

If you’re a parent, you know this happens, and not just with kids.  I’ve witnessed moms in coffee shops look  at strangers and wonder aloud how she got out of the house “like that.”  I’ve heard parents muse about how one could simply “not” get their kids into SAT tutoring as high school freshmen. I’ve heard men speak unkindly about the physical appearance of another guy’s wife. As a teacher, I’ve wondered what makes a parent send a first grader with a lunch that is 97% refined sugar.  And then there was a period when people wondered how I let my four-year-old son out of the house in a Disney Princess bikini (in retrospect, the bigger issue was why we even owned such a sequined-get-up).

 

I’ve also witnessed, and participated in, the self-shaming that comes when Judy Judger looks in the mirror.

  • “Ugh…should I  bring my kid his homework/lunch/cleats?”
  • “My daughter hates me because I took her phone away.”
  •  “I really need to make my kids a more healthy snack/dinner/breakfast.”
  • “My teen hates me… I can’t seem to say anything right.”
  • “I should really purchase clothes from this decade.”

These are real and they  could even be your thoughts.  Some of these are old-fashioned natural consequences – often hard for kids and parents to accept. Forgot the homework? The kid will learn new skills so she’s more likely to remember next time.  Take a phone away?  If it’s related to the misbehavior, he’ll learn actions have consequences.  Need more healthy meals – enlist the kids to help out since you’re definitely not the only one who eats.

 

The point is, we are all imperfect.  We mess up, we learn to fix things, we learn to move through the tough stuff. It’s easy for Judy Judger to show up  when we’re feeling stressed, vulnerable, and human. But that does not mean you need to engage in conversation with her.

judy

 

Parenting and family life is messy for everyone. It doesn’t need to be complicated by judgment.  We each have skills, strengths, and flaws.  Our kids, whether they are four or seventeen, need to see us as flawed humans who are doing our best and who are lucky enough to have the support of others.  They need to see us struggle, fail, and pick ourselves up.  They need to see us exercise the compassion to help others do the same.

 

Even though you feel like you have so much control and influence over your kids’ lives, the day will come (very) soon when you will not be able to shield them from struggles.  They will need the skills to navigate challenges on their own  and they will experience failure.   Our mission as parents is to raise them to fly solo – with us to observe, listen, and coach.

They can’t do this if they see witness us judging ourselves and others as if we expect perfection.

 

Let’s make room to allow ourselves and our kids do their best, live with natural consequences and learn from the process.  We’re all in this together – and we will be better – if we just sequester Judy Judger and instead, act with compassion, honesty, and integrity towards ourselves and others.

Take care,

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Lisa Dewey Wells

 

8 Traits

8 traitsv2

The past few posts have focused on defining family but in a broader sense, this blog is about what we model and instill with the children in our lives and the lessons we learn from each other. A huge part of raising and working with kids is keeping in mind the end game.  That doesn’t mean being wedded to a certain outcome (soccer star, valedictorian, Ivy-League college) but more a general sense of the values you want to instill and the kind of person you hope this little person is and becomes.  While much of development is dependent on temperament, health, experiences outside the home, parents and caregivers are the first teachers and often, the most significant role models.  

 

It’s important to spend time thinking about what you want to model and instill, and to know that this may change over time.Each family will grow to have it’s own unique blend of values and priorities. This may include a range of other big and small ideas, such as:

Joy

Compassion

Accountability

Courage

Faith

The foundation for building a connected family and children who learn to navigate their world with confidence, empathy and a willingness to accept challenges are based on eight traits explored on the blog.  They are:

Creativity

Empathy

Listening

Love of literature/communication

Perseverance

Play

Problem solving

Resilience & resourcefulness

 

These are eight traits, among many, that are the foundation upon which strong families are based.  It also shares stories of a wide range of children in the classroom where these traits are nurtured and contribute to both the child’s development and the school community.  Each of these traits helps give rise to confident, caring and engaged children who learn to advocate for themselves and people and issues important to them, as they learn to be self-reliant and motivated thinkers and do-ers in an increasingly complex world.

With two emerging adults – kids that are late teens and early twenties but not yet fully adults – it’s easier now to look back on how we raised them.  There were definitely periods we were far too bleary-eyed or stressed to consider the big picture! Over the past twenty years, our ideals and values have shifted as circumstances and needs changed.  We faced challenges and many joys, but throughout these halos and hiccups, there are many values and traits that we clung to and strived to model and instill.

 

Over these same years, as I worked with children from ages three through thirteen, I was fortunate enough to work alongside dedicated colleagues who shared similar values and commitment to what we modeled and expected from our students. Beyond my own two offspring, I saw hundreds of kids from various backgrounds learn to navigate school and life with courage and integrity, learning from their mistakes and growing.  What’s most important to me as a person and my family can be summarized:

 

  • We must have the courage to be both creative and empathetic in our lives. We must listen to our hearts and the people around us. Everyone and every situation have something to teach us when we listen.  
  • Communicating with others orally, in writing, in our body language and our actions are essential in this world.
  • Literature has much to teach us, as well as an ability to help us escape from the world, explore new ideas, and connect with others.  
  • Life isn’t just about work; it’s about play and joy, too. Play is essential for big people, little people and all people, so we need time for authentic play that allows us to do something we love with no  purpose.  
  • Whether in play or work, we will need to problem solve, often. This requires looking carefully at the situation and trying new things. We will fail, and we will succeed, and we will learn.
  • To navigate our relationship and our world, we will be called upon, again to be brave, as we develop resilience and resourcefulness. Life will be complicated and messy and rewarding. We have to jump in the game and give it our all.  
  • As a family, we need to support each other as we take this journey, honoring each other, being open to the possibilities, holding each other accountable as we celebrate the failures and successes of our individual and collective growth and contributions to the world.

Our most important job as parents and caregivers is to raise children who learn to be self-sufficient, competent, caring and willing to contribute to the world – a world we cannot know right now, but can only give our very best effort to raising good kids who will go out and do good in their own ways.

What’s most important to your family or for you to model and instill in the children you work with?