Author Archives: Hermione Loofs

Education Health

Resilience is an individual skill – but you can teach it in the classroom

“I can’t do it!’, he shrieked. His 7-year-old frame shook, fist curled he glared at me. Furious that I had put him in this position, or with himself – it was impossible to tell.  Today was clearly tough for this student – much of it spent huddled beneath the teacher’s desk. Too many half hour lessons, too many transitions compounded by having me, a supply teacher.

Plus, whatever else was happening in his life.

The Year 2 students were working in small groups to solve an open ended challenge. This student insisted on working alone. Clearly not part of the lesson plan: had he sabotaged his learning goal? Depends which learning goal you’re questioning. I watched him.

‘Let’s try it this way’; ‘Oh look what you’ve done!’ – exasperation; ‘Here, hold this – I’ll stick it’; ‘noooo – as a tower slowly tilted to a horizontal position.  Collaborative work. Coupled with the challenge to articulate an idea to group members, then sheer frustration when the idea didn’t work. Or focused joy as one idea built on another and the tower grew. These students were exploring, changing, and trying different strategies when their ideas collapsed, or reached a limit.

But my solo student was different. Fury fed his resolve, but it also fueled his initial perceived failure.  This task was for collaborative group work, and encouraging lateral thinking. The students had 18 minutes to complete their construction within their groups. What scaffolding did he need when scaffolding was not to be part of this open ended challenge? How could I make sure he had authentic learning – for him. Now.

Earlier I had had 14 Year 2 students. As a seasoned teacher, you would see 14 as a delightful number. Basically two groups. Imagine what you can achieve! I, on the other hand, first year teaching, supply teacher – was charged with reminding them that there was a Father’s Day breakfast on the following morning.  Simple? No. One boy dissolved into tears because his father wouldn’t come. This set off a chain of emotion around the classroom.  A couple of students flocked to his side patting him. Another boy shot under the table with his own demons, and a girl’s eyes leaked.

These students are mostly 7, some 6, or 8. You could speculate that this was how the class tested supply teachers. Undoubtedly some of the students were taking full advantage of the situation. It is naive though, to ignore that each student is part of a community. A community that includes home and school.

As I regathered them – listening, prompting alternatives and strategies, redirecting them to the task at hand, I reflected that we cannot control nor should we attempt, how these students handle unexpected situations. But to not grab and facilitate individual life learning is to miss an experiential learning opportunity. Irrespective of your actual teaching title within that class.

After recess. Father’s Day preparation. Again. Year 4. I was wary. Instructions with options: make a card for your dad, grandfather or for someone special in your life.  Just change the words accordingly.

A student appeared at my elbow. Hesitant, then determined. He didn’t have a dad.  He created a lovely card for his mum.

It dawned on me that I was observing burgeoning resilience. That ineffable ability to rise from individually experienced adversity, or failure. Was this where my solo student needed scaffolding?

How do we develop resilience? How can we guide our students and children to pick themselves up and keep going? To be adaptable, flexible and able to change to a new reality.  Perhaps equally importantly, to recognise they can. And when they do.

I asked my sons – do you think you are resilient? ‘I would hope so,’ dryly replied my eldest. My sons argue resilience is something that happens when you are faced with a situation. ‘It is not really something you can prepare for,’ observes his younger brother.  I probe. When have you been resilient? ‘You made me start a new school where I didn’t know anyone,’ teenager vehemence. I let that go – have to pick your battles after all. I was curious – why did he see that as indicative of resilience? ‘Because I didn’t give up even though I felt very alone.’ I waited. The silence worked. ‘I already had a good friend. I knew I could be one.’

Maybe we should ask our students if they see themselves as resilient. We talk about it often enough. And that’s the rub. The entire year five class of last week, revising for a test, could immediately define resilience and perseverance, but found it almost impossible to articulate how they exhibited this skill.  Until we discussed the Minecraft component of their History lessons. Yes, my son had completed this activity. I knew the battles, the fights and tested alliances.

Studying the events, impact and changes caused by the discovery of gold in Australia is one of the units within the year 5 History Syllabus. Part of the lesson sequence includes the group activity designed so as to experience life on the 1880’s goldfields. Using Minecraft, each group has to stake a claim, dig for as much gold as they can, and build a town following provided guidelines.  Bushrangers roam. Thieves abound. Particular rules are set by the teachers. Unsurprisingly, the students were lucid with their experiences.

Now they comprehend resilience.

My sons’ school exposes students to resilience as a concept through reading, analysis and questioning specifically selected English novels. Sometimes this is combined with the guided and open ended discussions held within Mentor groups. Guest speakers present at a year, stage and school level to educate and inspire students using their own life path. And of course there is the sandbox game, Minecraft, and the endless lessons you can create with it.

Increasingly, schools run programs to help students learn about resilience – frequently as part of an anti-bullying program. There’s a focus on finding a mate, on learning to listen, on developing respect for the self and others.

You could argue these are important life skills. I would agree, although my son says warningly, ‘You cannot really put students in life threatening situations to practice how to be resilient.’

I muse. He is referring to experiential learning. We can use an Inquiry Based Learning approach though. Think about that year 5 class. Those students had to develop skills of negotiation, self – control, and respect for the team and classmates to communicate.

For some – this drew on their resilience.

We shouldn’t save them, as parent or teacher. We have to let them fall down and pick themselves up. We can develop supportive relationships with them. We can listen and discuss. We can lead by example. They need to learn they can fall down and its OK. Bit like the scuffed knees – you help them stand up, check for blood, brush the knee and send them back out to play. After a while, they do it themselves.

My solo student built his tower: it wasn’t the tallest, but like each group he learnt as he built, using lateral thinking and trial and error.  And he learnt that he could.  He could emerge from that pit of despair. Triumphant.

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Education Health

Why boys need to learn the taboos of social justice

The teenage boys stand awkwardly in my path, adorned with white ribbons, wristbands and shy smiles. White Ribbon Day. Raising awareness to stop men’s violence against women. Domestic violence.

They’re a bit nervous, school blazers simultaneously armour and identifier. They tell a mix of stories: one describes the woman with the broken arm at dinner – solicitously cared for by her husband and perpetrator; another boy was abused by his grandmother – because he wouldn’t do what she told him. My son knows I’m poised to help my dear friend – at any hour. The fourth boy thinks violence against women is wrong.

These boys attend a local boys’ school. Last week they were told one in three women have experienced some form of physical violence in their lives, one in five of sexual violence. Since the age of 15. And that’s without considering the insidious emotional and psychological abuse many experience in some form on a daily basis. They have mothers, sisters, girlfriends, friends. And right now, they are rather wary. Why? They struggle to find an explanation.

Understanding domestic violence rather than reciting a definition, and what they can do to break these cycles is part of their school’s social justice program.

Different to the immersion programs where high school students may spend up to 10 days experiencing another culture or wider local community, selling White Ribbons at the local train station forces the boys to consider that some of the women walking past them have been abused in some manner before they leave home – maybe only 5 minutes earlier. They recognize some of these women walking past. Maybe this is why they are wary. How should they respond? What if they see something? One woman walks up saying quietly, ‘I’m so proud of you.’

A tentative smile curls as my son hands her a ribbon.

Most schools have some program to promote social justice and human rights as part of their curriculum. One goal of these programs is to encourage students to develop an understanding of worlds beyond their immediate family, and school community. But it can be about helping students make sense of human relationships, and learning to critically argue about ethical behaviour.

I wait. Later that night my son asks me if I have been abused. I haven’t – not in the way he means. But I am glad he plucked up the courage to ask me. I’m glad I had the courage to answer: sexual harassment at work. I’m glad for two reasons – the obvious one of course, that he as a teenager could ask me, his mother. The second reason is more important. He’s airing a social taboo – without even realizing it. Will his friends talk with their parents? ‘I think some will.’ he says eventually.

But it makes me muse – selling White Ribbons forces my son and his mates to engage with their local community on a difficult societal issue. At the individual student level, it is likely to take far more than one such experience to develop social responsibility, and a sense of self-respect.

I know this school uses Inquiry-based problem solving strategies for some of their lesson sequences. Have they discussed how to confront domestic violence with these teenage boys within a problem-solving scenario? Or how to listen to peers experiencing life as the son of a victim and or perpetrator? I ask my son. ‘ A bit. Some of the boys talk in passing. Depends on the mentor teacher.’

At the broader level, however, having a group of students selling White Ribbons and wristbands is a very simple, clear public statement that this school community is teaching their students to be aware of men’s violence to women. In addition, by encouraging students to physically engage with their local community the school is activating students, parents and the broader community.

This triangle can teach, scaffold and instruct through didactic teaching, inquiry learning and facilitating dialogue between many social agents. By high school years though, such three-way conversations can be more challenging than when everyone is listening to 6 year olds reading.

There’s another aspect of this societal challenge that needs to be put in the spotlight: online abuse. My son was shocked that adults were victims of cyberbullying outside gaming. Somehow, with the focus on developing integrity and empathy at school, he hadn’t appreciated such behaviour does not necessarily stop when you leave school.

Learning how to navigate social spaces is part of learning how to socialize. We worry about how to equip our children to navigate online social space; a largely adult social space they are exploring, indeed creating. Yet during this particular social justice program the students are exploring choice: they can choose to take responsibility for how they behave with women; how they can make a difference simply by being aware and refusing to accept men’s violence against women.

They are learning to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior within their social spaces. And they are educating their parents. We need to listen.

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