Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Culture of Composure


Our staff meeting began with a report about a Technology and Education Conference a teacher attended. He told us how the participants sat with computers open during the presentation and a peek over their shoulder revealed everyone in various states of Facebook/e-mail/ Website browsing with one ear open to the actual presentation. The next item on our agenda was noticing how our kids are so distractable and have a hard time paying attention and focusing on the task at hand. Can we suggest a little connection between these two items?

I am well past the rant that electronic media is destroying everything precious about our humanity. After all, it allows me to write these words so you can read them! But Emerson said long ago “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” his poetic way of suggesting that the cart before the horse is a bad arrangement. We are being led by our noses by the machines of our own creation and really have no idea how they are changing us. And this is most important to consider when it comes to children. If we’re going to jump on the “every child with an I-Pad bandwagon,” we should at least not be surprised when they find us live teachers less interesting that whatever else is a button click away. We should stop calling them ADD and drugging them as if it was their personal problem when the whole culture flow is toward a hyper-manic sensory assault that breeds distractability and short attention spans.

The fact is that the kids at our school have trouble with silence, focused listening, being still. And it certainly is not wholly the effect of electronic media. Our own school culture, which we adults are in charge of, is partly the culprit. We treat our kids as if they’re God’s gift to the world. And they are! But in an overpopulated world, there’s not room or time for all of God’s creatures to constantly proclaim their genius without raising their hand. And even then, there might not be time to call on them.

At my school, we are so interested in the kids’ ideas and so encouraging of them to express themselves that we forgot to tell them that, to put it bluntly, they need to shut-up every one in a while. And of course, telling them isn’t enough. If we really want them to enjoy the golden glow of occasional silence, we need to create a practice of silence and composure and attention. We do it in our Montessori preschool where 38 children from three to five years old eat lunch in absolute silence. We just need to start valuing it enough to create a time and space and means for them to practice stilling their monkey minds. They need to learn how to install a little roadblock between their mouth and their thoughts, to understand that while their ideas are occasionally fascinating, they’re not consistently so and don’t merit interrupting the teacher’s own valued words.

More and more I see that the kids who are happiest and most confident and most competent are the kids that can filter their thoughts, still their bodies, calm their excitement. There are exceptions, kids driven by a passion to a point of hyperactivity, but most kids, like most adults, need to direct their thinking, temper their emotion and feel at home in their bodies. Some of that is internally driven by personal chemistry, history, personality, character and some is culturally created, as noted above, with both kids merely reflecting back to us what we’re giving them. Which makes it all the more important to create practices of attention, habits of silence, rituals of attention. To create in our own school communities a culture of composure.

It's a conversation worth having. Around a table with computers closed. 

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