Friday, April 28, 2017

YouTube, Netflix and the New Normal

All of that practice in social engagement helps us learn to regulate our own feelings.  It helps us practice those all important social emotional skills of connecting with others.  It is the tiny small nuances of human interaction, repeated thousands and thousands of times that inform all of our body.  These small bits of information teach our brain how to get along with others, take care of our big feelings and work in collectives. 

A twelve year old girl completes her homework and heads to her room to watch her favourite YouTube channels and Netflix.  She has full use of an iPad and messages her friends, plays on different apps and settles into a show. She is a good student. She is alone in her room.

Her 14 year old brother receives tutoring and is diligent in his studies.  Once he completes his work, he goes into his own room with his phone and his laptop.  He plays games on his phone, messages his friends and plays video games.  He is alone in his room.

Dad settles in downstairs on the TV and watches primarily sports channels.

Mom settles upstairs in the master bedroom, watching her favourite shows and connecting with family and friends on Skype and social media.

Grandparents also live in the home, and they are watching TV in another room.

I am at a restaurant where a large family gather for a celebration.  One of the toddlers is sitting quietly at the table watching a cartoon on an iPad while the rest of the family is chatting and connecting with others around the table.

As I sit here staring at my computer, I know that I am also spending good amounts of time focused on a screen.  My own life sees me spending hours in some form of isolation connecting to my laptop.

So, what's wrong with this really?

We have spent millions of years surviving in tribes.  We have chemical responses that favour human connection.  When we are around people who care about us, it affects our body's ability to stay calm, digest food, breathe slower, feel relaxed, think clearly, make better decisions, and heal faster. It makes a difference on how we feel about ourselves.  It improves our ability to regulate our feelings. It provides us with practice in social engagement.

All of that practice in social engagement helps us learn to regulate our own feelings.  It helps us practice those all important social emotional skills of connecting with others.  It is the tiny small nuances of human interaction, repeated thousands and thousands of times that inform all of our body.  These small bits of information teach our brain how to get along with others, take care of our big feelings and work in collectives.

We are missing out on all the practice that are body and brains have utilized for its practice. Young brains especially need this engagement. I am not calling for an all out ban of screen time.  This is impossible.  However, we all need to get as much time as we can within our families, schools and communities, that encourage collective engagement.

We need to practice communal experiences because that is what our biology requires to practice social emotional skills.

Common experiences with other humans.

Eat a meal together, watch a movie together, play a board game together, go for a walk together, listen to a podcast or story together, cook together, color together, work together. Find some ways to include the practice of common experiences.  Our brains need this and dare I say, our hearts need it too.

Everyone in their corners watching their own thing is the new normal.  Find ways to disrupt this practice.  Over the long run, this is how we develop healthy families, communities and cultures.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What Makes You a Gaming Addict?

We are on our devices too much.  We rely on all of these distractions and pings of dopamine to get us through the day.  And everytime we do that, we are loosing an opportunity to learn how to manage our big feelings, take care of our bodies, and practice relationship building. It is too much, especially for developing brains.

Jane McGonigal is a big advocate for the value of electronic games. She has done considerable research on the benefits of electronic play and she spreads the message of these benefits through Ted Talks.

According to Jane's research,  playing Tetris can help with alleviating depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  If you play Tetris within 6 hours after having watched a traumatic event, you decrease your chances of suffering from PTSD. This has to do with Tetris or video games crowding out your visual cortex which is where PTSD forms its connections.

This is the same for depression. Electronic games provide you quick bursts of your own natural chemicals version of morphine and anti depressants.

A gameful mindset can help you look at suffering as a way to get stronger. It can help you cultivate a culture of strengths.

Communal game play can also be beneficial. Commonality of experience can increase connection.

The thing about the benefits is that they require very small inputs of gameplay.  Ten minutes a day or twenty minutes, three times a week.  That's nothing.  How many people do you know who play Tetris or first person shooter games for about an hour a week?

Games are designed to be as addictive as possible.  Social psychologists are employed by game developers in order to use our psychology and understanding of the brain in order to make it difficult to stop playing. Electronic games are not designed for 10 minutes of game play a day.  The elementary students that I work with do not play for ten minutes at a time.

Research indicates that 21 hours a week and beyond is the threshold where addictive patterns begin.  If someone is consistently playing this number of hours a week and are suddenly cut off, they will experience severe withdrawal.  They can become violent and aggressive.  I don't have to tell any parent about this phenomenon who has tried to cut their children off video games cold turkey.

How many people do you know who play some form of electronic games three hours or more a day?  I know plenty.

I do not doubt that there are benefits to electronic game play.  I know there are valuable educational apps and activities that help children in numerous ways and I have seen classrooms integrate social media and apps as powerful engaging learning tools.

We are on our devices too much.  We rely on all of these distractions and pings of dopamine to get us through the day.  And everytime we do that, we are loosing an opportunity to learn how to manage our big feelings, take care of our bodies, and practice relationship building. It is too much, especially for developing brains.

My plea is that we need to get off these devices.  Even 20 hours of game play a week, which is what McGonigal recommends we keep our time down to in order to avoid an addiction, is a huge amount of time.  That's 1080 hours a year!  What can you do with 1080 hours a year?  Learn a language, play, knit a couple of afghans, take an engine apart, read a pile of books, practice meditation, volunteer, play a sport, become a magician - I mean, it's a lot of time.

We all will benefit from limiting our time off our electronic devices.  Perhaps we can all think about taking two hours out of our day with no electronic devices as a counterbalance to all that electronic time.

Friday, April 21, 2017

What's It Like to Be You?

Beliefs are not an intellectual construct, they are an emotional one. Our feelings are always connected to our body - they are embedded not just in our brain or in our cognitive memories, they are embedded in the cells of our body, in our gut, and in our joints. The question, "What's it like to be you?" allows us to get to the feelings that are deeply attached to our beliefs.

Our conflicts are a kind of prayer. Charles Eisenstein

I am working with a group of grade 7 students. We are working on a a forum theatre style performance.  I have a group of about 18 students who have volunteered to be a part of the performance. I start with different theatre games and activities designed to build trust, personal reflection and community.  This part is easy.  I have done one version of this or another for so many years now, it feels as familiar as a row of knitting while watching junk tv.

The next part is always a little tricky, because it is unknown.  I am not quite sure what will come next.  Forum theatre is a participatory theatre developed by Agusto Boal, a Brazilian politician and activist.  A scene is performed twice.  The second time the scene is performed, actors are invited to call, "stop" and take the place of one of the actors and find a way to change the outcome of the scene. The idea is to invite both the actors and the audience to "rehearse" cultural transformation. It is a way to help communities tackle oppression in a way that encourages active engagement.  I wanted to use forum theatre to help students explore their own despair and hopefulness.

I had listened to one of my favourite thinkers, Charles Eisenstein.  In one of his podcasts, he talks about challenging beliefs. Specifically he says, You cannot change someone's belief with facts.  Facts won't change a person's values because there is so much history, experience and feeling attached to a belief.   Instead, he suggests we ask the question, "What is it like being you?"

I start the forum theatre with this question.  Once we complete the initial trust building and group work, the students all choose to create scenes about family.  Every scene the students create show parents as angry, disinterested or uncaring.  In some ways this is not unusual. Children or adolescents will often play out scenes that show themselves as powerless or victims. We all do this because we are hardwired to remember the times we have been harmed.

I then asked the students to create scenes exploring the parents.  What was it like to be the single mom who was too busy to listen to her child's concerns?  What was it like to be the father who shamed his son for his poor school marks? What brought them to the moment captured in their scenes?

Students then created scenes depicting the parent's lives as children. In some way, every scene demonstrates the 'parent' as a chid receiving some version of the disregard from their parents.  During the performance, students came forward, inevitably taking on the role of the parents, attempting to change their experience of being heard.  The majority of students who came up to try to make a change, chose the scenes where the parents were still children.

Beliefs are not an intellectual construct, they are an emotional one. Our feelings are always connected to our body - they are embedded not just in our brain or in our cognitive memories, they are embedded in the cells of our body, in our gut, and in our joints. The question, "What's it like to be you?" allows us to get to the feelings that are deeply attached to our beliefs.

The forum theatre project is a small effort to try to unpack our pain by looking past the experience of disrespect.  We can do that by rehearsing different solutions not in an effort to fix things but in an effort to understand the other. It does not get any easier as we grow older. I am convinced that a big part of our ability to work through our differences comes by connecting to our bodies, our experiences and our feelings.

On my wish list - creating public spaces - that help us work with differences not just through words, but through play, movement, rehearsal, feelings and getting a better grasp at what follows, "What's it like to be you."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

When Does Care Become Harm?

The mother in front of me works two jobs.  She is the sole caregiver for her two young boys.  Both of her jobs provide a substantial income.  She works very hard.

Both of her boys are struggling with some of their social emotional skills, but they are excelling in their academics. Mom has both boys engaged in their passions.  One plays hockey at a high level and the other is enrolled in soccer, math tutoring and music lessons.  Mom helps both boys with their homework, and electronic time is limited to after all their work is complete.

Mom's children are her number one priority. A good amount of time and resources goes to her children. Mom's response to her priorities is, "As long as my children are happy and as long as they are doing well in school, I'm happy."

So what's wrong with this picture?

Both boys receive enormous resources from mom - time, money, and care. In exchange, very little is expected of them.  Their household responsibilities are minimal - dirty clothes in the laundry hamper and dirty dishes in the sink.

Meanwhile, mom is exhausted.  She is 50 pounds overweight and has recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure.  Although her doctor has requested some significant lifestyle changes that include a clean diet and daily exercise, she has not been able to implement the changes. She has not yet sorted out her feelings of abandonment and betrayal brought on by the death of her marriage.

This isn't a post about single parents.  I have seen the same imbalances take place in affluent two parent homes.

Children need love and connection, and they also need practice in contributing to a larger community.  That is one way social emotional skills get rehearsed.  Completing homework is great but it should not be the only requirement.  Children need to practice taking care of others.  If the flow of goods always moves in one direction, both parties become imbalanced.

Family resources - love, time and money - need to move back and forth. If the flow of resources is always set on give, you are likely taking care of your own fears.  The last thing you want is for your children to think that this radical imbalance is normal.  It is not normal.  Every ecosystem is designed to work in balance. When something is out of balance, a healthy ecosystem will work to correct the imbalance.

Teach all the relationships in your life to practice balance.  You are a vital part of your ecosystem.  You do not want your care to harm others.

Suggestions On Where To Start:
1. Publicly celebrate your birthdays.  Give your children some money ($10.00 is fine) and get them to buy you a gift or pamper you in some way.  Expect reciprocity. Expect your children to celebrate you.
2. Every member of the family should have responsibilities according to their capacity.  Give everyone daily and weekly tasks that are more than just taking care of personal needs.
3. Your body is a priority.  Do everything you can to take care of your body.  Children need to see adults in the daily practice of self care.
4. Acknowledge the contributions made towards helping the community.
5. Have family meetings that explore the question, "What can we do to take care of our home and each other?"  Make a plan, assign tasks and then get back to evaluate how it all went.
6. Get help and support.  Take time to explore the fear that resides in your unwillingness to allow your children the responsibility and practice of contributing to the home.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Label Is Not a Solution

Schools are looking for ways to best serve a diverse group of students.

One of the ways students qualify for additional support is through having students tested and designated.  This child has a learning disability.  This child is on the autism spectrum.  This child has Attention Deficit Disorder.  Each designation provides some additional supports for the child - more time for tests, modified programs, additional resource support, additional adult support in the classroom.  It all depends.

All these labels and designations are designed to match the support with the need.  It is about finding a way to maximize success. It's not perfect, but it definitely helps.

It is important families and schools learn and appreciate a child's challenges.

It makes no sense to teach a student who struggles with ADD and expect them to process all the instructions while sitting in a chair and holding a pencil.

It makes no sense to teach a student challenged by sensory overload in a classroom filled with colors, light and clutter.

The challenge, is not to confuse the person with the label. Or worse, minimize the learning opportunities for a child because of their learning profile. Of course my bias around this has everything to do with social emotional learning.

No matter what label a child is given,  it is not a solution.  It is the starting point.  It is information we use to match the teaching practice with the learning profile.

Children with autism still need to practice self regulation.

Students with ADD still need to train their brain's to delay gratification.

Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome still need to work on patience.

Children with autism or learning disabilities or attention disorders are not immune from social emotional pitfalls - they can be spoiled, risk averse, practice unkind, disrespectful or selfish behavior.  Just like any child in a classroom, designated children need social emotional practice. In my opinion, more practice, not less.  It may be in smaller increments, the expectations match the learning profile, but we practice it nevertheless.

"Oh she's on the Spectrum"

"My son is highly anxious".

This is not the end of the sentence, it is the beginning of one.  It means we give the child even more practice with their social emotional skills not less.  It means we meet them where they are at, and then move them forward. It means we hold them accountable for their feelings and actions, in whatever way they are able to understand and appreciate.

A label is not a solution.  It should never be used to excuse bad behavior or minimize social emotional learning.

If we do not do the hard work of laying down the groundwork of repeated social emotional practice, we run the risk of handicapping the student even further. And that is not a good thing.  Not for the teacher, not for the parent and especially not for the child.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Your Brain on Loneliness - How Do You Fix Lonely?

I am talking to a group of university undergrad students via Skype.  The topic is neuroplasticity and learning. During the Q and A, a student asks about loneliness.

"What can you do to combat the feeling of loneliness?"

"Is loneliness in your DNA?"

I thought about her questions for a long time after the session, and although I answered part of it, I feel like there is more I want to say.

All your feelings are important.  Your body carefully conserved every feeling you have because at one time during our time on this planet, it helped us survive.  The body makes no distinction between a 'good' or 'bad' feeling. Every feeling is information and at some point in our evolutionary lifespan, it contributed to our survival.

Lonely can be painful.  It is the experience of feeling discontent or sad at the lack of human connection.  It has nothing to do with the number of people who surround you.  You can feel lonely in the care of a newborn child. You can feel lonely in a room full of crowded family and you can feel lonely in a room all by yourself.

Back when we lived in tribes, our survival depended on community.  Not having the connection of a community was dangerous.  Being on the outs with your tribe could cost you your life.

It is no wonder we do what we can to avoid our modern experience of lonely. Our cells have millions of years of practice equating lonely with death.

If you are living a good life,  lonely is normal.  People you love die.  People you love hurt you.  You feel misunderstood.  You are in a community or situation where you feel out of place.  You don't see your reflection in the people around you.

Lonely is temporary.  It will move with you through the ebbs and flows of living.  There will be times when your life will be full of connection and human contact.  There will be times the flow of community will be easy and effortless.  And there will be times when it will be work and full of effort, often at times when you don't have the energy or resources available to you. Some of my greatest moments of loneliness have been the hours in a darkened room, unable to move without excruciating pain, during my years struggling with undiagnosed fibromyalgia.

Lonely can also be a sign of transformation. In my energy medicine practice, when a client expresses feelings of deep and painful loneliness it can be a signal of an impending transformation. That deep sense of disconnect with your outside world may be early signs of your awareness that something needs to change.  Something big.

Like maybe your realize a family 'norm' is no longer okay with you.
Or you have evolved out out of your tribe.
Or the balance of power in your marriage needs rearranging.
Or the way you have taught your children to treat you now needs an overhaul.
Or maybe you realize you have been spending money on stuff in order to cover up your feelings of 'not good enough'.

Lonely can be a powerful sign that transformation wants to push its way forward.  Don't be too quick to judge your loneliness as a sign that your life is crappy or that you lack community.  Both things might be true, but there is much more to your lonely.

My invitation to you is to stay lonely and explore the information. You might be in the throes of a healing, a rebirth and an answer to prayer.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Too Tired to Succeed - Who Takes Care of the Caregivers?

I am in the classroom, teaching Kindergarten and grade one students.  I am talking about feelings.

Our moments of "unkind" and "mean" happen most when we are depleted. If you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired; if you are frustrated, hurt or worried, chances are good, you will be unkind to someone. I am in 12 different classes this month, so I am hearing myself repeat this lesson often.

It is the end of the school day and I have just had a session with a student.  I have been working with her and her siblings for the last few years, so I am familiar with her story.  By the end of my time with her, I am worried. I am overwhelmed by the story this small being spills in my room.  It is too big. I can't fix it. I can't figure out a plan of action. It is hard just to be present and listen.  I am overwhelmed by the pain and the complexity of the case.

I go and talk to her very wise and compassionate teacher. The teacher pauses to look at me, "Are you okay? You look tired, grey, not yourself."

It isn't until she mirrors back my fatigue that I recognize it myself.

My past weekend was busy organizing a cultural event and I did not get a chance to recover.  My working days had a few sudden turns of crisis that disrupted the day's plans. By the middle of the week, I am already depleted. It isn't until the teacher makes the comment that I realize how much it has affected me.

I am teaching this stuff to little people, repeating the mantra over and over, HALT if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Yet, there I was, emotionally exhausted, but I could not SEE it until someone pointed it out to me.

I go on a long run, and I can easily accommodate my need for recovery.  I make sure the rest of my day is slow, that I stretch and hydrate and keep my muscles warm.

Yet, I still forget to do the same, when I have stretched my emotional muscles. It is vital that I do this. It is vital that all caregivers - teachers, parents, counselors, nurses, prison guards and more - rest and restore when their emotional muscles are depleted. 

Failure to do so puts us at risk of dishing out unkind, mean, even traumatic words, thoughts and deeds to those who depend on our care. Failure to do so means we might be asking the vulnerable people we serve the task of taking care of our own fatigue by being "nice" to us, or "loving" us.  In many subtle ways, we can require our clients, patients, children and students, the responsibility of taking care of our feelings.

Who takes care of the caregivers?  Who makes sure, that the people charged with the well being of others, are resourced?  A big part of the answer lies with us, the caregivers. We must practice our own self care and it has to be a priority.  This can be difficult with so many competing needs coming at you at the same time.  And it is sometimes hard to notice.  Here I am teaching the material and I still didn't catch it in myself!

When you are taking care of others, you need to take care of yourself first.  The greater the power imbalance, the more important it is that you make this a priority. The best thing you can do for the people in your care, is to take care of yourself first.

Here is a minimal checklist:

Are you fed and hydrated?
Are you well rested?
Are you clean?
Are you dressed?
Have you moved, or done some physical activity?
Have you spent some time outside?
Have you received loving touch, loving eye contact, loving connection?
Have you talked to someone who you trust?
Have you heard the sound of your own voice?
Do you need some time to be alone and gather your thoughts?

Friday, April 7, 2017

My Brain on Challenge

I don't think I have ever written and published anything for 30 consecutive days.  I have two book drafts in various states of completion.  Even in my most productive bouts, I could not bring myself to do this.  

So how did this happen?  And what did I learn?  What are my take aways?

I was inspired by a teacher colleague and her brilliant blog.  She told me about the March blog a day challenge and even though I was late, I decided to do it too.  If she could do it so could I.  So there is the fact that someone inspired me.   

I also had a desire to work on my writing.  I wanted to see if I had the discipline to make this happen.  

I wanted to overcome my fear of having my opinions and thoughts out there for all the world to see.  I wanted to practice being exposed.

My most productive times are my mornings.  So I knew I had the best chance of completing the challenge if I gave my best thinking/production time to the challenge. I stopped doing frivolous activities such as washing dishes or watching the news during that window of time and instead, I wrote.  Some of these blogs took a day or more to pull together, but the bulk of these blogs were done in my golden window of opportunity, between 5.30am - 7.30am. 

I knew that single focused time was the most efficient way for your brain to complete a task, so I eliminated distractions, except for coffee.  I will readily admit, my coffee consumption went sky high during this challenge.  I am too embarrassed to give you a number of cups but let's just call it a bucket  even. I closed as many windows on my computer, eliminated noise, and me and my bucket of coffee tippity tappitied on the keyboard until something reasonable came out.

I would think about what to write throughout the day.  I had a notebook nearby so that every time I heard something, read something or saw something of interest, I would write it down.  Actually, I loved this part of the blog challenge.  I loved the challenge of thinking about stuff.  I was writing blogs in my head all the time.  I forgot most of it.  

If I didn't write it down, it was mostly gone. That was good learning too.  I got better at writing my thoughts down, the moment I had them.

I sometimes would have an idea, put the title down and start writing.  And then, another completely different theme would come pouring out.  I let it come out, and I would just change the title, and reshape the thought.  I got better at going with the flow of the words, without trying to control the outcome.  I find this a good idea in writing, as well as in life by the way.  I am working on both.

I let my fears and worries happen, but I tried not to pay too much attention to them.  I treated them like one of my six year old students who was struggling with an activity.  Yup, you are having a difficult feeling and let's go through our tool kit to find a way to take care of that uncomfortable feeling.  And now let's get back to the activity.  Put your big girl pants on and let's get to it!

So there you go. I got through this while working full time, training for a half marathon, organizing a sizeable cultural event, going on a blissful beach vacation, going through American customs, and continuing my Energy Medicine practice.  Not too shabby!  I am proud!  I am planning to write 3 a week as a follow up.  That feels doable. 

Now your turn.  I am leaving you with a list of suggestions that will help you with your next challenge. It is never too early. It is never too late.  And then you can write me all about your successes and it will be my turn to read.

Strategies to Complete a Challenge
1. Get inspired.
2. Define your desire. What do you want?  Create a goal.
3. Overcome a fear.
4. Find the conditions you require to be the most productive and then set those conditions for your goal.
5. Eliminate distractions.
6. Stay ready for inspiration throughout your day.  Record your ideas.
7. Go with the flow of the creative process.
8. When fear and worry happens, take care of your feelings, then put your big girl pants on and do it!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Can't We All Just Get Along?

It has been years since Rodney King famously uttered,  "Can't we all just get along?"

Having been beaten  by the Los Angeles Police and more importantly, having it filmed for all the world to see, this became the final spark that began the LA riots in 1992.

I remember watching the footage, naive to the political and cultural conditions, incredulous at the behaviour of the "law enforcement" In my rigid bipolar world of good and evil, I could only see the wrong of the police who, seemingly without restraint, were pummelling a guy that was presenting no resistance.

It was all there on tape, but the whole story is much more complex. I can't write about all the complexity, but I want to consider just one small bite.  I want to consider the answer to Rodney King's question, "Can't we all just get along? "

This simple question has so many meanings:

"We may have our misunderstandings but let's just choose to respect each other."

"Yeah things are complicated but let's just agree to be civil and not hurt anyone."

"Let's not rock the boat, keep everything like it is, and keep things nice and ordered and controlled."

In any of these translations the answer to, "Can we all just get along?," is a big fat no.  No we can't all just get along, because by it's very nature, conflict is about stirring up the order and essentially creating a new order.

I am talking about the real getting along, not the illusion that things are good and we try to control any anger, tension or soul depleting disrespect.  Real "getting along" means somebody with more power is going to lose their power in order that someone with not enough power receives more access to power.   And typically, people who have more power, are not really good at giving that power up.

It happens between sibling, parents and children (at any age!), corporations, classrooms, friendships and lovers. It happens in churches and it happens in schools both public and private.

I am not saying there are ways of working with conflict that can avoid pummelling, undermining or vilifying one side over the other (usually the side with the least power is "evil" or "lazy" or
"barbarians"). In fact, I am banking on it, because that is a vital part of my livelihood.  In one way or another, I help facilitate conflict, whether it exists in your body, your story, your collective culture or in your learning.

I believe that it is possible to manage differences without war or painful disrespect, but I also believe that it is impossible to manage conflict without death.  Some belief has to die, some understanding has to die, some imbalance of power has to die.

Even if you stand to gain power, there is a great deal of responsibility and an uncomfortable learning curve that is going to take place.  Being a powerless victim can afford you tremendous freedom. So, you too, will die to something.

Getting along, sharing understandings, always means you have to say yes to the unknown. You have to say yes to something uncomfortable,  You enter into chaos, you expose your vulnerabilities or they are exposed for you, and you recalibrate a new balance.

Restoring the imbalance of power happens in our bodies and in our cells. It happens in our families, our institutions, our earth - it is everywhere.

The "formula" to Rodney Kings' question is messy, painful and chaotic.

You agree to enter into chaos and into the unknown.

You agree to give up your illusions that everything is working just fine.

You agree to evaluate the rules and see who benefits from the "order" and who does not.

You listen.

You die to something.

BC has overtly made social responsibility a component of the latest round of "New Curriculum." Teachers, Administrators and Counsellors do a great deal of the front line work in delivering that curriculum.  This is necessary and important.  It is also important that we start talking past the illusion of controlled, linear, conflict resolution models, and equip students with the message that getting along is meant to be messy, painful and challenging.

So, can we all, "just get along?"

The short answer is no.  The long answer is no.

Addressing conflict means you run the risk of feeling much better and having a more intimate connection and understanding with loved ones.

Or the opposite might happen and you will feel a whole lot worse.  

It requires children, adults, politicians and poor to give up something, accept something, forgive something, change something. It may take an hour to see the sparks of transformation or it may take decades. Either way, its work.

My hope is that we do the work, from cradle to grave.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Your Brain on Completing Tasks to the End

I was lucky to have someone mentor me through my first half marathon.  She would council me on appropriate running gear, how to pace myself, and the right kind of running shoes.  She even got me to eat during the long runs.

"You have to eat something."

"This stuff tastes terrible.  Why would I want to consume a non tasty calorie?  It makes no sense."

"You have to eat something or you won't get through the race."

"I'm not doing it.  Uh.  I feel dizzy."

"That's because you need to eat something.  Take this."


She also taught me something very important about how to end the race.

"Emi, when you get to the last 400 metres before the end of the race, you need to stop, tuck your shirt in, adjust your hair and your hat, and make sure your number is well displayed. There is going to be a photographer at the end and you want to make sure you look good for the picture."

At the time, this felt like a gross waste of time and energy.  Who cares about looking good for the finish line?  I just want to get across it in one piece!

But she had a point.  A very good one.

And I have since learned to take that advice not just in my runs but in my life.  I am a terrible finisher.  The last bits of my knitting projects take forever to complete.  I have taken to "cheating" by bringing them to my mamma, who happens to be an excellent finisher of all things knitted. My writing often lacks a solid ending. The last few months completing my PhD cost me handfuls of hair and a couple of panic attacks.

As I round the last lap of this "blog a day for 30 days" challenge, I feel my focus wandering and my resolve weakening. Who cares?  Whose reading this stuff anyways?  What does it matter?

Let me tell you why it matters.

Finishing is important for your brain.  It helps you push past the points of "I can't do this."  It stretches your ability to take risks and problem solve. It builds your resilience skills. It builds your perseverance skills.  It builds grit, resolve and accountability.

Extending the definition of finishing helps build excellence and patience.  Teach your children, a job is completed when all of the tasks are finished past the task. The car is washed after all of the garbage and cleaning products are put away in their proper place.  The homework is completed after it has been reviewed, checked and put away in its proper place.  The laundry is completed after it has been taken out of the dryer, folded and put away.  The project is completed once it has been reviewed, evaluated, and set up for future success.

Find your unfinished projects.  Which ones do you need to ditch and which ones do you need to complete?  Go through all of your loose ends and tackle them one by one. It could be something as simple as repairing a loose stair, or getting to that half finished art project you started a year ago. Or maybe it is about finishing off the divorce paperwork or finishing off that difficult conversation you started with your boss.

Complete tasks to the end.  Tuck your shirt in, adjust your hat and make a plan to finish.  There might not be a photo for you at the finish line, but your increased confidence, resilience and patience will be more than enough reward.

Monday, April 3, 2017

You Are Your Past

Mixing Polenta with a Drywall Mixer

You are not your past. Tony Robbins

If there is any dispute that your traits and beliefs are passed down through your DNA, you haven't organized a cultural event or a family reunion.

I am an Italian Canadian.  Both of my parents immigrated to Canada in the early 60's.  They came from Friuli, a small north eastern region with its own unique language, culture and food traditions. This year, I decided to help out with the Vancouver chapter. 

I am doing this to help the community transition from my parent's generation, to my nieces and nephews generation. At least that is what I tell myself.

Furlans have their own way of doing things.  They are doers - accustomed to getting things done with their hands and their hearts. They are hard workers, and my time organizing an event for them bears this out.  I see 60 somethings, 70 somethings doing things I struggle to do in my 50 something. The photo above, with the massive sized pot of polenta lovingly stirred with the drywall mixer speed set to medium high pretty much sums up the Furlan way of doing things.

My motto has always been, "shoot first, then aim."  It has brought me some fantastic adventures and I have been able to achieve things that would not have happened if I were to fully plan it out.  Of course, this strategy has its fall backs. I have many blunders, both funny and fiasco, to thank for this way of being.

I notice all the people around me, strangely, hold the same motto.

Mario, the president, is running around trying to problem solve all of the setbacks that are taking place an hour before the event is taking place.

The mother of one of the performers, and a long standing member of the organization, passed away two days ago.

Dignitaries arrive without having been invited to the event.

Groups of people arrive an hour before the doors are scheduled to open, while the technical of the performance is continuing to take place.

Other groups of people ignore the seating arrangements.

The guy running the bar is late.

"Mario, can you turn on the air conditioning?", I say.

He stops what he's doing and rushes to complete it.

"Finish what you are doing, Mario and then turn on the air conditioning.  It can wait."

I vaguely resemble his behavior.  The impulse to complete the task at hand, and to do it fast and do it NOW. That's me.

And I see me, everywhere I go. The good, the bad, the ugly.

I am there in my impatience with some of the audience members.

I am there in my ability to think on my feet.

I am there in my ability to honor the past and my traditions.

I am there in my impulse to take things personally.

I show up.

And so does my history. I am my past, yet, as the Tony Robbins quote suggests, I am not my past.  I am a mix of both. Whether I want to admit it or not, the remnants of all those stories still circulate in my blood.  They are mixed with all the stories that stack their weights, both for and against, all the stories lived in the lives before me and before me and before me.

What are the parts of your world that need to be honored and celebrated? Which stories bear repeating? Which ones deserve a courageous and speedy death?  The stories are all there, waiting for you to move, tweak, honor or annihilate. 

If you ask me, I would pick one, shoot it, and then aim. On second thought, it might be an idea to think about it carefully, before you make a decision.

See? Even I can make a change and learn from my history.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Pick One and Passing It Down

I sometimes make stupid decisions.  It sounds good at the time, but as the decision rolls out, my better judgement is challenged.

Years ago as a drama teacher. I would come up with an idea and pass it by my Fine Arts Department Head.

"Hey there Greg, I am thinking of writing a Comedia del'Arte show."


"I am thinking of touring it."


"I am thinking of building portable sets that we can take with us and I have some contacts in Cranbrook and they are willing to give us some money to get over there and I am thinking of applying for some funding to get the rest of the money to go there."

"You can't do that!"

He would say, "You can't do that!" and then he would immediately make plans and we would go full steam ahead and he would make sure it happened.  I can't tell you how many times he would help me with a crazy idea, spend countless of hours planning and working on an idea that was not his own and then see it to its end.

It was early days in my teaching career, and this seasoned, hard working art teacher and department head, spent a great deal of time mentoring me.  He gifted me with his skill, with his energy and his time. A whole pile of his time.

He may have said "you can't" but he never stopped there.  He would find a way to make it happen. He gave me his presence.  And his presence said, "I am going to help you make this happen, because I believe it CAN happen." He may have preferred I stick with a traditional approach, but he never insisted on it. He helped me with my vision. I was so lucky to have someone early in my career mentor me in such a profound way.  He gave me the experience and practice of seeing artistic visions come to fruition. He gave me the practice of taking public risks and experiencing success.  Wow!  Who gets that early in their career? I aspire to be Greg to those around me, but I know I fall far short of my role model.

Who is your Greg?  Who is the person in your life that champions your passion? Maybe, you and I can work together to be that amazing presence for someone around us.  Let's pick one person to mentor. Let's help one person unfold their dream, their story, their passion and let's see what happens.

Friday, March 31, 2017

It Always Takes Longer Than You Think

If I don't write it in my calendar, it is not going to happen. If a task is not on my list, I have a 50-50 chance of forgetting it.  Ah, the joys of the middle aged brain.

The older I get, the more I value my time.  I realize this is a precious resource and I work to treat it with respect.  I find myself wanting to be more present to my activities. I am more intolerant of multitasking.  I am more discriminant in who I choose to spend my time with.  I want to move towards activities and people that bring my joy and make my heart sing, and I want to eliminate activities and people that seem to suck the energy out of my soul.

I am enjoying my intolerance of intolerable things. In my journey to remove my intolerances, I have noticed that the simple and obvious little ditties are the ones that hold great power. So, the title of this blog is one of those simple and obvious little ditties that has been a bit of a game changer for me.

It always takes longer than you think it will take.

I will have an idea about how long it will take me to write a blog post, or prepare for a client, or organize a unit plan.  What I have learned to do, is think of my time like a renovation project.  You think it is going to take $10,000.00 to do the floors, but you budget for $15,000.00.  You always plug in a healthy cushion.  You might not need it, and that's a bonus, but knowing you have the buffer makes things run a little smoother.

I now do the same with time. I am writing a blog post, and I have to look up some references or search some photo or get a link and it takes time.  More time than I think it does.  Instead of getting frustrated, I just tell myself, this is all part of the task.  I am working on a new unit and I have to dig up references or activities and the books I am looking for are at my other work site and this is all part of the task.

Rather than look at every unexpected task as an obstacle I see it as part of the task itself. A tiny switch of perspective that has made a big difference in my stress level.  I find myself calmer and more relaxed as I get through my tasks.

What are your small switches that make a big difference in your world?  What is one thing you can do today, that will move you towards your joy?

Enjoy your day!

On CDs, Fundamentalism and Paradigm Shifts

Back in the technology boom of the 90's, I was an avid reader of the magazine Fast Company. I still have some of the articles, tucked in my research files.  I just can't find them at the moment.

One of the articles talked about the growth curve of industries.  At the time, CD's were still the way we consumed music.  The article was anticipating its decline with the rise of downloadable music and music sharing.  The previous year had shown a spiked increase in CD purchases and rather than herald a comeback, this spike was actually a symptom of its demise.

Industries and products have a life span and the end of the lifespan brings about a spiked increase and then a radical decline.


I think about this for a long time.  I was working on my thesis at the time, reading Kuhn's quintessential book on the arc of paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I realize that the same process of life and death of a scientific paradigm, is the same for a product, a company and an organization. It is remarkable to me how this principle of self similarity exists within so many platforms.

A star dies, and just before it explodes, it grows larger and hotter.

A family system dies, and just before it explodes, there is often a calm and a peace.

A person will radically hold a belief and it will get stronger and hotter, just before it explodes into empty space and transformation.

I believe the same principles exist in global beliefs and ideologies.  Right now we are seeing a massive influx of fundamentalism.  What I mean by that word, is a black and white, dualistic way of looking at the world.  You are either right or you are wrong. My faith is right and every other faith is wrong.  My kind are good.  Your kind are bad. There is one way to make this work.

I know there are many factors that bring this to play - fear, massive power inequity, fear, an impending change of political power and fear.

But I believe what we are also experiencing is "the spike in CD sales" that will eventually herald the demise of fundamentalism and the rise of a new value.  For me, this is clue number 3,782 signalling a radical change in how we operate as communities, countries and global systems.

That may be too out there for some of you, but any way you slice it, there are all kinds of signals that our world is changing, and the tensions around all of this change are increasing.

What kind of skills do our children need as they evolve in a world undergoing a paradigm shift?

How do we help prepare our children for the realities of increased uncertainty and fear?

The answer is bigger than setting up a survival hut in the woods and learning to live off the land. And it is more than learning to participate in communities and government action in order to support healthy changes and power equity.

For me, it is about supporting communities with lots of practice at resilience, independence, and community building. It is about getting lots of practice at getting comfortable with discomfort, without expecting someone else to fix it for you. And much more...

Twenty years later CD's still exist, but they are a shadow of their former fame and you would be hard pressed to find someone under 21 who owns one.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

It Doesn't Have to Be This Hard

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Victor Frankl

It doesn't have to be this hard.

I find myself saying this often.  During my counseling sessions, in my bodywork practice, while talking to a staff or family member, or sometimes when I am talking to myself.

It doesn't have to be this hard.

What is that line, between the natural suffering and struggle that comes with growth and adaptation versus the suffering and struggle that comes with avoiding growth and adaptation?

When is the suffering about living from a point of view that no longer serves you? When is the suffering simply a signal that you are looking at your situation from the wrong story? Change the old belief, die to that old story and suddenly suffering disappears.

Where in our ordinary worlds, where do we complicate things so that we make things more difficult?

Most of us here live in a rarified privilege.  If you make more than 67k a year, you are in the top 1% of the planet's wealthiest. Even if we consider inflated food, energy and housing expenses, we are living a life most of the world cannot even fathom, and yet, we are struggling.

I say this to the mom overwhelmed with her child's resistance to the school routine.

I say it to myself when I worry about managing all of my work responsibilities.

I say it to my friend who is dating someone requiring more than she can give.

I say it to the staff who is working too many hours and feels overwhelmed with the workload.

I say it to the student who is devastated that his friends are walking away from him because he is so unkind.

I say it to the overwhelmed husband sitting across from me, wondering how his impending separation with his wife will affect his ability to see his children.

There are times life will be overwhelming. There will be crisis and major transformations. I don't want to minimize the enormity of life's big disruptions - the death of a child, the single parent who must manage children, home life, work and personal self care, war, or homelessness. The list is long. And I count myself as one of those people who believe our global catastrophe's have just begun.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Victor Frankl

Most of the time,  I believe we have a choice. and as Frankl points out, even in the most difficult of circumstances, we have the power to chose our response. When things are too much, it is a sign that something is out of balance. Something is out of whack and it needs your attention. Our task is to find a way, to turn towards the solution, and take small steps that move in that direction.  In crisis, those small first steps will be about taking care of your own physical body, enlisting support and staying safe. As you move from crisis to recovery, those steps will be about taking small, repeated steps that move away from survival and towards joy. This is everyone's recipe.

What are the ways we can choose to respond to our difficulties that move us towards growth and freedom? 

What are the ways you respond to your difficulties that move you towards growth and freedom?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Your Children Will Embarass You

Easy choices. Hard life.  Hard choices. Easy life. Jerzy Gregorek

Children have a knack at highlighting your weaknesses. They will do things, both in public and in private, that will make you question your choice at having them in the first place.  They will press your buttons, find your vulnerabilities and use them at your weakest moment.  They will stretch you and push you in ways you could not fathom.

If you do your job right, your children will embarrass you.  Allow me to explain.

We learn by doing.  Our brain favours action, behaviour and practice. We are hard wired to explore our environments, test our possibilities and look for change.  Depending on the developmental age of your children, they will find ways to manage their curiosity and by doing so, they will expose themselves to danger, suffering and physical/emotional pain.

This is how we learn.  Pain, failure, suffering, embarrassment, success, achievement - these are all functions that occur as a result of the behaviour.  It is the feedback loop that allows the learner to recalibrate behaviour for a more successful outcome.

Some of these failures will not be to our liking.  Some of theses failures will make us uncomfortable and embarrassed.  This is understandable, but we need to be careful here because it is not our children's job to make us look good, be compliant, and always keep us comfortable.  We don't want children to learn by taking care of our needs - that can be downright dangerous down the road when they hit adolescence and adulthood.

Exploring environments, testing possibilities and looking for change - these are signs you are evolving and growing. Growth doesn't always look like progress. Activities such as connecting with a passion that might not be one that you like, exploring different social networks, trying out different faith practices or ideologies, all help develop happy brains. These are signs that you are building independence, resilience and confidence.

You want children, and adults for that matter, to take risks, to not always play it safe, and to stretch outside personal comfort zones.

Well what if the skill sets my child are exploring are dangerous, or involve high risk activities?  What if my child is experimenting with Satan worship or horrors of horrors, contemplating joining Nickleback? What then?

Those high risk, or poor life choices don't happen overnight.  Even a 180 degree personality shift took years to evolve.  My thoughts around some of these questions can be found here.

We hardly ever ask the inverse question - What happens to the child who does not want to take risks? What about the child who constantly chooses the path of least resistance?  Or, what happens to the child who is constantly shielded from the practice by families that are all too eager to protect their child from failure?

A child with limited practice at risk taking, fear, failure and uncomfortable learning, is a dangerous child.  This is a recipe for poor self regulation, poor resilience and poor social-emotional skills. We cannot reward children for behaviour that makes us feel safe and punish them for behaviour that makes us feel unsafe.  And this is not just for parents because the same concerns exist in classrooms.

Children need practice at finding their way. Their life path, may be to challenge your version of "right" or "good".  Their life path may be to discover a passion which terrifies you but makes their heart sing.

Our role in supporting children is to help them make hard choices in order to live easy lives.  Our role is to provide an abundance of practice at doing uncomfortable things. Rigour, self responsibility, and a strong capacity to problem solve should be a part of the end game.

The next time your children embarrass you, consider the fact, it might actually be an answer to your prayer.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Does Social Emotional Learning Have In Common With Video Games?

Easy to learn, hard to master.

This is the goal of every video game developer.  It is the hallmark of the gaming industry.  It allows a user to gain enough proficiency in a game so as to encourage further use, and gradual challenges to provide more and more complexity and effort.  It is a simple yet brilliant and complex task.

Along with many other reasons, this strategy is enormously effective.  According to some of the latest data over 60% of all households in the US have at least one person in the house playing video games 3 hours or more a week.  I think many individuals who work in high schools might find that figure a very conservative one.  Interestingly, the 2016 stats also point to an increased older group of users (26% are 50 years or older) as well as an increase in female players (41%).  This is no longer an adolescent boy's pastime.

I want to give you a sense of the prevalence of the gaming culture - it is an industry that has been tremendously successful at increasing game playing across both gender and age groups.

Easy to learn, hard to master.

Ironically, this is the strategy our brain uses to master social emotional learning.  I say ironically, because the prevalence of video game playing has contributed to the lack of mastery in social emotional learning, but that will be explored in another blog post.

Before we had all are critical thinking skills and the parts of our brain that helped us see the past, the present and the future, we had our feeling brain.  It is roughly 100 million years old. We felt before we reasoned and our feeling brain helped us survive. Your reasoning brain, the frontal cortex that is responsible for critical thinking, is roughly 40 million years old.

Your body took great pains to carefully conserve your feelings because they were critical for your survival.  Your feelings provide you with critical information about what is working, what is not working and most importantly, what needs your attention.

Your feeling brain, is deeply and intricately connected to your body.  As a result, social emotional learning does not happen as an intellectual process, it happens as a kinesthetic, physical process.  In practical terms, social emotional learning happens through feelings and through your body. The gateway points are play, physical contact and engagement with other human beings.  You need your body and your feelings to reinforce social emotional learning.

Just like video games, social emotional learning is easy to learn, hard to master.  In groups of children that have poor self regulation and low resilience skills, my strategies are to play a lot of "games" that provide children with practice at becoming aware of their bodies, getting comfortable with eye contact and spatial awareness. I will intentionally play high stakes, high energy games to give them practice at noticing big feelings and learning to manage them.

Practicing positive (or negative) social-emotional skills is easy.  It happens in the daily repetition of human connection, especially around humans where you feel valued and cared for. It happens in the daily repetition of physical chores and activities that contribute to the family household (and your body favours manual labour because of the millions of years in our evolutionary journey that required it for our survival). It happens in the daily repetition of play, especially physical unstructured play.  It happens in the physical practice of noticing your feelings, becoming aware of what is happening in your body and attending to them.

Mastering your social-emotional skills, on the other hand, is hard.  It is our lifelong practice.  It requires constant refinement, adjustment, failure, learning, success and more learning.  Levelling up requires more and more practice, slow response times, compassion instincts, and an ability to think about yourself and all the people around you. It means often making decisions that are unselfish.

Our job as educators, parents and life long learners is to fully engage in this lifelong practice.

It is also about modelling, encouraging and engaging children and youth to take the same journey. The work of passing this mastery on to future generations is one of the most important legacies we will leave behind.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Your Brain on Perserverance

One of my goals for 2017 was to increase my skill at swimming so that I can eventually overcome my fear of swimming in open water. As a part of that goal, I am taking intermediate adult swimming lessons at the local pool. Twelve people are enrolled in the class.  It is a smattering of ages and abilities and attitudes.  I am decked out in my Costco one piece with a lavender swim cap that has got to be 20 years old by now.  Nothing matches.

Certain students are intimidated and overwhelmed.  They have just moved up from the beginner class and the expectations are a bit of a leap.  Some of the students feel daunted by the stronger swimmers in the group.  Their overwhelm seeps into the conversations.

"He shouldn't be in this class. He's too good."

"I am never going to get this kick right."

Certain students are motivated for fitness, or health, or losing weight.  A few just want to learn to swim.

Over the twice weekly sessions the class starts to thin out.  Increasingly more and more students arrive later and later.

By the end, there are 8 out of 12 students who complete the 12 sessions. I notice that all of the students with the overwhelm were the first to stop coming to the classes.

Perseverance, your ability to stick to something when it gets challenging, is a practice.  It is a skill you build by competing things, even when they get challenging. It is the byproduct of repetition.  It is a behavior - a doing.  Our ability to stick to something is not an overnight skill.  It comes from our ability to train our brain and our body to keep going, find a way and work through challenge.

It is a bit of an art form, because, you want to build for success and the way you build for success, is by having challenges in small enough pieces so that you don't feel like it is impossible to do. This is very important.

What good is a diet that you can only follow 40% of the time? What good is a fitness plan you will quit after 6 weeks? What good is a budget you follow for 3 months and then forget?  It is better for you to workout twice a week for a year rather than 7 times a week for 3 months.  Perseverance practice happens the same way resilience practice happens.  In small repeated steps that build the skill set over time. In a nutshell, it is the Nike slogan, "Just do it."

How can I build perseverance, or how can I help my child build perseverance?

Start with small challenges.  If a task feels too daunting, keep breaking it down into smaller bits until it feels more manageable.

Get to a place of discomfort but not so uncomfortable that it takes up all of your brainpower and willpower to complete.

Honor your successes.  Reward your effort, not your skill.  In perseverance training, the effort is more important than the skill.

Do what you can to make it more palatable.  Enlist a friend, tell those who will encourage your goal about your efforts, or do the work when you are most likely to complete the task.

Imagine your future self.  What will it be like, to have all my credit card paid off?  What will it be like to be able to swim across the lake?  What will it be like to complete my goal?

Be your own cheerleader.  Talk to yourself in ways that focus on success.  Your "head" can be your most effective self saboteur if you let it.  Train your brain to focus on where you WANT to go, not where you are AFRAID to go.

Every time you strengthen your perseverance skills.  Every time you practice consistently, tasks you want to accomplish, you are teaching all the people around you.  What you do and do repeatedly is what you teach.  Model perseverance and see the community around you inspired by your efforts.

Practice small.  Practice often. Just do it.

Right now, I gotta go.  I don't want to be late for my swim class and it takes me a minute to put my swim cap on.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Racial Profiling and High Quality Boullion Powder

I am a little nervous going through American customs.

My husband's skin colour and last name meant that when we were dating during the Bush era, he would constantly be detained for "random" checks. With the new change of politic I brace myself for another round of hold ups and special treatment.  Much to my surprise, I am the one who gets detained.

Customs go through my carry on luggage with great interest and vigour.  As the agent opens my bag, my wet two piece lies atop a mountain of coffee bags and chicken bouillon powder.

"Did you bring a pile of sand with you by any chance?"

"No! Just bouillon powder and coffee."

"Hmm, uh - huh"

The agent dabs the bouillon bag with a number of swatches, paying special attention to the edges and the picture of the chicken.  Finally, having checked everything to her satisfaction, she tells me to put everything away and be on my way.

Seems like the flagrant amount of powder substances in my bag were cause for some alarm. Alas my drugs of choice are good coffee and high quality chicken bouillon powder.  Nothing to see here people, move along, move along.

I am a little humpffy about the random check.  But I know, in my own job, I have made the same mistakes.  I have come to conclusions based on overall data, without enough specifics and then pounce at a judgement that was over reaching and sometimes embarrassing.   My years of experience means I have learned to slow things down, ask more questions and give everyone a benefit of a doubt before jumping to conclusions.  My impulsive nature and desire for a quick solution means I still fight to slow down and pay attention.

I am still hours away from home and my third flight is delayed.  I am going to be a very tired camper when I get home.  I will definately be a little rusty for work tomorrow morning. I am hoping the coffee and broth will remind me to slow down, get as much information as I can, and pause, instead of judge, or solve a problem that is not really the problem.

Maybe we can work on that one together.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

When is Cheese No Longer Cheese?

My love affair for cheese is well documented.  You can see my blog post on my cheese making course experience here.  If I ever go to jail, it will have something to do with transporting hundreds of pounds of cheese hidden in boxes labelled bocce balls.  I have listened to gastropod's history of cheese three times, just in case I missed anything. Although most of the time, I follow a paleo, non cheese food plan, when I travel, I do not limit my cheese intake.

I was shocked when I learned that a product could be called cheese without being cheese.  Parmesan cheese in those bottles can have up to 10% of stuff in it other than cheese. Filler. A while back someone reported that some of that filler was actually sawdust. If you call something a "cheese product" the percentage of "real cheese" is even less.

Here in Mexico, the cheese variety is extensive, fresh, and dam delicious.  Why can't I have this amazing dam delicious selection in Canada I wonder, but perhaps that is a topic for another blog. Most of the time, I opt for artesian or higher quality cheese in order to have a better chance of a full dairy cheese product. I don't have to make that choice as often in Italy, as they are sticklers for authentic.  They rigorously work at ensuring their food quality remains authentic and pure.

What about school?  How much of what we pass off as learning is the 10% filler?  Or worse yet, what are the "cheese products" of schools.  The Velveeta facsimile that only remotely tastes and looks like learning?

I think for many of us, "pure learning" looks like reading, writing and math, especially math.  Literacy and Numeracy.  Hard to argue with that, especially when we are seeing big links between academic success and literacy.  Let's add the holy grail of Science and Technology in there as a given. I'll even throw in History and Geography.

Things get tricky from here. Physical Education?  Fine Arts? Performing Arts? Social Emotional Learning? Meditation??????

The farther learning and schools resemble past practice, the more it can look like "filler". Traditional schools are appealing because they outwardly resemble the good old days where order and control appeared to have the upper hand.

Real cheese will always be about three ingredients: milk, bacteria and salt.  That's it.

Real learning, on the other hand, is a complex mix of culture, politic, brain development and values.  All of those ingredients are moving targets.  They do not remain static, even if there are those who try to claim it does.

Every one of these ingredients is a big conversation, I know.  Different systems work to address all of the complexity in a variety of ways. I just want to get you thinking about this so that we don't make the terrible mistake of thinking our illusions will make our children safe.  Like the illusion of desks in a row with a teacher up in chalk and talk mode.  Or the illusion that great math scores will ensure my child a good job.  Or the illusion that an obedient child is a socially emotionally well developed child.

I am going to let you chew on that while I savour a nice piece of delicious, 100% real cheese.

Your Brain on Repetition

When I was a teenager, I used to bake cookies all the time.  Hard to believe now, as I am continually teased about my poor baking skills, but back then, baking was something I did that comforted me.    There was the occasional mishap like the time I forgot to put in the baking soda and the offending hockey pucks were fed to the family dog, but mostly, the cookies landed on the family breakfast table.

I used to make these certain cookies.  They were some plain, coffee dunking cookies that my dad would dunk in his coffee at breakfast.  I baked them so often, I didn't use the recipe.  I knew them by heart, by feel, by instinct.  I knew this recipe like the back of my hand.  I can still remember some of the ingredients: 6 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of oil, 2 cups of sugar, the zest of one lemon.  For some reason, the amount of baking soda escapes me for the moment.

Neither here nor there.

There was something comforting, meditative and calming about repeating the same recipe. I liked the predictability. I liked knowing that they were being put to some practical use.  They were a "known" entity.

Some public spaces rely on this repetition to reinforce the learning, the familiarity and the invitation to keep returning.  In my own world, I see this played out in the rituals and routines of the Catholic Church, in public schools, even in my bikram's yoga class.

Your brain loves repetition. Your brain loves behaviour. Repeated behaviour is one of the most powerful learning strategies.  It is millions of years in the evolutionary making.  It is one of the reasons why routines are so effective. I think this evolutionary brain hack is underutilized and under rated.  We need to add repetition and rehearsal in our classrooms and homes as often as we can.

There are plenty of things that you do by heart, by feel, by instinct.

Your routines and rituals.

Things you do over and over again.

Your hobbies.

Your passions.

Your day to day practices.

What are the ways you can make repetion work for you?

The repetition could be the ping of Candy Crush or Tetrus or first person shooter game, or the repetition of a ten minute meditation practice.

Every effort you make to create small repeated behaviours that move you towards your passions and desires is success. In terms of learning, what we do repeatedly wins.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Magic of a Name - Noticing Your Feelings

Your brain knows your name. The millions of times you hear your name and respond to it have created a speedy neural pathway that has become a shortcut at receiving information.

When I am working with students who are having big feelings - frustration, overwhelm,, anxiousness or angry - they are often unaware of what is happening in their own body. Sometimes supporting these students means I simply mirror back what I notice.

Your hands are shaking.

Your two eyebrows meet in a straight line.

Your eyes are facing the floor.

You look uncomfortable in your own skin, you can't stop moving.

Your ears look hot and red.

Your breathing is shallow.

Your shoulders are curled in.

You are having a big feeling.  Can you tell me what it is?

Feelings are inherently a body response.  We experience our feelings throughout our body.  It isn't just something that happens in your head.  It is enormously valuable to be aware of all of your body responses that are associated with a feeling.

It may take a bit of unpacking to see what is underneath the big feeling, but step one is simple.  Notice what is happening in your body and name it.  Say it out loud so that you can hear yourself acknowledge it.

We help children notice their physical responses to big feelings but we can help ourselves and our loved ones do the same thing. The more we do this, the better we get at noticing our feelings.  The better we are at noticing our own feelings, the better we get at helping those around us do the same.

This is one of those skills that falls under the category of "easy to learn, hard to master" but it is well worth mastering.  As soon as you can focus on your body responses, the wisdom of your feelings will slowly become available to you. And that is where the magic happens.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Suffering as an Art Form - Chicks, Shells and Survival

When my mother was a little girl in Northern Italy on a small family farm, she would  watch baby chicks hatch out of their eggs. She was fascinated by the cracks and the the small puncture marks that would arrive signalling the arrival of a baby chick.

There were times she would feel sorry for the chicks.  There were always the ones who would struggle deeply to get out of their shells.  So she would help them out.  She would help those baby chicks out by picking away at the shell.

I used to think about this story a lot when I was a teenager and a young adult. I guess I am still thinking about it now as a middle aged woman.

It seems that evolution and natural selection throw a series of fitness, strength and stress tests to all species to ensure survival of the fittest. These tests do not arrive when you are trained, practiced, rehearsed and ready - they happen at your edges.  You have outgrown your container, your food source, your requirements for survival.

Passing these tests, being able to successfully pull yourself out of your egg, benefits you and it benefits your species. Picking at the shell of the egg, strengthens the chick, gives her practice at pecking which she will need as she learns to feed herself. If you can pull yourself out and survive, you pass on your genes to the next crew of chicks and you help ensure a stronger gene pool.

If you are unable, you are too weak, without assistance, you die.  You do not pass on those genes.  Your genes don't make it into the next crew of chicks.

Helping a chick crack out of it's shell takes away important practice and skills a chick needs to survive.  It may alter natural selection.  On the other hand, it might save it's life.

The same dilemma plays itself out hundreds of times in our own lives. When do we step in and help our children, our friends, our co-workers or our families?  When does helping turn into enabling turn into controlling or fearfulness?

Some struggle is necessary for anything to survive.  It is billions of years of hardwiring that says, growth comes from struggle, conflict, and change. And so does death.

It is relatively easy for me to work with this razor edge relationship between suffering, life and death when I am working with a client. A client is already motivated enough to get help. I can listen to the story, work in small increments, see results, work in bigger increments, see results, setbacks, results, setbacks and then transformation.   Often, exactly in that order.

It becomes more difficult to do when someone close to me is in the suffering. I have to fight the impulse to go over and "crack the shell" myself. I want to fix the problem, in part, because it is so painful for me, to be in the presence of someone I love, who is suffering.

A few years ago, I felt a significant and very loud urging to step forward and help someone close to me.  "You need a hand.  You are struggling. I can help you."  She said yes, and so for a part of her journey, together we cracked a few of the gritty  pieces of the shell. I imagine, I hope, there is enough trust and love that the next time she feels stuck, she will once again be okay with a companion and a guide  to move through an unbearable edge.

It is an art in knowing when your assistance is enabling weakness or encouraging strength. I see the danger of families protecting their loved ones from their suffering to such a degree as to teach them weakness.  I see the danger of families unable to walk alongside their loved ones suffering, thus missing an opportunity to strengthen both their relationship and their courage.  It is all a fine line.

I don't have any answers, but I imagine, it is the work of our species to dance that razor's edge in finding ways  to strengthen and fortify the generations and generations and generations to come.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Be Still

It is evening, we are both tired from the travelling and colds that keep lingering in our lungs.

We sit outside the balcony of our unit watching a beautiful sunset.  I have a glass of wine in my hand.  

We have a magnificent view.  We are silent.

We let the sound of water breathing in and out be our voice.

I am very aware that this is a privilege most people on the planet cannot afford.  The 2/3's of the global population living on $2 a day or less, the African famines, the Syrian crisis.  There is plenty of pain to go around. 

For the moment, I am grateful that I can be here.  I can see, hear, feel and be in a magnificent space. All my senses are still able.

That is all I am going to do for the next few days. Write. Walk. Swim. Breathe. Eat. Drink.  And feel the utter gift that I have all the resources I need to be still.

Be still.

Life Learning Vs. Good Marks

I am helping one of my nieces, Fabiana, with one of her papers.  It is a difficult and dense topic. The requirements are meticulous.  We are working sentence by sentence.

Somewhere in the middle, we take a break and we Skype my sister.  Many years ago, I helped my twin edit her PhD thesis. It was a difficult time in my own life, and I remember spending many a Sunday in the UBC Education building holed up in an office, escaping my own demons while immersed in my sister's paper.  I was almost always alone and so I felt the freedom of  running around barefoot in the halls in between the patches of editing.

It is funny the bits you remember.  And the bits you don't.

"Hey Fabiana, I remember when Zia Emi was editing my thesis, she even edited my acknowledgements!"

I had forgotten this part.

"I thought it was some of my best work, I was crying when I wrote it, and I was thinking, she is going to cry when she sees this too.  Instead, she was tapping on the backspace button and deleting all the good parts!"

Oh yeah, it was all coming back to me now.

Her acknowledgements were a wordy sentimental mash of gratitude, fatigue and overwhelm - a blend of the best and the worst of my twin's gifts.  She  has always been a superb cheerleader for the people around her - friends, family and especially her children. She is a master at celebration but she fought her griefs and disappointments with a fury.  I was her opposite, embracing my grief and disappointment with a vengeance.  I wrapped myself in a coating of it - it became my identity, while always praying somehow for that pair of 'life is great' glasses my sister always seemed to be wearing. Over the years we have been each other's teachers, embracing both sides, so that now in our middle age, we have a little bit of each other's gift.

I am worried that all of the doing and undoing of the editing with my niece might be soul depleting. At the end of one of my editing sessions with her I say, "All this editing, it's not so much about getting a good mark on your paper.  It is about getting clear with your thoughts.  The practice of learning to write well is the practice of learning to think we'll.  It helps you get your points of view across to yourself and to others.  It not only helps you write a good essay, it helps you become a better person. It is a great life practice."

So that is what I think all of our learning should like. In an ideal world, we create conditions where learning is about sharing the communicable strengths and weaknesses of a collective, where every "educational" assignment can be understood as a practical and empowering life practice and where both the collective "good" and "evil" can be exposed, examined and shifted.

What are the ways you do this in your home, your classroom, your workspace?  What are the ways you do this in public spaces?  I await your suggestions so that I can learn something from you...