We've heard of the "comfort zone". We've heard of the "panic zone". But what about the "learning zone"? What does it feel like to actually learn?
We can't learn when we're too comfortable. Boredom puts us to sleep. Daydreaming distracts us. We feel like a class is a waste of our time because the content/activity/lecture is totally useless or unrelated. So we check out, shut down, take a walk, or cut class.
Okay, so what do we do to ensure kids aren't falling asleep in class? We push them out of their comfort zone, right? Make them work with a partner they're not friends with. Make them take a pop quiz. Throw a ton of vocab words at them to study for a test. Increase the workload. Challenge them. Expect a lot out of them.
However....too much pushing leads kids into the panic zone. We can't learn when we're in panic. Panic sounds like I hate this class, I want to drop out of school, I don't care, I give up, I'm so done with this. Panic looks like shutting down, skipping class/school, crying, feeling anxious/depressed, feeling worthless or like a failure. When our bodies are in a constant state of anxiety and arousal (sounds like adolescence, right?), we can't learn.
Push the kids, but not too far. The problem is, not every kid has the same sized learning zone. Not every kid has the same level of tolerance for what panic can feel like (and it can feel terrifying).
For example, consider two types of students. Resilient students are frequently in the learning zone. They are curious, self-driven, and thrive in the feeling of being "in the zone". They want to do well because it makes them feel confident. They learn quickly. Perfectionist students are frequently in the panic zone. They panic when things aren't going right. They tell themselves "I'm stupid" or "I don't get this. I give up". They give up before they had enough chance to practice and learn. They have trouble handling the feeling of frustration and failure. Pushing these students out of comfort and into learning is challenging, because the boundaries are so tight. They frequently pass from comfort into panic. It's difficult to keep perfectionists in the learning zone.
Here's the problem- the culture of school naturally teaches kids to maintain a perfectionist mindset. Actually, the culture of our society does this too, but that's for another blog post.
I wonder, what would happen if we....
1) Teach kids to identify what it feels like to be in the panic, learning, and comfort zones
2) Encourage kids to develop and practice coping strategies to get themselves out of panic and into learning.
3) As teachers, know how to know when the class is too comfortable, and push the kids safely out of their comfort zones (but not too far into panic).
I asked my students to come up with examples of what the comfort, learning, and panic zones look and feel like. Here's what they came up with.
Normalize and validate feelings of panic, help the students draw themselves back into learning, and educate students about the importance of challenging the boundaries of the comfort zone. I'm excited to try out this new mindset this semester.
Thanks for reading this week. I appreciate your feedback, leave a comment and let me know what you think about this post or just teaching in general!
A lot of times I'll think to myself "Aww it must be so hard being a teenager" in a "that's adorable" kind of way. I watch my students freak out over the smallest things, cry over what I see as not a big deal, or get angry over something I see as childish. Teenagers are emotional...we all know that. As adults we can look back on our own adolescence and think "man I really thought that breakup was the end of the world for me" or "getting a D in physics really crushed my soul back then", but as adults we know life only gets more complicated, and being in high school really wasn't so bad after all.
But here's the thing....being a teenager really IS hard! And I think it has to do with how we teach (or don't teach) kids about emotions and feelings.
Think back to when you were a teenager. Was there ever a time when a trusted adult or teacher genuinely asked you about how you're feeling and helped you process through that emotion? As a teacher, it's tempting to pretend like feelings don't affect the students. We tell ourselves....We have to get through the material, and quick. I have high expectations for my students, they should be able to self-regulate, It's not my job to be their parent/counselor, I'm responsible for teaching biology first- there's no time for feelings. Alright then, have fun when that one angry kid decides she can't take it anymore, punches somebody/something, and runs away. Or worse, refuses to come back to school.
Social-emotional teaching is something we hear more often at the elementary levels. When a second grader feels angry, she'll get in a physical fight or throw something. She'll have a physically dangerous reaction, it's explosive, distracting, and noticeable (just google "room clear" for the worst case scenario...) We sit little elementary kids in a circle and talk about how we're feeling. We help them process their emotions through show and tell and morning meetings. We help them identify their emotions, accept them, and talk about them. We have to do this if any productive learning is going to happen in an elementary classroom. I once got attacked by an angry fourth grader with scissors.....but I'll save that story for another blog post.
But what about the high school level? For some reason, we stop talking about feelings and throw the kids into 100% academic mode. We start telling ourselves we have "high expectations" for students, which we translate to mean zero tolerance policies and zero tolerance classroom management. But we can't ignore the feelings, they're still there, even though teenagers have been conditioned to (and are really good at) hiding their feelings. And feelings are powerful. No wonder why so many teenagers get in trouble with drugs, mental health, and suicide.
Social-emotional teaching has a place at the high school level, across all content areas, in every classroom.
I had my seniors and sophomores circle how they're feeling as a class. Here's what two of my classes came up with.
At first I wasn't sure how the students would respond to this activity. Teachers don't care about feelings! Right? I would be skeptical for sure if I were them.
The students actually ended up loving this activity and were more than eager to circle everything they were feeling (a handful of kids circled the entire wheel). We talked about what it means to identify a feeling, and what we can do when we need to address a feeling like anger in class.
Moving forward, I wonder how I can reframe my teaching in a way that acknowledges the fact that feelings do matter and the effects of feelings are magnified when you cram 30 exhausted teenagers in a small classroom and make them do Chemistry together.
Some ideas to start....
There's a reason why science teachers seriously limit the number of labs we do with kids every year. Labs are expensive, complicated, and above all accident prone . It's a lot for one teacher to manage, especially when you've got more than twenty teenagers crammed in a small lab space with plenty of glass/sharp things to go around. The first lab I do with my tenth graders is the infamous flame lab. Yes, it's literally called the flame lab. Give every four kids a mini-blow torch, a long metal stick, and lots of powdery chemicals. What could go wrong?
As it turns out...actually nothing went wrong with the students. It was me who got hurt! More often than not..it ends up that way. I'm literally shedding blood for my students. Ok I admit that's kind of an exaggeration but it is hilarious (and slightly embarrassing) to think about me standing in front of 30 kids lecturing about the importance of staying safe from hot metal blowtorches, only to turn around and burn myself immediately afterwards.
Which leads me to my next thought **drumroll please**... a Theodore Roosevelt quote! (stay with me here, I promise this is related)
"It's not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs; who comes short again and again...who at the best knows in the end..if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly" - Theodore Roosevelt
If the arena is doing the work of eduction, on the ground, with the kids themselves...I'm certainly in the arena. Not just in the arena, but getting literally injured in the arena (and I bought the band aids with my own teacher paycheck). I have this image in my head of me running around the classroom, "face marred by dust" with a bandaid in one hand and a clipboard in the other. Actually...that's kind of how teaching feels like a lot of the time.
Needless to say, we're not using bunsen burners anymore this year (thank GOODNESS)
Besides physical injuries, the Roosevelt quote actually has to do with another idea: vulnerability. I first encountered the quote in Brene Brown's book Daring Greatly She writes about the importance of showing up as our true selves, and letting our true selves be seen....klutz and all. It's way harder, sometimes even more painful, than getting burned by a bunsen burner. And not just showing up with trivial things like clumsiness or embarrassment, but being authentic with my students, showing emotions and processing them with students, being honest with students, getting to the hard stuff of risk taking in the classroom with students. Failing at teaching. Letting my students fail. Letting an experiment fail and then processing why afterwards as a class. I always thought good role models don't fail. What would happen if our role models were truly real with us?
Failure stings- it's what causes students to shut down, feel scared, and lash out at themselves or others. Failure caused me incredible anxiety during my first year of teaching, and I quickly learned that teaching is the most vulnerable thing I've ever had to do. I'm learning to deal with that failure by stumbling, not falling. Easier said than done.