Living in tune with nature isn’t about being happy

Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.

But in this interview on Wired with the writer of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, something stood out to me as problematic in how we often approach this natural buzz:

“We don’t recognize how happy nature makes us.”

I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.

Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.

That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.

So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?

As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):

“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.

. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/spend-5-percent-day-outside/

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Therapeutic Learning Environments

At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.

. . . At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.

. . . As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma.

–James Redford and Karen Pritzker, “Teaching Traumatized Kids” on The Atlantic

Sunday Smorgasbord: Design

By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Glen Edelson from ATLANTA, USA (Lox and eggs) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I’m playing around with the formatting of these weekly roundups. Let me know what works or doesn’t work for you. UPDATE: looks like links in pictures weren’t working, so I added embedded links to each article.

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A nice overview of the relationship between architectural design and well-being from The Guardian’s Cities.

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“One, two, three, four!” they counted in Finnish. (For good measure, I jumped into the ditch, too.) The teacher, Pelo, explained that this experience represented how she and the two aides aspire to teach the kindergartners in the woods. She described this approach as “secret” learning, when children are unaware that they’re learning academic content. In the forest, these Finnish educators might lead the children to find sticks of varying lengths and organize them from shortest to longest, form letters out of natural materials, or count mushrooms.

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Smart stuff, as usual, from Amanda Ripley.

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It’s likely that as long as humans and their institutions hold prejudices and bias, their designs will reflect them. But some progress is possible. Two decades ago architect Ronald Mace imagined a new standard, in which anything humans make — a new piece of technology, a public park, a household product — is usable by everyone. He called this idea “universal design.” Today it’s an enforceable legal standard in Norway. One way to help us get there? Make sure the design process itself is also accessible to all.

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“All of the choice-based reform efforts that they’ve come up with over the last 20 years have been designed to bring back all the white people who left after Brown v. Board. But the irony is that, if [districts] keep relying on choice, they’re going to be set up for failure because white people will not enroll their children in schools unless they’re already [predominantly] white,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a black parent and journalist, referring to extensive research showing privileged, white parents tend to send their kids to schools that they perceive as “high status.” “So the segregation keeps repeating itself as long as you rely on choice as a way to make the change.”

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In the Philadelphia school district, 37 percent of the system’s 144,000 are chronically absent. Among high-school students, the figure shoots up to 51 percent. The districts in Baltimore and Milwaukee have similar numbers. For Cleveland and Detroit, the chronic absenteeism rates are around 50 percent, and more than 60 percent of Cleveland’s high-schoolers missed more than three weeks of school a year.

The report’s authors write that one common denominator linking these cities is the “nearly 100 years of historical actions that aimed to segregate African American populations in sections of the city with the poorest housing, greatest proximity to industrial pollutants, greatest exposure to violence, and highest unemployment rates, resulting in widespread inter-generational poverty.”

Sunday Smorgasbord

By Ernst Vikne (originally posted to Flickr as Lots of good food) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I read a lot of random stuff over the course of a week, and I tweet out many of them (follow me @mandercorn), but I also know that roundups of links, ala Chalkbeat NY, Vox, Eduwonk, Marginal Revolution, and many others, are a really useful way to sharing items that are interesting.

I’m going to begin posting a weekly roundup of items that bear a connection to the themes and ideas that we explore on Schools & Ecosystems.

Please let me know if there’s a format I should consider that will make these more easily digestible and useful to you.

Schools that teach in two languages foster integration — so how come so many families can’t find programs?

There has been a long overdue discussion of integration and increasing diversity in our public schools. While those discussions typically refer to racial and socioeconomic diversity, and the subsequent resistance from well-off white parents, Catherine Brown and Conor Williams are forwarding a refreshing vision for increasing diversity: expanding Dual Language Immersion programs.

While no integration effort is ever simple —especially one that requires schools to implement a new instructional model — today’s conditions are encouraging. Schools have increasing numbers of linguistically diverse students, and greater flexibility for deciding how to meet their needs. Furthermore, families of varied backgrounds increasingly expect schools to offer unique academic themes that help students succeed. Dual immersion programs recognize and celebrate their diverse backgrounds, not as a side benefit, but as a core element of the model’s effectiveness. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for policymakers — and well worth their attention.

Hospitals Realize Their Own Noise Is a Health Issue All By Itself

Quartz reports on a study which found that ambient noise in hospitals is LOUD, which is unsurprising to anyone who has stayed in a hospital.

Hospital stays can be an ordeal all by themselves beyond the condition you’re there being treated for. As medicine becomes more holistic in its perspective, it only makes sense that hospitals are realizing what an important role sound can play in effective healthcare.

On Average

A podcast episode from 99% Invisible describes the tremendous influence that the science of averages, promulgated by Belgian astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet, has had on design.

Did you know that clothing sizes of Large, Medium, and Small were first created by the mass production for soldier uniforms required by the Civil War? Lincoln drew from the science of averages.

There’s a common discourse in the education world: we standardize tests and our education systems, but children aren’t standardized. It might sound trite, but it’s scientifically accurate, according to research by Gilbert S. Daniels. He discovered that there was a discrepancy between the averages of all soldier measurements and the actual individual sizes of each soldier. In other words, very few individual soldiers actually conformed to the average.

This problem manifested in the design of cockpits, which were based on average measurements of soldiers in the 1920s. By WWII, those averages no longer applied, and resulted not only in the exclusion and subsequent shortage of many pilots during a time of high need, but even many avoidable deaths.

It was again our military which then pioneered the concept of adjustment in its design to meet individual needs. That’s why we can adjust our car seats now.

Whether it’s the equipment, or the whole work environment, design must accommodate more people who are outside the average … because in reality no one is actually average.

Trudging the fields at Gettysburg to teach leadership in hospitals

Speaking of hospitals and the Civil War . . . Stat reports on a leadership program for hospital staff which brings them to the battlefield of Gettysburg and prompts them to consider the decision-making challenges that people working within large organizations can make while under stress.

“Communication can break down at every single level,” said David Ottati, chief executive of Florida Hospital Waterman. “As leaders, we need to make sure we understand the objectives and each others’ personalities and motivations.”

In the Age of De Blasio, A Bloomberg Era Small School Reunion

Andrea Gabor writes a thoughtful piece on an innovative small school, Global Technology Preparatory, that was created as part of Bloomberg/Klein’s “iZone” initiative. By explaining what makes this school a success, and examining how that success has been hampered by politics and bureaucracy, Gabor brings a critical lens to the new administration.

One of the buried ledes in this story is that an educator, David Baiz, had been rated Unsatisfactory in his first school in the South Bronx, but after moving to Global Tech, he became a “nationally recognized math teacher.”

New York City educators loved to hate the Bloomberg/Klein administration, with its penchant for serial reorganizations and its army of MBAs. At the same time, some of the city’s best principals conceded that the businessman-mayor’s school administration had made their lives easier. For principals who survived the New York City iZone’s many incarnations, or who had inherited the small-school mantel from Meier and Alvarado, the Bloomberg years were an opportunity to experiment with some relief from bureaucratic control.

When our dream school had no space for my son, I panicked. Then I confronted prejudice I didn’t know I had

A mother and educator describes how the experience of choosing a school for her son confronted her with her own prejudice and that of others.

The more I dug into my soul, the more I come back to the idea that choosing a school is essentially about choosing the class you want to belong to and not about education at all. The truth that nobody wants to talk about is they want their white child to go to a white school. They want to go to a school where everyone eats Pirate Booty instead of Cheetos, where parents send their kids to New York Kids Club instead of Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Relationships Foster Resiliency

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Strikingly, even some children who had “gone off the rails” in their teenage years managed to turn things around and get their lives back on track by the time they were in their 30s and 40s, often without the help of mental health professionals.

Many of the factors involved in such turnarounds, and several of the factors associated with resilience throughout the children’s lives, involve relationships of some kind, whether within the context of a larger community – a school, a religion, the armed services – or in the context of one important person.

Our relationships really are key,” says McCubbin. “One person can make a big difference.

Wider research suggests that the more risk factors children face, the more protective factors they are likely to need to compensate. But as McCubbin says, “A lot of the research supports this idea of relationships, and the need to have a sense of someone that believes in you or someone that supports you – even in a chaotic environment, just having that one person.” . . . 

The idea of resilience as an adaptive process rather than an individual trait opens up the potential for other people to be involved in that process. McCubbin sees the importance of relationships as being wider than only protective relationships with people, and she and her team have created a new measure of “relational wellbeing” to try to capture this. “We think of relationship as with a person,” she says. “But what we really found was that it was relationship with the land, relationship with nature, relationship with God, relationship with ancestors, relationship with culture.” [Bold added]

—Lucy Maddox, “‘I saw things children shouldn’t see’ – surviving a troubled childhood” on Mosaic

Relationships

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When I began teaching in a 5th grade self-contained classroom in East Tremont, I found myself constantly confounded, on a moment-by-moment basis, by the behaviors of my students. The raw emotions, aggression, anger, and frustration that my students expressed, and that I also experienced, was like I can only imagine as comparable to the experience of warfare. I dragged myself home each night feeling like I’d been turned inside out.

I found some solace in reading a copy of Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI), a book about a therapeutic system of strategies for supporting children experiencing crisis developed in a residential care setting. But I did not have any formal training in the method.

Fortunately, in my 2nd year of teaching, it just so happened that I was able to attend a workshop from two educators from D75 on a method called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention—a modified and simplified version of LSCI created by Cornell University specifically for classroom use. This was and continues to be the most influential and useful professional development I have ever attended. It helped me begin to shift my mentality and how I approached student behavior.

So it was with delight that I saw one of the educators who provided me that training, Dana Ashley, featured in American Educator. I urge you to read her piece, “It’s About Relationships,” in full.

“When teachers wonder “What should I do?” in response to challenging student behaviors, the answers are not as simple as they might seem. Although an individual teacher asks the question, the response must be nuanced enough to take into account the specific school and community. As in any field—not just in education—context is key.” (Bold added)

Birds make us better

I’ve always loved animals–I grew up alongside a German shepherd, an Amazon parrot, parakeets, and cockatiels. The parrot, Vincent, is still with me today. Here’s my current little vibrant family:

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Birds are, in some ways, representative of humanity’s simultaneous fascination and awe of the natural world, as well as utter disregard. Many bird species are declining due to human activity, their diverse voices silenced. Many are killed by pet cats allowed to roam freely outdoors. In the past, tribal kings would kill hundreds of parrots to string their iridescent feathers into gaudy headdresses and capes.

These beautiful creatures possess an intangible intrinsic value that makes our world a better place to live. But as you will see in the following stories, they can furthermore provide benefits that are more tangible. Just like greenery, natural light, and other environmental enhancers, the sounds, visuals, and presence of birds brings greater vibrancy into our existence.

♥ In this first story of aging well, Bill Thomas, a professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, brings alive the concept that our environment has a tremendous impact on well-being. This story is not only about birds, of course, but birds are a part of the equation of what he terms the “Eden Alternative.”

“So he decided to transform the nursing home. Based on a hunch, he persuaded his staff to stock the facility with two dogs, four cats, several hens and rabbits, and 100 parakeets, along with hundreds of plants, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day-care site for staffers’ kids.

All those animals in a nursing home broke state law, but for Thomas and his staff, it was a revelation. Caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.

He named the approach the Eden Alternative — based on the idea that a nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden — and it was replicated in hundreds of institutions in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia as well as in all 50 U.S. states (the animal restriction in New York was voted down).” . . . 

He moved beyond nursing homes to set up small, intimate residences called Green Houses. With private bedrooms and bathrooms, they offered dignity and privacy. Their size had an unexpected effect.

“Within six weeks, they had to send a truck around to pick up all the wheelchairs,” Thomas said of one house. “You know why most people [in nursing homes] use wheelchairs? Because the buildings are so damn big. . . . The buildings disable elders.”

—Tara Bahrampour¸ “We’re lucky if we get to be old, physician and professor believes” on Washington Post

Imagine if we had schools that were “Eden Alternatives”!

♥ In this next story on parrots and veterans of war, we learn that traumatized parrots and traumatized veterans can support one another in ways that traditional therapy may not always be able to address. According to the veterans, it has something to do with the nature of the birds themselves—something a bird lover such as myself can well relate to.

Taking hold of Cashew once again, she cupped her against her cheek. ‘‘Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’ Love lowered her hands and watched Cashew roll over once more on her back, a play position known as wrestling that is peculiar to caiques. ‘‘They don’t belong in captivity,’’ Love said, rubbing Cashew’s white breast feathers. ‘‘But they have a real survivor’s mentality. These forgotten great beams of light that have been pushed aside and marginalized. I see the trauma, the mutual trauma that I suffered and that these birds have suffered, and my heart just wants to go out and nurture and feed and take care of them, and doing that helps me deal with my trauma. All without words.’’ . . . 

‘‘You can look in their eyes,’’ Love said, returning with Bobbi, ‘‘any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.’’ . . .

‘‘They look at you, and they don’t judge,’’ Jim Minick, the badly injured helicopter-squad member, told me. ‘‘The parrots look at you, and it’s all face value. It’s pure.

—Charles Seibart, “What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?” on The NY Times Magazine

As we know from research on stereotype threat, our children are intensely aware of stereotypes and judgment. Unfortunately, not every adult who works in a school with children experiencing acute and chronic stress and trauma looks at our children without some form of judgment, however unconscious it may be.

Perhaps if we included birds in our schools, children would gain a similar benefit from the non-judgmental gazes of our feathered brethren that veterans can gain.

♥ In this final story, a former drug dealer from DC’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves.

“Rodney Stotts grew up selling dope and guns. But he’s always loved caring for birds. The drugs landed him in jail. The birds helped set him free.”

—Ari Daniel, “Rodney Learns to Fly” a Podcast on Transistor

A world without birds would be an immeasurably poorer place to live.

The Cognitive Impact of Fresh Air

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A consistent argument I’ve made here is that the physical environment of a school alone can have a significant impact.

So here’s a really interesting study that demonstrated that healthier air quality (in the form of low CO2 levels) can double cognitive scores.

“The results are striking,” lead researcher Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard, told Ars. Researchers knew that air quality would likely affect cognitive function and work performance, but earlier studies included few people and reported subjective data. We didn’t expect to see that high quality air could double cognitive scores, Allen said.

Can you imagine if any school ever posted results where they doubled cognitive scores—or doubled any score, for that matter? To say that the “results are striking” would be an understatement.

In this study, the researchers looked specifically at office workers. But most workers in offices at least work in buildings where there is no mold growing on the ceiling, where there is no water that will run down the chalkboard whenever it rains, and where there is no thick black-green “dust” that will coat your desks on a daily basis.

Whereas we find it somehow OK to send off thousands of our nations children each day to schools where this is the everyday norm.

So if ventilating the air can DOUBLE the cognitive scores of office workers — imagine, just imagine, what it could do for the long-term well-being and academic performance of students. . .

Access to fresh air, greenery, and natural light should be a right, not a luxury, for all of our children.

Crime and Punishment: The Impact of Physical Environment

By John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland (Pilkington tenement) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

No, brother, you are wrong, environment accounts for a great deal in crime; I can assure you of that.

—Porfiry Petrovitch

While rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I couldn’t help but begin tracking a theme that relates to Schools & Ecosystems: the impact of the physical environment on behavior.

The tortured, intellectual protagonist, Raskolnikov, lives in a tiny, cramped garret apartment, spending much of his unemployed time laying on his sofa (which doubles as his bed) in the dark without having eaten, surrounded by peeling, yellowing wallpapered walls, without fresh air.

I sat in my room like a spider. You’ve been in my den, you’ve seen it.… And do you know, Sonia, that low ceilings and tiny rooms cramp the soul and the mind? Ah, how I hated that garret! And yet I wouldn’t go out of it! I wouldn’t on purpose! I didn’t go out for days together, and I wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t even eat, I just lay there doing nothing.

The impact of this small room on his feverish thinking is traced throughout the story by Dostoevsky, with the call for “fresh air” as necessary for human existence echoing from two other characters, Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovitch:

Ah, Rodion Romanovitch,” he added suddenly, “what all men need is fresh air, fresh air… more than anything!”

—Svidrigaïlov

I know that you don’t believe it, but indeed, life will bring you through. You will live it down in time. What you need now is fresh air, fresh air, fresh air!”

—Porfiry Petrovitch

Raskolnikov’s stifling room therefore takes a central place in the novel, the environment that lends shape to a crazed philosophy that leads him to murder.

He laid his head down on his threadbare dirty pillow and pondered, pondered a long time. His heart was beating violently, and his brain was in a turmoil. At last he felt cramped and stifled in the little yellow room that was like a cupboard or a box. His eyes and his mind craved for space.

How many crimes could be traced to the impact of environment? How many states of psychological or physical distress could be traced to the impact of the environment?

And similarly, how much of the outcomes of success can be traced back to where you live?

 

 

How to Fight Poverty: Play the Long Game

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This post is a continuation from my last post on poverty. I made the case that poverty can be viewed as not simply a lack of money or resources, but as a lack of options, and that the development of better options for children and their families is a potential strategy for mediating against the toxic effects of poverty.

The development of more and better options certainly begins in each classroom, as RiShawn Biddle argued well in a recent post on Dropout Nation. Because the more that a child learns and gains knowledge, the more his brain is enriched with interconnections, helping to inoculate him against toxicity in his environment and ward off manipulation and illusions by others, and thus make better decisions.

And when it comes to teaching our children knowledge in a coherent and systematic manner, we’ve been failing pretty miserably on that front, in my opinion. It’s fuzzy math, or it’s Singapore math. It’s phonics or it’s whole language. It’s Common Core standards vs. don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-even-if-it’s-good-for-me. It’s political and ideological squabbling between adults, in other words, rather than a focus on systems design and iterative processes and products with students at the center.

But as I discussed before, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can completely ameliorate the devastation of poverty in the classroom.

To scale and sustain the development of more and better options for a community ultimately requires playing the long game.

Structural changes in a society seem to mostly occur after long periods of chipping away, when suddenly some invisible threshold is reached, and there’s an avalanche, a titanic shift in mindsets, culture, and policy.

The short game is the game most politicians play. It’s the game most business folks play. It’s the game prison inmates play. It’s aggressive, it’s territorial. It’s also the game ideologues play. Hey kids, can anyone think of any ideologues in education?

It’s a necessary game, and it’s perhaps a glamorous one, but it’s not the only game in town, and it’s not the most important one.

Playing the long game means thinking at a systems level and across sectors. It means being willing to fight political or ideological battles when necessary, but also willing to develop and implement and sustain pragmatic policies and initiatives. It means being willing to work quietly in the shadows, because the long-term effectiveness of processes and policy outcomes are not something easily seen, nor something captivating to a public enraptured by the next new thing.

Playing the long game is akin to cultivating a tree.

A tree takes decades to mature. And like a child, the long-term outcome of a tree is heavily dependent on the initial conditions of it’s sowing. For a tree, the initial conditions are the soil and surrounding ecosystem. The wind, the light, the geographical placement. For a child, the initial conditions refers to his or her given family and surrounding environment.

For a tree to grow, it requires healthy, rich, nutritious soil, full with microbial life and enough water to get it started. It then benefits from layerings of mulch as it begins to develop.

A tree is an investment in a healthier future. A tree provides us shade, it cleans our air, provides a haven for birds, creates a buffer against noise and the wind, and even its simple presence, green, vibrant, and calm, can reduce violence and help to shore us up against the vicissitudes of life.

How can you tell the difference between a poor neighborhood and a wealthier neighborhood from outer space? It’s easy—you look for trees.

Something that simple, yet that powerful. But trees don’t magically appear and come to fruition. And while we can accelerate and aid the growing of a tree in unnatural conditions, we don’t yet have instant test tube trees we can transplant anywhere. Planting and growing trees takes a community effort. The MillionTrees NYC effort—one of many such efforts in an urban setting—for example, requires the sustained collaboration of government, private and public funds and outreach, and volunteers.

To nurture our children requires a similar sort of effort. It takes a willingness to work with people from different walks and roles, to build an interdependent network of care, to see beyond one’s own front yard. It takes a focus on what will matter in the future, not just right now right now right now.

And it takes a willingness to acknowledge and invest in enriching the initial conditions and circumstances in which a child is born. That’s pre-K, child care, pre-natal services, education and outreach by health providers. A willingness to acknowledge the toxic impact that infrastructural decay and lack of access to parks, diverse food sources, strong local schools within walking distance, and libraries can have on a community.

Providing options in the form of school choice is great—but it’s not much of a choice when it takes a child 2 hours to get there.

And it’s not the much of a choice when there’s a failing economy and few job opportunities in your community upon your graduation.

Let’s play the long game and invest in providing our children with opportunities and options within the communities they are raised within.