The world is bleak and how to make it better

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Classroom context

There are so many lenses that we can apply to teaching. Depending on the current pedagogy, the current inquiry or even the current ‘box check’ strategy that is currently in an auditing process, the lenses are multiple and are changed regularly. Recent research suggests that we need to actively teach wellbeing in the classroom, so how can we do an optimism audit? Could wellbeing be an active learning lens?

With an ‘optimism or nothing’ lens to apply to my teaching context, I took a look at my classroom context and found that there was a lot of bleakness that was settling into all corners of the room. Current themes being investigated by my students climate change, white authority, prejudice, sexual abuse, dysfunctional relationships and poverty. This bleak list was only scratching the surface too…. as a ‘surface bleakness audit’ I found this quite confronting.

The most confronting moment came when I realised that studying bleak themes has become habitual. We teach the themes without thinking of the impact on students. The themes in texts that I had chosen were about characters doing bad things, characters being victimised due to race and sex and characters who are struggling. Their endings are not necessarily happy. Though we learn about what not to do in literature, where is the hope? Though we see a ‘warts and all’ verisimilitude in text themes, is this not just blindly accepting a bleak status quo?

How to find uplifting texts?

NZQA has challenged the bleakness of text choices in the English classroom and asked teachers to be wary of the text selection. But when exemplars and readily-accessible teaching resources are predominantly already bleak, where is the list of hopeful texts that can still provide sufficient ‘grit’ for students to write perceptive answers.

I have to be guarded when I recommend that year 11 students need to be reading ‘gritty’ things. They need to be reading young adult fiction in order to meet level 6 of the curriculum, but do they need to be confronted suddenly with adult and bleak themes?

The National Moderator’s Report states the following: “In terms of student wellbeing, it is timely to consider the importance of positive contexts and guidance regarding potentially ‘dark themes’ or inappropriate material. While the importance of engaging with a wide range of texts and ideas is not disputed, the mental and physical wellbeing of students in their learning and assessment should be a significant consideration in programmes.” We want students to have a mature and perceptive response that is a reaction to issues in the text, but we also do not want to force them into naming uncomfortable emotions. How do we do this?

Colour impact

My response to this mini-inquiry was to wear yellow. With a slight nod to the psychology of colour theory, my yellow shirt was a reminder to me to put an optimist’s lens onto all of the themes and interactions with my students. According to Very Well Mind, yellow is associated with optimism, energy and warmth. Yellow, in an art context can give designs energy and a clever focal point. Can you tell I’m an Artist too?

Then with a yellow mindset, I set about revisiting themes from class with an optimistic lens. What can we do to make a difference? How can we change our thinking?

Here are some examples of the shifts.

‘Poverty is too big to fix’ – Poverty is an issue worth investing in

‘White privilege is bad’ – Talking about privilege is a big step towards shifting views on inequality

‘Racism is everywhere’ – Education about inequality is the shift we need

I added hope to each negative statement and put the students into a powerful position. The power is in the way they think about things. I also modelled how I found the bleak messages hard-hitting and that it was important for me, as a fellow human, to see the hope in the texts. We had a profound discussion about how bad things can be viewed from ‘good angles’. It ended up being a discussion about emotional wellbeing, self-censorship, making boundaries, being a critically engaged citizen and the importance of resilience. It was unexpectedly profound.

Growing a Mini-Culture

Business workplaces are filled with teams working towards a common goal. I used to be on a ‘People and Culture’ Team within a corporate context and we were always looking for ways to boost company culture. Where is the ‘people and culture’ team fot the classroom when we need them? And what if we began to view our classroom teams as mini work forces? Students have the power to make real actions happen. They have a powerful voice to challenge the status quo. They can be the light that pokes holes into the dark.

“A company with a positive culture will attract the type of talent that is willing to make their next workplace a home.” (forbes.com) For us to create true lifelong learners who learn anywhere and everywhere, challenging the culture of the classroom is an important step. What kinds of impact projects can be born out of a different approach?

Fostering a culture of optimism.

According to happify.com there are 10 reasons why we should try to be optimists. The last one, optimists are better athletes, could be easily shifted to apply to teaching and learning. Optimists are better learners. Optimists are better teachers. Optimists can make the world better.

How can we be active in making the world a better place? One day at a time? One moment at a time? The answer is easier than just looking for new texts to teach.

10 other optimist’s teaching strategies to breed a culture of positivity

  1. Award badges for critical thinking
  2. Send praise for optimistic statements
  3. Actively look for moments of ‘turning thoughts around’
  4. Celebrate class achievements as a class
  5. Reward ‘most improved mindset’
  6. Think aloud to model growth mindset
  7. Use growth mindset readings for PD
  8. Display quote of the day
  9. Expect great things
  10. Write new endings to bleak texts

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