Friday, 6 October 2017

Perhaps we are trees?

I have been reading a book about trees off and on for a while now.  I like it because I can pick it up anytime and leave it for months before finding it again. Today I found it while my youngest was snuggling in for a nap.  

So, the underlying “science” is that trees spend their time growing and producing nutrients and sharing what they create with their fellow trees, particularly their “family” members and other species that are “friendly”.  In the late summer, sometimes even end of July, trees begin to cut back their production for themselves and their “family” and “friend” trees.  They have worked hard to provide for themselves and others and their tree bodies are full and heavy so they start to conserve their energy. They prepare for a survival through an environment that will be cold and dark for a while, followed by a new season of growth.

Did you know that a deciduous tree’s version of “dullness” is actually autumn?  The removal of chlorophyll from their leaves makes them “dull” by tree standards and the remaining colours, which were always present, are now the ones we see.  Their green life is gone.  These colours of early autumn are still bright to our eyes and the eyes of insects who are looking for bark to burrow in for the winter.  The more intense tree dullness (brighter Autumn colours) indicate health and strength and signal to bugs to find a less healthy tree to winter in so that they will not be subjected to the tree’s defenses. 

A deciduous tree is relatively new (and innovative) in comparison to coniferous trees.  They go dormant and suspend their growth and require cold to germinate and their lifespan decreases if they are not able to move through their natural dormant periods.  They need to have a period of time when the water is drained from their branches and trunks (water in branches and trunks in freezing weather would kill the tree).  Dormancy allows for a plant’s survival in its environment.

The strongest contrast between dormancy and life are trees in the cherry family.  Trees in the cherry family begin to “dull” in July, germinate in the cold, and they are among the first tree to blossom in the spring.  My favourite is the Service Berry with it's orange-red autumn leaves - so beautiful.  The spring blossoming is also breathtakingly beautiful. In Japanese culture, the cherry tree and blossom, (sakura), has been a symbol that life is both spectacularly beautiful and awesomely short. The cherry tree kind of represents the great contrast between death and renewal, fragility and beauty, hope and pain.

To my friends who are feeling tired and quiet, dull and heavy, drained... perhaps we are just trees responding to our environment, preparing ourselves for the future?  Maybe instead of pushing against these feelings, it would be helpful to simply sit with some “friendly” trees who are starting to feel dormant themselves?  Perhaps we will feel comforted by our connection and shared experience?😉

My blog posts usually emerge in a burst and I don't always remember what I was reading that inspired me. I just know that I'm always reading something, even if it is short or frivolous. Today's blog I actually kept track of some of my reading inspiration.  Not all of it but some.  Here they are.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Children's Market and My Learning

This week my kids are participating in a children’s market and they are so excited.  This children’s market idea was initiated by Meaghan Jackson through the Burlington-Hamilton Unschoolers and has grown to include the entire local homeschooling community.  Children have created market booths selling services, products, crafts, and items with the intent of selling them to other children and attendees.  In unschooling style, parents are encouraged to step back so that their kids can take the initiative to plan, create, calculate, and negotiate so this experience can feel real and rewarding.
My daughter loves make-up, hair, colour, and design so when I asked her what kind of shop she wanted to have at the children’s market she didn’t hesistate – a beauty salon.  She decided she would paint nails, do make-up, and she says that she is also going to do hairstyles but she hasn’t really thought that one through yet so I am not sure if that aspect will materialize. 
This week she asked me to take her to the store so that she could buy a new nail polish for her salon “A glitter one because girls love glitter!” and today she wants me to take her to the store to buy white roses for her salon. I guess she has a vision of what she wants her salon experience to be like?  She said “Girls love beautiful flowers!”

As she plans aloud, I can’t help but notice that several girl stereotypes are being played out in my daughter’s salon.  So I had to ask “Are you only serving girls at your salon?”  She said yes.  I felt really uncomfortable.  I wanted her to be open to gender fluid kids or boys who wanted their nails done… So I asked what about boys that want to get their nails done?  “They are not allowed.” Oh no…I felt uncomfortable with that. So I asked how those boys would feel if she told them they are not allowed to get their nails done at her salon.  She thought about it and said “Lonely.” 

I let her response sit with me and soon I realized her answer revealed a bit of her.  She has a best friend who is a boy and most of her play experiences have been heavy on the boy influence.  As unschoolers, we have had to work really hard to find her some friends who are girls. What if her choice of market booth is not just an expression of her talents, but also an expression of her needs?  Perhaps a need for friendship and shared values? What if she is creating a market booth that attracts the kind of people she wishes to interact with more often?

I was humbled by that thought.  I realized I was so tempted to pressure her into agreeing to serve all customers equally but if I had done that, I would I have changed the experience for her. I would have made her booth about my needs for equality and acceptance, robbing her of the chance to try to meet her needs. And more importantly, I would have robbed her of the opportunity for her to learn from her market beauty salon experience.

This children’s market was supposed to be a chance for kids to learn but here I am learning the value of stepping back and letting a child lead the process.  I’m not sure how my daughter will respond to a gender fluid kid tomorrow or a boy visiting her salon but I now realize the experience she is creating is for her own learning.  I’m just lucky enough to be along for the ride.  Once again, I am feeling schooled by unschooling.  J

Friday, 15 September 2017

Triggered Empathetic Responses

Last night was a beautiful summer evening, so my family and I stayed out enjoying it well after dark.  I had the baby and she wanted to look at the blinking lights in the shop windows.  Those bright blinking lights are so appealing to babies.  There were some loud people around, one man was especially loud but she ignored it all.  I took her lead and let her little pointed finger determine where we would go next and what we would talk about.  At one point, she looked up at the night sky and as she looked up, I supported her soft little head so that she could look ALLLL the way up for as long as she wanted.  At one point she realized I was supporting her head and I said “I’ve got you!” and gave her a gentle kiss.  The whole feeling must have felt quite lovely because after the first gentle kiss, she touched my hand and leaned in for another gentle kiss.  We did as many gentle kisses as she wanted and when she was done being kissed she just laid there, with my hand supporting her head, looking at the night sky.  In that moment, instead of following her gaze again, I looked up and realized that the tough, scruffy looking guy having a smoke and a beer had been watching us the whole time.  He smiled at me and when our eyes connected I saw that by witnessing this interaction between my daughter and I, he had softened.  He seemed to be more gentle also. We didn't say anything, we just connected with our eyes and enjoyed the shared peaceful moment. I thought perhaps that by witnessing our tenderness, we had triggered his empathetic response and he was now experiencing this soft, lovely evening, just as we were.  He was no longer fronting or swaggering, he was there with us, peaceful and gentle.

The empathetic response is really so amazing.  It has an actual name " Emotional Contagion" but I'm not sure how many people recongnize that name.  This response happens regularly but we’re often unconscious to it.

I unschool my kids right now but this was the first full back to school week for local kids and I was noticing the range of responses.  For some kids, the return to school this week was still exciting.  For others it was already becoming a familiar routine.  And for some, they had strong reactions, especially on Sunday night and Monday morning.  Having supply taught and worked in Ontario public schools as a teacher, I know that school and classroom environments vary widely.  Some are lovely and inclusive and non-judging while others have power dynamics and subtle undertones. Think for a moment how your child’s learning environment triggers their emotional contagion.  (If your child is sensitive, you’ll probably be more aware of their empathetic response.)  Loving and kind gestures within your child’s earshot and eyesight will likely trigger them to also feel loved and cared for.  They’ll be willing to take risks and approach life with a sense of curiosity.  If your child is in an environment where they witness harshness and power-over dynamics, even if it is not done *to them*, they may respond as though it was. A power-over environment can encourage a child to experiment with their own power-over behavior (aka bully culture).  Or they may react with tears Sunday night or Monday morning or “clingy” or eager to please behavior when you are together.  They may appear agitated and aggressive as their fight response runs its course through their body.  They may not even be able to articulate it because as adults, we are often unconscious of it ourselves.  In fact, as children, we were often taught to dismiss our own unidentified, uneasy feelings by our well-meaning care-givers, though the most sensitive of us find that an impossible task.  But as parents caring for our children in conscious ways, we can choose something different.

If your child is loving school, I am celebrating their joy with you.  There is nothing better than seeing your child feeling confident and content. If your child is signaling distress, I encourage you to be their support and advocate.  Alternatives exist.  Your responses have a big influence on how they value themselves and interpret the world.  Their empathetic response is triggered all the time and helping them to develop an awareness of it will honor their experience and give them a stronger voice and advocate.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

What is it that kids like about Learning in the Woods?

For the past two weeks, I have been spending more time at Learning in the Woods and I have had a unique opportunity to observe more than engage with the children.  I found myself thinking, what is it that kids like about Learning in the Woods.  Here is what I discovered.

“No Have-To’s” or “Should’s”:  The kids are happy to be with us because they know they are not going to be pushed or cajoled into doing anything.  Our daily schedule is a welcome circle, FREE CHOICE, and a good bye circle.  Truly, the most valuable thing we have to offer kids is the freedom and space to pursue their interests, explore their feelings, engage with others, and just be.  This is an environment that cultivates mindfulness.  That is not to say that our time together is full of beautiful, calm moments…just the opposite actually.  It is the messiness and swirling chaos that produces moments of awareness.  That is learning.  Those moments of awareness help to fuel the next discovery and interaction.  

Supportive Caregivers: We have amazing facilitators.  We hire authentic people who value kids and understand about choice and freedom and self-awareness and respect.  The learning that happens in a schedule-free environment is not always easy to navigate, so believe me when I say, our facilitators are so very busy supporting kids the whole time. Having no schedule means that there are more occasions for children to directly or indirectly request support and our facilitators are there through every painful and joyful emotion.  Tanya once said about Learning in the Woods participant A, “I love her.  And I mean that.  I love her because I have sat with her through every emotion, the highest highs and the lowest lows and when you sit with someone through every emotion possible like that, you cannot help but love them at the end of it.”  Drop the mic.

A Safe Place for Full Expression of Who They Are: Kids like this camp because they can show up and express the fullest version of themselves.  There is no need to edit their likes or dislikes or interests.  We love nature AND Moana, Paw Patrol, Popular MMO’s and dancing to Bruno Mars.  We do our best to #nurturethewholechild and not just the parts that make for pleasing others and nice Instagram photos. 

A Safe Place for Full Expression of What They Feel:  Kids can be sad, angry, scared, or frustrated and no one will rush them through those feelings.  Have you ever been rushed through a feeling by a well-intentioned loved one?  It sucks.  It adds a layer of discomfort to a situation that already feels not so good, which is why you are expressing your discomfort out loud to begin with!  At Learning in the Woods, tears can roll, as there is no shame in crying.  Angry voices can shout or growl.  They can be noisy and rambunctious in their joy.  We are human and this is a place where we welcome a full expression of humanity.

Ultimately, we see kids as full humans.  Their requests and interests and worries and questions are treated with respect that the children CAN FEEL.  They know they are being listened to with respect and that sense of respect is what cultivates a bond and connection that allows the kids to feel safe. Kids feel confident to take risks and grow and learn in ways that ARE IMPORTANT TO THEM.  As an adult, don't you wish for these things too?

Hint Hint, the next blog is about Self-Connection in the Woods, our adult version of Learning in the Woods.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Camp beginnings

The first day of camp can be intense for parents, kids, and facilitators. On the first day of camp, more than any other day, facilitators have to be prepared to just go with the flow and slow the pace so they can effectively create a safe space for kids. Ultimately, we trust the kids will show us what they need to feel comfortable in this new environment, we just need to create a space where can express and we can listen.

Today I arrived at Learning in the Woods before welcome circle.  Kids were playing, things were quiet, and the mood was a bit uncertain as kids tried to figure out how things work in this new space.  Facilitators were extra busy, trying to meet all the needs.  FYI, all the needs on the first morning of camp seem to be expressed intensely and simultaneously from these young people who were trying to figure it all out. Luckily our facilitators are ready for this!

When there was a lull, the facilitators invited everyone to join the welcome circle. Suddenly there was a cry.  C, 4 years old, had tripped and she burst into loud tears. Grace spoke to her quietly and brought her back to base camp.  C got her special toy from her backpack and a friend who had attended Learning in the Woods camp earlier in the summer, offered to sit beside her.  She was crying quietly and little one-lookers listened as Tanya said,  “C got hurt.  She is crying.  She is hugging her turtle toy because it helps her feel better.”  Everyone looked at C.  “Would you like to tell us about how you got hurt C?”  C stood up and walked over to the spot where she had tripped.  The entire group jumped up to follow her. This was an empathetic response as much as it was done out of curiosity.  

They listened quietly, respectfully, as C recounted what happened. Some asked questions or made comments.  Others just listened. I suspect C felt heard by the group as she stopped crying and walked back to our welcome circle looking calm and peaceful.  I suspect the group felt reassured too, as they were calm also. 

And so, the morning continued. We finished circle. We explored the space. Whistles were blown a little too often when there was no emergency. “The Machine” was built with some disagreement and some cooperation.  Snacks were eaten with gusto when kids were hungry.  No one was rushed.  There was time for everything.  All feelings were welcome.    

C’s fall was the first group bonding experience for these campers and it was rooted in gentleness and care. It set the tone for the rest of the morning and probably the rest of the week too.  By caring for one member of the group, everyone else was reassured that they will be cared for also.  There is no rush.  We can all just care for each other and figure things out as we go.  That message is so reassuring, isn't it?  What a beautiful beginning.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The gift of discomfort

Yesterday I felt so insecure.  One of the great gifts of trying to do something outside of the "norm" is that there are so many opportunities for me to be humbled.  Yesterday I had a big humble.  I got to see how I fail and how I struggle. It's a huge gift to see that but it's also uncomfortable and difficult to live with. 

I experienced this humbling message right before I hosted a play date. There were new friends, old friends, and their kids all coming to my house for some fun on the beach.  Yet, minutes before their arrival, all I wanted to do was be still and quiet with my humbling pain. I didn’t tell my friends I was feeling raw and insecure. I wasn't fake with those around me because that might be denying my pain but I wasn't trying to connect deeply either because connecting deeply wasn't possible when I felt that kind of insecurity. So, I just sat with those feelings inside me and allowed gentle friendships to carry me for a bit. It was riding a wave and allowing other people to keep me floating for a while.  Keeping quiet but floating helped me to get me to a space that felt a bit calmer and safer.   

The safety didn’t actually mean processing the insecure feelings! Safety was connecting to a friend who “gets” it like I do.  It was nice to just by listen to her, something I enjoy doing, and feel as though I have something to offer. Safety came while fulfilling a commitment and realizing “I am feeling so sad, I’m just not able to fulfill this commitment the way I had hoped.” Being honest with myself while still honoring my commitment met my need for authenticity. Listening to another beautiful friend express her strength and self-awareness of her challenges made me feel thankful to get to watch her as she blooms. Feeling insecure kept me quiet and what I received in that quiet seemed more beautiful as a result.

Somehow, with those moments of safety, the insecure feelings just lived in me. I didn't try to understand them. I just went about my day and the humbling feeling gave me clarity to see the gifts that discomfort can bring. In that way, the discomfort and insecurity was honored.

I think this is sometimes the way life goes.  Sometimes we feel insecure and we get to choose what we do with that feeling.  Disconnecting from it, though it is painful, dulls me to the beauty of life. Processing it in the moment wasn't actually going to serve me either, it would have felt like I was rushing through the feeling or spinning it in my head.  Sitting with it, even though it was uncomfortable, gave me a new perspective which is maybe the point of that feeling anyway.

As a parent, partner, friend, and contributer to the world, perhaps you’ll be given the same gift I was yesterday; a gift that brings you rawness and clarity to see the beauty in this world with fresh eyes. 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

"This is Where all the Nice Kids Are!"

A friend asked me recently if I had always planned to homeschool.  I explained that no, I hadn’t, but after attending my first local non-secular homeschool picnic (THN for those of you in Hamilton and Burlington Ontario), I knew that we needed to give it a try.

As a teacher, I had an idea of what a multi-age picnic would look like.  However, this picnic was different.  The kids were SO NICE!  This was the kind of community that I wanted for my kids!  After the picnic, I messaged my teacher friends to say “I’ve discovered where all the nice kids are!”

You see, as a teacher, I knew that in a school environment there are some kids that get labelled “nice kids” and as a teacher, you really hope that your own child finds that group when they enter school.  You also hope your receives that label themselves.  That label means your kid is doing alright.  The “nice kids” avoid a lot of the bullying and drama and heartache that seems to find the rest of the student body.  Every teacher enjoys their time with “the nice kids” because they are easy to get along with and having them in your class makes your teaching job easier.

After the picnic, I wondered if I had stumbled upon some magical land. The homeschoolers are really nice kids.  Everyone I met would fall into my “nice kids” label if they were in my classroom. Yet, I couldn't help but notice that the homeschool kids still have meltdowns, they still struggle with things, basically they are still real kids!  The more time we spent hanging out with the homeschoolers, the more I realized how there was something wrong with my “nice kids” label.  This is a teacher’s version of “de-schooling” by the way.

I feel uncomfortable saying this publicly, because so many of my friends and family members are classroom teachers, but all kids are, in fact, “nice kids”, it’s the school environment that creates the label dichotomy.  I’ll say that again for all the parents who have had a kid who struggled – I realize now that ALL KIDS ARE “NICE KIDS”.  I say this in the sense that all kids are the same, they are showing up, every day as a real person, with real legitimate needs.  Unfortunately, the school environment is just not set up to meet their needs.  In fact, it often amplifies their unmet needs and can even create new needs!  And so kids get labelled. (As teachers, we give kids this label as our way of dealing with our own challenges and unmet needs but that’s another blog post.)

So like every other human, kids show up to school with needs.  In a school environment, there is one adult per approximately 20 children who can potentially help to meet those needs.  The environment is set up in such a way that children are not empowered to meet their own needs, at least not regularly or in a timely manner.  So in an environment that seems impossibly unfair in getting those needs met, we add in an element of competition which creates new needs. Kids then naturally discover coping mechanisms to try to get their needs met in other ways or they become detached from their needs altogether.  These options of indirectly meeting needs or denying they exist, make it difficult for the child, teacher, and other children to exist in the same space, let alone learn the curriculum. 

Even if a child arrives at school with their needs regularly met in their home environment, the school environment is competitive, without a lot of support to navigate this competition and some kids who are “nice kids” at home, may develop strategies to cope with the competition and hierarchy at school, pushing them out of the “nice kids” category.  I remember working with a child in JK who was a “nice kid” at home but in her efforts to fit in at school, was saying mean things to another student.  This brought up her social status within her group of school friends such that losing her “nice kid” status was worth it to her.  It was her coping mechanism in this competitive environment.

Personally, I wouldn’t have this insight without having had the experience of homeschooling my kids and hanging out with so many intelligent, dedicated homeschooling parents.  Homeschoolers are learning in a completely different environment, one in which their needs are addressed directly and timely.  The pace of homeschooling is less competitive and slower, so just removing that stress is helpful.  The home environment is usually more empowering for kids to meet their own needs meaning that kids can take breaks, get exercise, spend some time playing and just basically stay in tune with their own needs so they can address them as they arise.  Sometimes needs pop up that an empowered child cannot meet on their own and when that is the case, the adult – child ratio is usually much more favorable than the 1:20 ratio in a school classroom.  Homeschooling has taught me that children, when their needs are addressed, are content.  And content kids learn.

I just want to point out that even if your child is labelled a “nice kid”, check in with them. Make sure they are not suffering behind that label too.  Children who are perfectionists, hide their needs in the name of approval or try, to become detached from their feelings are in just as much pain, yet sometimes get labelled as “the nice kids”. They sometimes like this label as they can hide behind it, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are doing alright as I mentioned above.  

I think I’m really lucky that I have been able to teach in the public system AND homeschool my kids.  I feel really fortunate to have had both experiences and the learning and reflection that comes from it.  My advice for parents, if they realize their child is expressing anything other than contentment with their life, would be to try a different environment. Show your child that getting needs met is important and model strategies about how to do it.   If you can homeschool, do it!  It is the best kept secret in education!  And if you cannot homeschool, keep looking for other alternatives. We all deserve to be in environments where our needs are met. That safe space is where human potential lies; potential for contentment, peace, love, connection, and learning.

Critical Thinking Awareness Challenge:  Type "nice kid" into a Google image search and tell me, what patterns do you see?