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Thinking Like a Mountain

Several years ago, I used Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” to broaden my students’ perspective-taking skills in matters relating to the natural environment. In this essay, Leopold explains how he and others with him shot and killed a wolf on a mountain just for the excitement of doing so. As he watched the wolf die, Leopold suddenly realized that “there was something in those [the wolf’s] eyes known only to the wolf and the mountain.” Leopold explains how, without wolves, deer proliferate and eat the vegetation that grows on the side of the mountain. Once this vegetation is gone, other plants and animals disappear as well. Without the vegetation to provide stability on the slopes, even the mountain itself becomes at risk for destructive landslides. The entire ecosystem of a mountain changes when wolves are no longer present. The mountain, Leopold suggests, lives in mortal fear of deer and depends on wolves to keep the population of deer in check. 

I paired the discussion of this essay with a “Council of All Beings” group activity. This exercise calls for participants to “step aside from their human identity” and take the perspective of another life-form such as a wolf. (Students could also take on the perspective of a mountain, river, forest and so on.) This exercise was originally created by John Seed and Joanna Macy to help people feel deep empathy for the myriad species and landscapes of the earth.

The response from the students was exactly what I was hoping for: enthusiasm and positive comments about new insights they’d gained. Several students commented on how this activity reminded them to consider more than themselves when deciding on a course of action. While the focus of both Leopold’s essay and the Council of All Beings exercise was on considering how our actions impact the natural world, some students commented on how we should also think about other people before we act.

I was teaching college students at the time but have since worked with elementary teachers who used this same idea with their students, some as young as third grade. The teachers’ responses were overwhelmingly positive. Several teachers noted how all the students loved this activity—even the hard-to-motivate students. In working with the teachers, I suggested these six steps:

  1. Introduce Leopold’s story in a way that’s appropriate to the level of your students. Invite students to comment on why “Thinking Like a Mountain” is a good title for this essay.
  2. Introduce the Council of All Beings activity by briefly discussing the meaning and purpose of a council. If applicable, you might relate this to a student council where students can express their concerns about what happens at their school. Explain that the purpose of a Council of All Beings is to give other creatures a chance to express their concerns about what is happening to them because of human activity. Tell the students that they will each take on the role of an animal and speak for that animal at the council. 
  3. Have each student choose an animal and research how human activity might be impacting that animal. Students should also make a mask of their animal and write a script for what it will say at the council meeting.
  4. On the day of the council, have students sit in a circle and then, one by one, speak for their animals.  
  5. After all the “animals” have spoken, allow some time for a sharing of feelings and thoughts. Encourage group problem solving around the concerns expressed by the animals. Include a discussion about what we could do as humans to help the animals. If possible, identify several specific steps that could be taken at school and at home.

After the council, the students’ masks could be displayed under a “Thinking Like a Mountain” heading.  Some schools, after initial Council of All Beings exercises, have prepared theatrical productions of the council to share with others. One teacher had her students mentor their peers in another class through the steps of preparing for a Council of all Beings.

I found that the Council of All Beings can be used as an effective cross-disciplinary exercise at any level of education. This exercise not only fosters imaginative and critical thinking but also addresses a number of language arts, science and social studies goals. Most important, however, is the way this exercise helps students think outside of themselves and develop a sense of compassion and caring for all living things.

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

Intervene With Mean - Part Three

This post is part three of a three-part blog series that explores how to help students transform bullying behavior. The series mirrors the three levels of intervention outlined in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Level One applies to the 80 percent of students who are responsive when explicitly taught about acceptable behavior. Level Two addresses the 15 percent of students who need social skills training and tools to help them stop bullying. Level Three (the focus of this blog) addresses interventions for the 5 percent of students with persistent bullying problems who need intensive supports.

I hope that someday we will learn the terrible cost we all pay when we ignore or mismanage those people in society who most need our help.”

--The Honourable Judge Sandra Ann Hamilton, Provincial Court of Alberta, Calgary, Canada

Damon Smith was suspended more than 15 times for bullying. “You start thinking it’s cool,” he said. “You think you’re going to come back to school and catch up, but unless you’re a genius, you won’t. That made me want to mess up even more.”

This blog offers suggestions for how to help the 5 percent (PBIS Level Three) of youth who, like Damon, have serious, recurrent problems with bullying. Nearly 60 percent of boys classified as bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Forty percent of them had three or more convictions by age 24. Clearly, these students need behavioral support—and these supports can positively affect both victims and perpetrators. By helping aggressive individuals change their patterns, we not only improve their lives—we prevent harm to others.

Transformation—Not for the Faint of Heart

Once a serious pattern of bullying has begun, the process of transformation is slow and requires a long-term commitment. Involve the family, school counselors and everyone who works with the student. Take time to review all documentation of the student’s bullying incidents, and get to know the student both by talking with and observing him. Are there patterns to the behavior? What antecedents and triggers do the student or staff notice before an incident occurs?

There is no one strategy that works for all students. Each strategy requires consistency and patience to find positive qualities in the student and to give the student a voice, helping her learn accountability without shaming her. But all effective strategies require planning and the belief that young people can change their behavior.

Effective Models for Change

Below are two different models designed to provide intensive and ongoing support for chronically aggressive students. Unlike many of the suggestions offered in Parts I and II, implementing these strategies requires training or even bringing in specialized staff members. It also requires significant time and coordination, often occurring in combination with weekly or biweekly meetings with a counselor and small-group, skill-building sessions coordinated with teachers.

1. Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA) is a tool often used to gather relevant data about students who have chronic behavioral problems. The process includes observations, interviews and referral to school records to gather detailed data regarding notable triggers for student behavior, antecedents, reaction patterns and consequences for the behavior. The FBA also incorporates data on the student’s strengths, skills and past behaviors, and the effectiveness of previous interventions. This analysis is often done in collaboration with counselors, behaviorists and special education staff. The information is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan that is continually monitored and updated. This intensive model not only helps students stop unwanted behaviors but offers positive replacement behaviors.

The Functional Behavior Assessment Checklist is a template for organizing this complex data. It includes the specific information that needs to be gathered and an explanation of how to complete the plan. Because this process is complex, specialized training is necessary to implement it.

If your school doesn’t currently offer FBA as a means to intervene with youth who bully repeatedly, you can introduce the tool to your administration by sharing the complete process overview, as described by PBIS. The overview includes information about when and how to use an FBA.

2. Ross Greene’s book, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, outlines a process of Collaborative Problem Solving, a model written for schools to use with the most difficult pupils. Collaborative Problem Solving for schools adapts a model that has been effectively used in inpatient psychiatric units, residence facilities and juvenile detention centers. Greene’s approach involves very intensive work by a trained teacher or counselor working with the student over time to identify what he calls “lagging skills” and finding solutions and alternate ways of behaving. Lagging skills refer to behavioral weakness in very specific situations, such as difficulty handling unpredictable events and adopting inflexible or distorted interpretations of an incident (“everyone is out to get me,” “you always blame me”). In this model, the student is taught to identify which of the lagging skills is most significant and provided intensive support to help him change it. Once success is achieved with one skill, the support team tackles another, relying on the belief that success breeds more success. Greene encourages educators to remember, “Kids do well if they can.” 

Working with some of our most challenging students is likely to cause intense frustration, even for highly trained staff members. But the most powerful thing we can do is to help those who have the hardest time, and bringing evidence-based models like Functional Behavioral Analysis and Collaborative Problem Solving to your school is an important first step. Offering these services lets students know we have not given up on them. Building meaningful relationships with these students—not only when an incident occurs, but before, after and in between incidents—helps us find their positive qualities. The message these interventions send is, “I believe in you and I know you can do better, and I will be there to stand with you as you work through this.”

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty—first observed in 1993. The United Nations has designated this year’s theme: Leave no one behind: think, decide and act together against extreme poverty.

Teachers regularly plan and deliver instruction to leave no one behind while knowing that wealth and poverty impact our families, our communities and our schools. We asked the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board (TTAB) to share with us how they teach their students about wealth and poverty. We want to share what they said and invite you to add tools and strategies from your classroom.

“What resources and strategies do you currently use to teach about wealth and poverty?”

Resources

Strategies

  • Encourage young children to share solutions to the unfairness they observe.
  • Compare historical fiction excerpts about poverty to current fiction excerpts and ask students: What’s the same? What’s different?
  • List resources and organizations that support awareness around (in)equity and invite guest speakers to the classroom.
  • Encourage colleagues to explicitly discuss implicit bias related to wealth and poverty, specifically the difference between looking at those in poverty with empathy or scorn. 

“How do you include your community and families when teaching about wealth and poverty?” 

  • Use picture books that depict how communities have resisted and grown in poverty.
  • Invite speakers to discuss human rights violations with students.
  • Look for opportunities to engage in joint projects instead of community service with students.
  • Take students on a local labor history walking tour with labor organizers.
  • Ask families for input; build home-to-school connections.
  • Generate and maintain a dialogue between the student and his family around topics related to wealth and poverty.
  • Leverage community resources.
  • Offer service-learning that forges partnerships between students and members of the community.
  • Identify gaps in resources locally—and then examine economic systems of injustice more broadly.

As we continue to produce materials that help you reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations and provide equitable school experiences for our country’s children, the topic of wealth and poverty remains one we must address. 

We want to hear from you!

How do you leave no one behind? Let’s think, decide and act against poverty together.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

A Plan for After Oct. 28

In two weeks’ time, Mix It Up at Lunch Day will finally be here, and your hard work will be rewarded!  

Right now, take some time and think about the days after your Mix It Up at Lunch Day. You and your core group of organizers put a lot of effort into this. Make sure you get the most value from your event all year long.

Over the 13 years we’ve been mixing it up, our research has shown that scheduling a couple of follow-up events promotes the Mix It Up “spirit” and allows Mix to have a deeper impact on your school.  
 
There’s no need to do too much detailed planning right now. You have plenty on your plate for the next two weeks. Just remember to talk with your key organizers and bring up some of these ideas later in the year:

  • A second lunch event in the winter or spring
  • A community-improvement project in the neighborhood with “mixed up” work teams 
  • A formal study of the social boundaries and divisions at your school
  • A mural capturing the spirit of Mix It Up at Lunch Day
  • A community showing of the Teaching Tolerance film Bullied

Taking a little time to discuss these ideas during a quick post-Mix meeting can help you get the most out of your event and lay the groundwork for future successful events.

Catch up on more Mix 2014 info here, and kudos on your hard work!

Help Students Respond With Empathy and Respect

This year, Teaching Tolerance teamed up with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to bring educators a webinar series called Religious Diversity in the Classroom.

The second webinar in the series, Fostering a Culture of Respect, offered ways for educators to help students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing religious and nonreligious belief systems. The webinar and after-session pack are available online if you have not had a chance to look at these resources yet.

Participants asked some great questions during and after Fostering a Culture of Respect, and we’d like to respond to a few we think are relevant to many educators. In this blog, we’ll address this question: How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?

Hearing these prompts from you can help students engage more empathetically and respectfully during conversations about religious and nonreligious beliefs.

1. “Find out more.” Cultivate an inquisitive attitude in students by encouraging them to seek out information from a variety of voices within a given belief system. Ask students to formulate and pose open-ended questions. Here are some examples of questions that can guide research and in-class discussions:

  • What is the origin of the religious or nonreligious belief system?
  • In what parts of the world is the belief system practiced?
  • What are some texts that describe or include the belief system?
  • What are the foundations of the belief system?
  • How is the belief system perceived around the world?
  • Do you know anyone who practices this belief system? What do they say about what they believe?

2. “Be aware of the pitfalls of easy comparisons.” When dealing with academic content related to religion, students will encounter ideas about deities, time, the purpose of life, who we are as individuals and who we are as members of our communities, among others. These ideas may be hard to grasp or may feel foreign to students because they have developed out of many traditions, which are sometimes very different from students’ individual traditions.

Students may attempt to contextualize these new ideas by comparing them to concepts from their own traditions or cultural practices. Although this is a helpful practice in gaining a better understanding of ourselves through the exploration of the world around us, it is important they understand and discuss religious and nonreligious views without distorting or oversimplifying them. Comparisons not given thoughtful inquiry can lead to stereotypes and stereotyping. That means not making hasty comparisons between belief systems or using comparisons as the go-to way to discuss another belief system.

 3. “Avoid generalized or simplified statements.” These types of statements imply easy answers such as “Islam is …” or “Hinduism means … ” or “Atheists think … ” Instead, when discussing religious and nonreligious beliefs with students, remind them that religions are internally diverse, dynamic and embedded in culture. Use sources that reflect and provide examples of these qualities. 

Students can practice being more nuanced in their thinking by articulating the subtleties they see. For example, they might say, “This text presents Islam as …” or “The author here indicates that … ” Many religious traditions use storytelling to illustrate central concepts, such as parables in Christianity or Native American oral histories. These can also be great sources for literacy instruction on imagery, symbolism and allusion—and help students to point to nuances in meaning, interpretation and practice.

4. “See religious and nonreligious traditions as diverse and dynamic.” If students are critical of all or part of a particular belief system because it contradicts their values, ask them to find out more about how different adherents of that belief system criticize or propose changing the religion or practices in question. Emphasize, too, that religious and nonreligious belief systems are internally diverse. In Hinduism, for example, some have a personal god and others deny the presence of a deity. Find diverse voices from within the belief system being explored.

5. “Be honest about the limits of our understanding.” Acknowledge and help students to accept that there are limits to our understanding about belief systems. While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives. It’s also important not to turn individual students into spokespersons of particular religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Stay tuned for additional follow-up blogs that address participants’ questions. The next one will answer this question: How can I respectfully ask questions about identities different from my own?

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance. 

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