There was once a very wise man that was much sought after for his advice. The man chose to live on a mountain top, surrounded on all sides by a deep cavern. The only way you could get to him for advice was to jump across the chasm.
Some people would look at the distance between the wise man and themselves, and simply walk away- the gap was too wide. Others would ask the wise man for help, and, one piece of wood at a time, he would toss a piece of wood across the chasm for the seekers of wisdom to build a bridge across to the wise man. They would build a step, measure the gap, and decide to attempt a jump or ask for more help. Still others trusted the wise man instantly and made the leap across the chasm.
Of those who chose to build the bridge, some would build the bridge out a few feet, others about halfway across. Still others would go all the way except for the last few steps- the wise man would never let them build the bridge all the way. When asked why, he responded, "If you believe me to be so wise, why do you not trust me enough to take a step out of your comfort, and take a risk to believe? I have given you aid, and guided your steps this far, there comes a point where it is up to you whether or not you truly trust me."
I have told a version of this parable for years. As a minister, it was that we all must eventually take a leap of faith to believe, we can only build a bridge so far to understanding before it is no longer faith. As an educator, we are in the business of building trust. We must give our students examples of reasons to trust us- build a bridge. Some students will walk in the door and jump to trust- others will need to spend time learning that we can be trusted. Most will need some proof- a piece wood tossed to them here and there that says we have their best interest at heart. A few will receive our examples of trust all year, stand but a step from the edge and never be willing to take that leap. But for it to truly be trust, we must lead our students to the point where they do step out, and take a risk, or they will never learn how to learn on their own.
Trusting us is just the first step of the journey. Our "wise advice" is that in order to grow, we must take risks. In order to learn, we must step out of our comfort, and push ourselves beyond what we feel is safe.
That is learning.
I strive to change that mindset in my classes, and I want to offer it here, too.
So when tragedy comes, do not spread that fire. We all know what to do if we catch on fire, right?
Stop. Drop. And roll.
We are taught this from an early age, because to survive the dangerous situation of being on fire, we need to respond quickly, in the moment. Or we die. Our instinctual response to being on fire- I assume- is not to respond with the controlled, learned response above. It is most likely to panic, to flail about wildly, creating movements that actually fan the flame, rather than smother them. Not only that, but we can spread the fire in our panicked response. No, we know we need to STOP flailing about and collect our thoughts, DROP to prevent spreading the consuming fire to other objects or people, and ROLL to smother the dangerous flames and save ourselves and others.
But what if the flames are metaphorical- what if the flames are the flames of incendiary language, of tragic events, of desiring to be the most shocking thing around?
I teach debate. We LIVE in the flames of controversial subjects. I spend a great deal of time trying to educate my students on how to argue properly. But especially in the last few years, and now in light of the events of the last week (two more African Americans killed by police and the Dallas shooting of police officers), I find myself teaching my students the communication equivalent of stop, drop and roll.
I was at Student Council Summer Workshop when the news about Dallas broke. I was on the phone with my wife before our Advisers meeting started when she told me about it. As if on cue, I began hearing the adults in the room begin to share the "facts" they had just gotten off the internet or social media. There were a lot of "facts," many conflicting. But we all wanted to share what we knew, because our culture values being the first to "break the story." But in our rush, are we not often spreading the flames?
When a tragic event happens, especially one like the incidents of the past week, I advise my students to stop. To not begin spreading the news they just heard immediately, because the early reports are often not accurate. The facts just are not in. More than that, once we think we have facts, we begin to speculate. And speculation with inaccurate facts leads to bad judgment. Bad judgment shared leads to a wildfire of anger and hatred and fear based on false facts.
Our society reacts to what happens because we do not have any downtime. We see something, we react. Sadly there are people who exist to stir that pot, they say incendiary things- flail those flame filled arms- and eagerly watch as they catch others in their fires of discord.
We all decry those who are judgmental, yet we rush to judgment every time we see something new.
Judgment is not bad, if it is disciplined and based in mature thought and purposeful, positive action. But we don't do that in America today. We want to be first.
I strive to change that mindset in my classes, and I want to offer it here, too.
So when tragedy comes, do not spread that fire. Follow these steps:
Stop: Read that article thoroughly, not just the headline. Then read another, and another, preferably from different sources. Analyze what is being said, not with your own preconceived notions and prejudices, but for what it actually says. Do not share ANY information that is not verified by multiple sources. And do not rush to believe everything you hear.
Drop: Stop caring about being the first to report. First reports are often in error, or incomplete. The initial reports out of Dallas were all over the map- how many shot, how many shooters, etc. Do not spread speculation or assumption. And caution- kindly- those who do. Contain the conversations that are stemming from fear, anger or other reactionary emotions.
Roll: We all need to have our emotions and responses, but it is dangerous to let those emotions run away with us- or engulf us- in these kinds of moments. We often react in ways we regret, or do damage to relationships we cannot undo. We can speak with emotion, but we must realize that in these volatile moments, we all fall into our survival, brain stem, instinctual selves. Try to put those fires out, those fires that rage inside us when we demand that WE be heard, who cares what anyone else thinks. When we communicate selfishly like that, we do nothing to stem the tide of anger and judgment and fear covering our nation and our world.
I am not telling you not to respond to tragedies- but I am telling you to use wisdom when you do. Your well meaning post or comment in support can be easily misconstrued. I wish we would all vacate social media for a few hours when tragedies strike- we need time to process privately before we respond publicly- its a discipline like President Coolidge said up there.
As I close, I want to also tell you what I tell my students, "It is not my job to tell you WHAT to think, it is my job to help you find the tools and skills to learn HOW to think."
A few weeks ago, I was at a conference, and was sort of tangentially a part of a conversation about how to make classrooms more...conducive to studying. At the center of this conversation was George Couros, and all around him were administrators from my campus and a couple other CSISD folks. I happened upon them just looking for a group to go to lunch with.
Couros commented that when students want to study, they do not go to a classroom, they go to a coffeehouse. He suggested that there might be something there. I immediately looked at my Principal, Tiffany Parkerson, and she looked at me: I am moving to a new room this fall, and this was a perfect opportunity for me to experiment.
For the last few weeks, I have been brainstorming. I do not just want my room to look like a coffeehouse, I want it to feel, and smell, and yes, work like one. I want to have objects that say "Mmmm, coffee," but still inspire my students to think, "Mmmm, Ivan Pavlov was all about Classical Conditioning." But I do not have a lot of money. Or time.
I do have a lot of scrap wood and cardboard, and a request for no desks in the classroom- only tables and chairs. I am kinda handy. So, I decided to set a budget, clear out the garage, and start doing some research time at local coffee houses. The idea I began with today is actually two things: A free-standing poster hanger to display class "Flavor of the Months"- key topics in my class that will pop up periodically; and a supply rack that will hold scratch paper, markers, colored pencils, etc. I had the stuff to make all this, mostly, already at home, including some leftover spray paint. Just not quite enough.
So, yeah, it is a work in progress. At the end of this endeavor, my goal is to try something new, and hopefully engage students in a meaningful way. Looking forward to some creative moments, and I plan to share progress and stories here from time to time.
And keep a running tally of my costs, because, you know, its a challenge.
Cost so far: $0 and about 2 hours.
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.