Growing Resilience: Stepping Into Your Power

As teachers and parents, we have two aspects of trauma to consider and mitigate – the impact of trauma on our own lives and the impact of trauma on our children and students’ lives. As we explore ourselves and the coping strategies that we have developed over time, it is possible for us to reflect on children’s behaviours as ways that they have grown resilience and survival.

This post is the first of two. It focuses on empowering ourselves to mitigate our own trauma, while the next post focuses on strategies to support our students.

This two post series on growing resilience is a collaborative effort with myself, Nancy Barr of NMBarr Consulting, and Kyla Bouvier of Back2Nature Wellness and Events. It is designed to take us on a journey of understanding and empowering ourselves and the children in our care.

Brain Biology

To begin to understand ourselves and the children we care for, it is important to know the foundations of brain function and how our experiences impact brain biology.

You can read more about the different parts of the brain and how they control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.

Three things are required for learning to take place: 

  • Access to specific brain functions, 
  • Ability to integrate these brain functions, and 
  • Ability to maintain integration of these functions under varying degrees of stress.

Dr. Daniel Siegel explains how the parts of the brain work together to create neural integration:

Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of the brain states that the brain is undeveloped at birth, and organizes itself from the bottom up.

The brain organizes itself sequentially, which is a key idea when considering the impact of trauma on the brain and the types of strategies that might mitigate that impact.

It is important to recognize that the Amygdala is very strong BIOLOGICALLY. It controls our fight, flight or freeze impulses. This means that if someone is in a fear response, the biology of their brain will not allow them to function in their prefrontal cortex. Similarly, if someone is in the emotional part of their brain, they are not able to work in their prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex controls thinking, logic and learning and is the weakest part of the brain BIOLOGICALLY. The prefrontal cortex is not able to overpower a person’s emotion or fear.

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself, both in structure and function. Think of your brain like a garden.


Based on our experiences, our brain will re-organize neural systems.

Impact of Trauma

Neuroplasticity tells us that our brains are constantly changing. When negative experiences cause us to get trapped in the gateway part of our brain, our brain biology – both structure and function – are changed. One type of negative experience is trauma. There are many different types of trauma.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).

Intergenerational and Historical Trauma

The Georgetown University Tecnical Assistance Centre for Children’s Mental Health

Brain scans show clearly that there are portions of the brain that do not develop and/or are not active when people are exposed to neglect and abuse.

Continued exposure to trauma creates an environment filled with relentless fear, resulting in the development of a self-defence mechanism in a child’s brain that requires a fight, flight or freeze response. Stress responses are maintained due to:

  • A persistent fear response that ‘wears out’ neural pathways;
  • Hyperarousal that causes children to overreact to nonthreatening triggers;
  • Dissociation from the traumatic event in which the child shuts down emotionally; and
  • Disruptions in emotional attachment, which can be detrimental to learning.

Trauma impacts brain development by keeping a child trapped in the limbic system and governed by flight, fight and freeze. A child will spend most of their time in survival mode, which leaves fewer resources for social/emotional regulation and cognition.

Neuroplasticity: Implications and Hope

Many years ago, it was thought that if a brain was damaged it would stay damaged for a lifetime. The research around neuroplasticity, however, gives us great hope.

Your brain is always learning and changing, but the brain is neutral. It does not know the difference between a good pathway or bad pathway. We have all developed coping strategies that we repeat to help us to survive and be safe. Some of those actions, thoughts and habits might be anxious, obsessive or over-reactive patterns. The hopeful research is that there are strategies that can help our brains let go of those negative patterns and develop positive pathways and mitigate the trauma that we have experienced.

The Mind-Body Connection

Our mind and body are connected. Our thoughts affect our bodily systems and we store limiting belief systems and memories in our body that were first created in our mind. The mind is made up of both our conscious (5%) and subconscious mind (95%). Our conscious mind is aware of beliefs and our surrounding environment. Our subconscious mind is the storage room of all beliefs and memories, but we are not aware of them. These subconscious programs and patterns run how we perceive and behave in the world.

Our memories are stored in our subconscious mind. There are two types of memories:

  • Passive memories are uncomplicated and have no emotional charge.
  • Active memories are stored with an associated emotional charge.

Each time we remember an active memory, we re-experience the emotion over and over again. Dr. Joe Dispenze describes the impact on our brains and bodies.

The subconscious mind influences our conscious mind which influences our energy systems and finally, our physical body and environment. In order to transform ourselves, we need to become aware of our subconscious ways of being. So how do we increase our awareness?

Mirroring

Our external environment is a reflection of our internal environment. The goal of mirroring is to move us from wondering “How is this happening TO me?” to wondering “How is this happening FOR me?” By viewing frustrating experiences as opportunities to learn, we can move from victim to gratitude.

The Present Moment

To be in the present moment is to be completely conscious and aware of your thoughts and emotions. When our lives are dictated by the constant mind chatter, the “voice in our head”, we become attached to past events and potential future outcomes. This can prevent us from being fully in the moment and lead to depression, anxiety and fear.

Catching Our Stories

Sometimes, we tell ourselves stories about other people’s motivations and actions. These stories recreate active memories that carry negative emotions over and over again.

Being More Present

There are several strategies to help us be in the present moment.

Filling Your Cup

It is important that we take time to let our minds and bodies rest, digest and repair. What ‘fills our cup’ is unique to each person.

Other Healing Practices

There are other simple ideas that we can infuse into our daily routines to help to heal our minds, emotions, bodies and spirit.

Learn More about the Mind-Body Connection

The following researchers are important contributors to our understanding of the mind-body connection.

  • Dr. Joe Dispenza studies the fields of neuroscience, epigenetics, and quantum physics. He uses that knowledge to help people heal themselves of illnesses, chronic conditions, and terminal diseases so they can enjoy a more fulfilled and happy life, as well as evolve their consciousness.  
  • Eckhart Tolle teaches about the transformation of consciousness and transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. 

The Body Talk System is a healing modality which looks at the big picture. Kyla of Back2Nature Wellness is a practitioner who looks at the whole-person, emotional, physical and environmental influences, the true underlying causes of dis-ease. BodyTalk can address limiting belief systems and emotional memories held in the subconscious mind and the body.

Where to From Here…

By focusing on our own beliefs, actions and patterns, it is possible for us to forge new pathways and patterns in our brains. These new patterns lead to transforming the beliefs that limit us and shift what we store in our subconscious minds. This is the key to altering our energy, which can impact our bodies and environment.

The next post of this two post series will focus on trauma in children and how we might, as teachers and caregivers, create learning experiences that help to mitigate trauma and create new neural patterns to grow resilience.

Writing about Teaching Writing

I had the chance to work with the wonderful staff at Rossignol Elementary in Ile-a-la-Crosse this winter. They, like many of us, have been wondering how to support their students to be more engaged writers. They wondered:

How do we engage student writers? How do we make our students feel that they ARE writers and authors in our classrooms? There are so many blogs and ideas written on this topic, but what might work for OUR students?

There are many blogs and resources that are useful when seeking out new and innovative ideas to try. Some good ones include (but are certainly not limited to!):

Each of these articles is full of lists of creative strategies. But what works for YOUR students? This is where professional conversations and thinking about what students you have in your context can help.

We often ponder the question “Why don’t our students write more?”… something to consider is how much writing we do ourselves as adults. I have to admit that prior to creating this workshop blog, I might have gone weeks without writing outside of emails or filling in forms. To give insight into some of the barriers that our students face when writing, it is important for us to consider our own writing habits (and maybe fears!). How do we encourage ourselves as writers? My epiphany when planning for this workshop was that perhaps writing professional development needs to following the same framework that we might use for our students.

Adrienne Gear (2014) suggests the following lesson framework for each nonfiction form:

  1. An introduction to the features of the nonfiction form.
    1. This can be done by analyzing published examples of a nonfiction form.
  2. Independent write and Whole-class write can be woven together in a We DO – You DO cycle.

With this framework in mind, the teachers of Rossignol Elementary worked in collaborative groups to write the following ideas for engaging their student writers:

Shared Writing About Writing

Engaging Student Writers is about the things that we can do as teachers to encourage students to write across all curricula. There are many different strategies that fit different grade levels and different content areas. It is important that we use our professional judgement to combine our existing professional knowledge, our knowledge of our students, and the new information we learn from our colleagues and research.

Drawing and Talking to Encourage Writing in Young Children

To encourage young children to write, have them group together to talk about a common experience (sliding, wiener roast, building a snowman). As children share information, the teacher can capture the vocabulary they are using.

Teachers can

  • Record on a chart or individual cards/word strips
  • Include a picture
  • Display in the classroom

Children can

  • take those word strips/cards and draw their own picture
  • describe/talk about their picture with an adult or older student
  • label the picture (either by the child or the adult/older student)

Differentiating Writing

How might we differentiate next steps? The sequence will depend on the age and ability of young writers.

Younger writers might have an older student or adult scribe a sentence for them. They can leave enough space underneath for the child to copy the words below.Older writers might use the labels on their picture to write a sentence or sentences about their picture.

If students’ oral language skills are low, they can communicate meaning through the use of point pictures or flash cards. Key ideas related to the pictures can be created in advance by the teacher.

Extra Time for Encouraging Elementary Writers

There are many ways that we can encourage our elementary-aged writers in our classrooms.

  • When we give more time to write, we encourage writers to write more often. Allowing more time to organize their thoughts and ideas, using graphic organizers, modelling writing and brainstorming together can all contribute to student confidence.
  • Deadlines and expectations need to be communicated clearly so that students understand what needs to be produced and when it needs to be produced by.
  • Use technology like voice typing for those who can’t write as fast as they think can reduce frustration and get ideas out.
  • For those students who may be shy, strategies like passing notes, chatting 1:1 with peers about the topic, and think-pair-share can help to build confidence.

With extra time and strategies to maximize the time, students are allowed to process their thoughts and make meaning. This can help to show them that they ARE good writers.

Comic Book Writing for Engaging Writers

Comic book writing is when students write the dialogue into a blank comic template. There are various templates that you can download from sites such as this one from Scholastic.

Where to start? You might start with a “We Do” comic strip, then move to “You Do” by having students write dialogue into a given template with pictures already provided. They can then move to creating independently by choosing their template, and eventually creating their own pictures, characters and words either by using clipart or drawing their own original comic.

Mentor texts can include Manga, Amulet, Archie Comics or Marvel Comics. The use of mentor texts is key to introduce and discuss examples of dialogue and how words and pictures interact.

Comic book writing can encourage all types of writers, as it is a unique combination of visual/writing skills to tell a story.

What We Learned About Teaching Writing

I am thankful to the teachers of Rossignol Elementary for agreeing to their writing going out to an authentic audience on my Workshop Blog. By experiencing shared writing as adult learners, we discovered what some of the underlying anxieties and fears might be for our students. Worry about being wrong, worry about not being good enough, experiencing how daunting a blank piece of paper is all contribute to deepening our understanding of what to do for our students.

A close up of a logo

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As adults, we experienced the power of writing to deepen our understanding of writing to a much deeper level than just reading about writing might have done. New knowledge, combined with our professional knowledge and knowledge of our students can help us to encourage our students to BE writing, not just engage in writing.

Gear, A. (2014). Nonfiction Writing Power. Markham: Pembroke Publishers.

Johanson, T., & Broughton, D. (2014). Exploring Comprehension in Physics. Saskatoon: McDowell Foundation.

Designing PD That Teachers Deserve

I have had the pleasure of working with two different organizations recently, helping their staff to understand some basic principles of designing professional learning experiences for teachers. Designing professional learning deserves as much care and attention as the planning that we expect classroom teachers to give to their classroom instruction. We do not accept undifferentiated teacher lecture as the only pedagogy in classrooms, so it is important that we design professional learning that is

  • NOT a prescriptive module that does not change, regardless of what learners need
  • NOT solely lecture-style presentation where we tell them information and leave the meaning making and application to teachers after an event.

In my decade of designing and facilitating professional learning and teaching others to design professional learning, I have been seeking out and creating ways to approach workshop design. My goal is to ensure that I provide rich, authentic, practical and differentiated adult learning to teachers and related professionals. I firmly believe that a day of teacher workshop must be as or more important than a day that teacher would have had with their students. And a day with their students is SO important.

In my learning journey, I have discovered a few key things that are the foundation for every workshop that I create and facilitate.

Expect to Learn from Participants: Partnership Principles

One of my first learning opportunities about designing professional learning was Jim Knight’s Partnership Principles. His philosophy is very simple – that the people who come to professional learning are equal in every way to the facilitators of that learning. There is no hierarchy in learning, we are colleagues and partners.

Jim Knight’s Partnership Principles identify that if we have a mindset of equality, where our learners have choice and voice with professional learning, we will create interactions that encourage dialogue, reflection where we both can learn. An ultimately, the goal is for praxis, or application and transfer of learning into teacher contexts and classrooms.

Vision Our Impact: What Change Are We Hoping For?

It is important to see what changes we are hoping for in teacher behavior, resulting in an impact on student learning. Following Thomas Guskey’s Five Levels of Evaluating Professional Development backwards, it is possible to pose questions that can be pre-thinking before we begin designing learning. This process helps us to identify WHY we are providing this professional learning. As Simon Sinek has identified in his talk on The Golden Circle, we often think about the WHAT and the HOW, but it is the WHY that inspires us. When we, as facilitators, know why, we can share that passion and enthusiasm with our adult learners. A helpful tool is to use a Thinking Map, along with the following questions:

Ask Teachers What They Need

Ideally, we can engage teacher learners before our learning event to find out what learners need. This might be informed by:

  • Observations of student behaviours – what changes are needed?
  • Observations of student learning – what gaps or areas do students need a greater focus on?
  • Observations of teacher knowledge – what would learners like to know more about or change in their own understanding?

If it is not possible to have this conversation before learning, there are different facilitation processes that can be done that can inform our facilitation. These include:

  1. Snowball – ask participants
    • What do you know about this topic?
    • What do you wonder about this topic?
  2. Notice and Wonder – provide some type of visual or media experience and then ask
    • What do you notice about this?
    • What do you wonder about this?
  3. Touch Each Page and then Professional Question Generation
    • The Touch Each Page strategy will create a focus for professional inquiry through the day.
    • Generating Questions:
      • Group Generating and Monitoring Questions – participants work in small groups to identify questions that they would like to answer.
      • Personal Inquiry – participants identify a question that they most want to answer through the day. This is put onto a sticky note that they revisit and discuss at the end of the day with a colleague.

Have an Assessment Plan: Guskey’s 5 Levels

Thomas Guskey has identified five levels of evaluation to consider when understanding the efficacy of any professional learning experience in his article “Does it Make a Difference? Evaluating Professional Development”. Too often, we take in data around student outcomes and teacher satisfaction but neglect to identify the levels in between that allow us as facilitators to draw conclusions and connections between the professional learning that we are engaging in and the impact on students.

As Guskey has stated, “Good evaluations don’t have to be complicated. They simply require thoughtful planning, the ability to ask good questions, and a basic understanding of how to find valid answers” (Guskey, 2002). It is important as we evaluate our professional learning experiences that we are looking for evidence around its efficacy, not proof that it is making a difference. Most often, there are many different professional experiences that are impacting student learning, and to identify the exact scope and impact of any one initiative is nearly impossible. Instead, it is useful to gather evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, that identifies shifts and possible contributors to changes in student learning.

Guskey’s Five Levels of Evaluating Professional Development allow us to consider the types of questions that we might ask participants during or after professional learning. Facilitators who can connect with teachers after professional learning can gather data regarding impact on student outcomes and participant use of knowledge and skills.

If you are only in contact with educators during a session, it is possible to assess levels one through three, and measure teacher intent to implement using an Agenda Assessment. An agenda assessment is an innovation that combines an agenda with an assessment of learning and can be completed throughout a professional learning experience. This information can give insight into the effectiveness of a workshop or other learning experience.

Plan for Flexibility: Have a Plan that Allows for Change

A useful planning structure is a Facilitation Guide. Like a lesson plan that a teacher might use in a classroom, a facilitation guide identifies content, process, assessment, timing and materials. This simple structure helps facilitators see how content is chunked during the day, and the sequence of instructional strategies.

Content: This is the sequence of main ideas that flows through the day. By chunking content, it is relatively easy for a facilitator to skip or skim over particular ideas. This might occur if

  1. Teachers have already identified that they know a specific piece of information; or
  2. Time does not allow for all of the concepts in the day to be covered.

Process: This column identifies the instructional strategies and key questions that facilitators might pose to encourage thinking.

Assessment: This column allows facilitators to predict what they think participants might do or say during a specific part of the workshop. It is helpful to identify

  1. what people might say if they have a misconception; or
  2. what we are looking for in participant responses that indicates that they understand.  

Timing: Just as it states, this column allows facilitators to predict the length of time that a specific process will take. This helps to know whether the workshop is at, ahead or behind timelines outlined.

Materials: This column has us list materials or resources that are used in that chunk of a workshop.

Incorporate Meaning Making Strategies: Differentiate Learning

It is important that we choose processes for learning that fit the content and amount of time provided. Considering Dylan Wiliam’s Formative Assessment Strategies, instructional strategies in professional learning are particularly powerful when they:

So, where do we find these strategies? There are many useful resources. Some of them include:

It may seem like there are many layers and lots of time needed to plan effective professional learning, but our teachers and ultimately student learning deserve our investment.

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