Blog

Connection in Isolation

 

IMG_1398

Hello Everyone,

I have been hesitant to write this post.

At first, I felt as though people must only want to read blog posts from the epidemiologists and medical professionals rather than the educators and sociologists. I know that’s the only content I have been devouring for the past two weeks. But, as we settle into this new reality, it has become clear to me that we need to hear from one another now more than ever. We need to think deeply about our human interactions in a time when they have become scarce. I think sociology can help us with this as we ease into our new way of life, however temporary.

I write about this historic, unprecedented and extraordinary time we currently find ourselves in…together. The keyword here being ‘together.’ At the most basic level of sociology is this idea that we are shaped by the people around us; that we are the drivers of our personal destinies and that we can decide what we want for our lives. In these uncertain times, all of these ideas seem to be under siege. Our governments continue to be forced to draw on rather draconian measures to flatten the COVID-19 curve, our destinies are relegated to the confines of our homes (and our digital worlds) and our social networks stop at our immediate family members.

What sociology also tells us, is that the most intimate of actions are shaped by the larger social world around us. Perhaps never before in history has this statement been so powerful and so obvious as we ban together in nothing less than wartime to fight this intruder. Staying inside with your family, in what might feel isolating and personal, is of course part of a powerful social collective undertaken in the name of our common humanity. I am finding great comfort in this notion that ‘we are all in this together’ and that the concepts inherent in sociology are still very much intact as we continue to be shaped by the world around us from the confines of our own homes. It also helps me to stay at home.

This is a time when we need to feel empowered through new kinds of human interaction. I sat on my first ‘zoom’ call last night and connected with women I respect on multiple levels through our screens. At first, it felt contrived, but after several minutes, I settled into this idea, and I felt empowered; empowered that I could still connect with these women in times when I couldn’t see them in person; in a time when seeing them in person could put others lives in danger. And this is the sociological idea that we can see ourselves in the actions of others – we are doing it for one another and because of one another. If only on our computers, I could still pick up the deep sense of purpose each woman had as we found ourselves in this new reality. It almost brought me to tears.

If sociology is truly a study of the interconnectedness of humans; the shared experiences we all have that shape the very personal decisions that we make, there perhaps has been no time in history where we have been more connected towards a common goal attained through individual effort then now. We are truly living history. Though it is devastating to watch lives being lost (my heart breaks for Italy, currently), it is also uplifting to watch the videos my friend sends me from her apartment in Spain each day when the people clap in unison and play music for the health care workers (clip below). I watch my daughter begin to understand actions for the greater good as I explain the idea of sacrifice (today, it was not going for ice cream) for ‘grandmas,’ and I am anxious but excited to gear up and engage with my students all over the world on a digital platform next week. If we are all in this together, then we can surely accomplish great things from our couches and home offices. And we can surely educate our young people; these past two weeks have been an education in itself.

So, as we move forward in making our very personal decisions, shaped and intertwined with a global fight, I hope that you connect with those you love outside of your home, that you smile with your students as you start to navigate online learning and that you enjoy your time connecting with your loved ones as you find yourself in these precarious but unifying times.

In good health,

L.

Critical Media Literacy – Guiding our youth as they navigate their digital worlds

photo-1532356884227-66d7c0e9e4c2

Critical media literacy can be defined as, 

an educational response that expands the notion of literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies. It deepens the potential of literacy education to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information and power … it is an opportunity for youth empowerment (Kellner & Share, 2007, p. 60).

Hello Teaching/Parent Community,

My apologies for my lack of writing recently, but you know, start of the school year shenanigans! This time of transition is both exciting and exhausting, and it leaves little time for work to be done outside of the classroom and home as we adjust to our new routines. It is a good time to be gentle with our expectations of ourselves and others and manage our self-care when we can.

With that said, my brain never does stop its musings about educational topics that are near and dear to me, and when I don’t have time to write, I often take to discussion with my colleagues (who am I kidding, I will gab about these topics all of the time!). Recently, I have been thinking about the concept of critical media literacy; how we utilize this teaching concept in our classrooms and how we can disseminate it outside of school. I have been working with the healthcare team at my school on some workshops steeped in critical media literacy as a way to help our young people navigate their online worlds in meaningful and safe ways.

I worry that we aren’t doing critical media literacy enough or properly as an educational system in Ontario. Let me provide some academic research to support this statement. Kellner and Share (2007) posit that North American education systems still function “under a protectionist or anti-media approach, oversimplifying the complex relationships youth have with media and removing the potential for empowerment that critical pedagogy and alternative media production can produce” (p. 61). ‘Empowerment’ is not often a word that comes to mind when we think about our young people and social media. I would like to explore this concept more deeply in front of these workshops; it is one of the pillars of critical media literacy

I think previous generations tend to view social media as a black hole in which teens spiral into and cannot remove themselves. It is where bullying happens. It is where both girls and boys exploit their bodies and it is where our girls develop negative associations with their bodies as they scroll through images of the ‘ideal’ femininity. It is a space where parents and teachers cannot go, and I think for this reason, it scares us. What is happening in their worlds!? We must know, and if we cannot know, it’s obviously dangerous and we must stop it! The bottom line; humans tend to be weary of the unknown, especially when it comes to protecting our young people. 

But, here’s the thing, if we truly want to protect our young people, we must trust them. We must educate them and then we must trust them. Isn’t this the point of both parenting and teaching? We now know that helicopter and bulldozer parenting doesn’t work for our young people when we send them off into the world. Research on resilience and anti-fragility is diffusing to the masses and occupying space in many of the psychology and education conferences I have attended recently. So, I challenge you to shift your thinking about social media and move away from this protectionist position. Critical media literacy is a tool to assist you in doing so.

Critical media literacy relies heavily on students’ already existing understanding of public pedagogies (beliefs about different topics) so students must have knowledge of the apparatuses that control gendered and racialized discourses in the media, for example, so they can deconstruct them in relation to their own personal experiences (Kellner & Share, 2007, p. 62). This is where we can do some good work with our young people; we can help them break down these messages and rebuild them in meaningful ways for each individual student. This can be a challenging exercise for many teachers and parents as it asks them to consider their own constructions of social media and the body. Yes, you must do some internal work before you begin this work with your students/children. We all come to this topic with our own baggage and preconceived notions of power; really, it is our own views on these topics that guide and train our young people on how they should construct their own opinions. 

Critical media literacy education gives students the opportunity to discuss alternative media production and empowers them to create their own messages that can challenge dominant discourses on a whole range of issues. Let’s go back to my rather grim paragraph on the negatives effects of social media. Through talks with trusted adults, students can begin to challenge the bullies through advertising “Bell, Let’s Talk,” and the normalizing of mental health, girls can post pictures where they are happy and thriving with a group of friends as opposed to the bikini shot; not having your parents or teachers in this space will allow you to share in ways that are more authentic, perhaps. You can see the dialogue shift. 

This is really just a start to my thinking more deeply about taking my academic research on this topic and translating it into practice. Mediasmarts is an amazing online resource with lessons geared towards critical media literacy. My next post will share what I have developed and how I will deliver it to our students.

THANK YOU for reading,

L.

 

Standardized bodies < Accepting & Celebrating Difference

 

jennifer-burk-ECXB0YAZ_zU-unsplash

Hello all,

Happy summer to you all! While I have been enjoying the outdoors and time with my fast-growing littles, I have also found some opportunities to continue thinking and learning as well, which is always nice. This past week, Dr. Blair Niblett invited me to guest lecture in his M.Ed class at Trent University. I was flattered to be there and the talk brought up some great questions and conversations about my area of research, and I wanted to share some of this with you for this post.

One of the questions I have continued to think about was put forth by a student who teaches in a police foundations program. He was curious about what to do with young people who struggle with fitness activities, such as the Beep Test (a standardized running test). He mentioned that his students have increasingly been having a harder time achieving a passing grade on the test, and it was troubling for him. As a person committed to helping others get more physically active, I get it! But, I am also a huge advocate for eliminating any and all standardized tests in PE; heck, really any standardized test cross-curricularly. Asking students to perform and get results on the exact same fitness task, when they are all built so totally different and individual is absurd to me.

The tricky part and what was brought up in the class was this question; ‘so, do we just let them become overweight and inactive if we aren’t pushing them in these ways?’ What do a lack of fitness testing and a push for intuitive eating look like for this generation, and is it actually good for them? This has come up a number of times at conferences and talks that I do, so I thought I would share my answer in a few points;

1.) The obesity epidemic is sensationalized in the media (Gard, 2002), in fact, a good majority of this generation are fit and healthy. ‘Fit’ and ‘healthy’ means different things to different people, however, and I think this is where confusion and discomfort often rest. A recent article published in the European Heart Journal found that individuals who are metabolically healthy (i.e blood pressure within a healthy range, cholesterol, blood sugar, and other indicators fall within a healthy range) yet overweight are at no greater risk of dying from heart disease or cancer than those who are of normal weight. What this means is that “we’re learning that a body that exercises regularly is generally a healthy body, whether that body is fat or thin,” shares Dr. Glenn Gaesser, a professor of wellness and exercise at Arizona State University.

2.) Once we get comfy with the fact that many different body sizes and shapes can be healthy, we can start to let go of our pre-conceived notions that one is not fit if they do not look like the model in the fitness magazine or do not run a specific distance on a running test. To achieve this specific ideal alienates the majority of the population, and may lead individuals towards a sedentary life, as they do not feel they will ever be able to conform to the very specific and prescribed ideals of health. Or, they might go so far the other way to achieve something their genetics do not allow, that they run into problems with eating disorders and addiction to exercise. We obviously don’t want either of these two scenarios for our young people.

3.) Tests such as the Beep Test and images of ideal, fit femininity represent the most recent version of healthism. Healthism, a term coined by Crawford (1980) is the belief that health can be achieved unproblematically through individual effort and discipline; furthermore, it represents a moral imperative to do so. In other words, in a neoliberal society, it is the job of the individual to achieve a healthy body; to fail at this is to fail yourself, and to fail the society in which you live (increased health care costs, etc.). This perspective misses an important marker of achieving good health; one’s sociodemographic status. A child who lives in an affluent neighborhood, with healthy food options that their parents can afford, and a plethora of organized sporting activities of their choosing is much more likely to achieve good health than the child of a single-parent who cannot afford healthy food, nor has the time or resources to cook that food or put their children into organized sport. This is a striking comparison when you think about it. Both of those kids may be standing on that starting line side by side, about to run the Beep Test.

So, for us educators and parents, what do we do with this information? It is important to remember that a healthy individual can look all kinds of different ways and can achieve good health in ways that are meaningful and sustainable to them. For this reason, I cannot stress the importance of giving our young people choice. If the beep test doesn’t work for you, how about a walking test, or a swimming test, climbing, X-country skiing; running while dribbling a soccer ball, whatever it is you love to do? We need to teach our young people that traveling down their own path towards good health is going to look different than the person beside them, both internally and externally.

Most importantly, let’s promote things that our children love to do to move their bodies. I think if we do this, we will speak more to this generation and we will become trusted allies on their paths towards good health and body acceptance.

Thank you for reading,

L

My ‘Why?’ …

photo-1506126613408-eca07ce68773

Hello All,

This past autumn brought big change for my family and I as we left our lives in Toronto and moved to the small village of Lakefield, Ontario for me to pursue work at Lakefield College School. This year of transition and change has got me thinking about why I pursued education as a career, why I research and why I am interested in the kind of work that I do. I wanted to share this with you today. Maybe some of it will resonate with you.

One of my committee members at the University of Toronto once told me that research is always intimately connected to the individual doing the research. This really stuck with me and the work that I do with girls surrounding body perception, self-monitoring and finding joy in movement. I was a competitive gymnast for most of my adolescent and teenage life. As I reached puberty and began to develop and gain weight, I felt increasing amounts of pressure to conform to the normative body size for my sport, characterized by little body fat and a petite, yet muscular body shape. Achieving this body required me to limit my food intake and partake in drastic training and exercise habits. I will never forget my coach yelling into the change room during a snack break that he could “hear me getting fatter.” Wtf!?

These early experiences, coupled with the sharp rise in exposure to social media has really stayed with me into my adult years. Recently, it has surrounded the messiness of pregnancy, and the transformative body (and emotional) changes that come afterwards. While women experience these changes, they also tend to feel massive societal pressure to get that perfect body back, and quickly. It’s all a little bit much.

Leaving this message behind and arriving at a place of self-acceptance has not been easy for me, but I refuse to let my daughters watch their mother obsess over imperfection. So, we eat the cookies, then we eat the kale, and it’s all good that I still have a little belly, almost 2 years after giving birth. I am not going to say I don’t still struggle with these changes, but I’m trying, and that’s all a person can do.

Most importantly, and for the purpose of this blog, I find that these past experiences really help me to empathize and relate to my female students who are negotiating a lot of pressures to conform to a specific, ‘feminine’ body. Helping young people to navigate this complex world is messy work, that sometimes requires the help of a professional; but if I can instill the values of intuitive eating (a whole post on this concept later) and the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ body in the girls I work with, I will feel I have made some small difference.

It’s an ongoing job that requires the uphill battle of helping young people push back against societal norms and ideals; but this is important work for future leaders and societal influencers anyways, so, two birds. I also don’t pretend to understand how difficult it must be to get through life as a teen unscathed in the era of social media. They teach me about this.

One fact is for certain when it comes to these experiences; the body is far from neutral and biological, and we should never treat it as such; it is a complex entity, multiplicitous, and experienced within negotiations of power controlled by various structures. Who said my belly had to disappear two months after I had my children? Why is it that I felt the need to hit the treadmill 3 weeks after giving birth? and why do my students regularly mention ‘thigh gaps,’ and their ‘summer bodies’ to me in meetings and interviews? These early experiences and realizations form the foundation on which I work with young people in practice and research. I wanted to know who had the power to control messages about the body. And I wanted to help, in any small way I could, the next generation of girls to negotiate this messy terrain they find themselves travelling along.

The act of writing these experiences out is therapeutic in a way, but most importantly, it solidifies my commitment to help others negotiate messages about the body, especially in the face of the curated and perfected images that we each display to the world on our social media accounts (and we’re all guilty of this!). I can’t say I have all of the answers, but I think talking about it and changing the dialogue is a real first step; maybe even posting a picture that isn’t the most flattering but where I look happy.

We have been thinking more deeply as a staff about mindfulness recently. Taking that moment in our everyday lives to direct love and kindness not only towards others but towards ourselves. If I had one wish for our girls after constructing this post, it would be for each of them to look into the mirror and think “I am beautiful.”

Thanks for reading,

L

 

Helping our Girls Reframe Anxiety – it’s not all bad!

photo-1472068996216-8c972a0af9bd

Hello Fellow Educators/Parents,

As an educator and researcher, one of my primary missions is to weave theory and practice together in creative and useful ways for the classroom and to help others do the same. To this end, I have found myself immersed in ways to assist students in finding joy in their daily lives while simultaneously maintaining balance in competitive academic settings and social media landscapes that demand perfection. Whenever literature comes out that focuses on strategies to help our students tackle life’s big challenges and relocate joy (if it ever went missing), I am quick to pick it up on Amazon.

With this said, I preordered Lisa Damour’s new book entitled Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls and I have been devouring the lessons she shares for helping our girls overcome and harness anxiety and stress to their benefit. For this post, I would like to share some of these important and life-changing lessons and discuss how I see them being practiced in the classroom.

I will preface that I believe social-emotional learning should be taught cross-curricularly and embedded in every teacher’s instruction. To extend, I would say all schools need a plan for teaching social-emotional learning in their classrooms whenever possible. It should be deliberate, well phased-out and authentic. Young people should be able to use these strategies in their everyday lives and harness them outside of the classroom when they need them most. Damour offers up these strategies in a way that makes you feel like you are sitting with a cup of tea, having an informal conversation with a very talented and caring girlfriend. What a treat.

Damour’s book is prefaced upon the idea that, in her words, “stretching beyond familiar limits doesn’t always feel good, but growing and learning – the keys to school and much of life – can’t happen any other way” (New York Times, 2018). From this perspective, the accompanying stress associated with change and growth is welcome and shows our young people that they are accomplishing something great. No need to feel stressed about being stressed from this perspective, in fact, this stress can help our girls be happy and successful!

This book is chock full of new ways to reframe stress and anxiety in our student’s lives and provides practical ways to help them see the positive and perfectly normal physiological effects of the stress response. Damour shares that the fight or flight response to common everyday stressors can actually be a good thing; it prepares our girls for a challenge or tells them when they need to remove themselves from a potentially harmful situation, like say, a party where underage drinking or drug use is taking place. They should listen to this ancient response and harness its power, rather than avoid it.

In fact, Damour warns against avoidance of stressful situations whenever possible. Though we tend to want to protect our girls from potentially anxiety-provoking situations, this is not doing them any favours. We need to give our students an opportunity to tackle stressful situations and come up with strategies to harness and utilize the stress response to their benefit. This takes practice, as most accomplishments in life do.

I see a powerful connection here between Damour’s works and the work of Dr. Broderick, and her Learning to Breathe resource. I can’t think of a more useful way to practice these data-driven perspectives than by teaching young people to ‘ride the waves’ of their emotions through mindfulness practices (see my blog “Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream’ for more on this book and strategies to try at home and in the classroom).

The most powerful lesson provided by Damour, in my opinion, is the authentic, real-world strategies she offers up to help our girls tackle tough situations; in the classroom, at home, and with their peers. Especially powerful for the classroom is the approach she takes with the student who overprepares for all school assessments; a strategy that is unsustainable and can really increase stress (the bad kind) for girls at school (many of us can picture that student in our lives now). Damour mentioned a client whom she counseled to study efficiently and not necessarily longer to achieve great results. This requires confidence in oneself that they are capable of doing the work without overpreparing and burning out. She notes that this strategy tends to be more common with boys, and may explain the confidence gap for women entering the workforce. Our girls need to believe in their skills and have confidence in their abilities to succeed, and this starts in school.

This case struck a personal note with me. To this day, I still over-prepare for every class, every presentation and every meeting. It’s ingrained in me from my school days and my intense desire to please those around me; it’s classic girl behaviour and it’s hard to let go after so many years. This was a good wake up call to commit to quality over quantity in my own professional life. I think catching this trait at a younger age could really help our overachieving girls break this habit with a little coaching.

I also loved the idea of the ‘glitter jar’ as an analogy to the teenage brain in crisis and the strategy of shaking a real one up and letting the brain calm while the glitter settles. I need my own glitter jar sometimes – so, thanks Lisa.

I am excited to take these practices and new thinking on stress and anxiety into my classroom and advising work. I have already made myself a ‘glitter jar,’ and have plans for a mini-unit focused on reframing stress for our grade 9’s. I’m giddy about it. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your expertise with us; our girls need it!

L