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The Mental Health Pandemic & Ontario’s Recent Lockdown

Hello Again,

I am under no illusion that the current state of Ontario is dismal, at best; I think about our doctors and nurses every day and I think about loved ones, intubated and alone in Ontario’s ICUs. I trust our public health officials and I will abide by their commands, but I am also a school teacher, parent and wellbeing researcher.  From this perspective I can tell you, the government should not ignore the mental health pandemic that is existing alongside of COVID-19 here in Ontario. I have major concerns with the most recent series of shut downs, and like many, I can’t help but wonder if there is another way forward.

As many public health experts have noted, just 0.01% of B.1.1.7 variants originate during outdoor play and small gatherings; these outdoor meetups are desperately needed by our students and children as they move back into their online learning worlds and contemplate a distant future where this may continue to be a reality for them. 

Let me paint a picture for you in Ontario schools; in a recent class where we were discussing mental health, I asked my students to jot down in a shared document how they are coping with the shut downs and time spent at home – the resounding answer, they weren’t. I was shocked and almost brought to tears over the many words filling the page; lonely, depressed, isolated, helpless, and the list went on and on. I promptly invited our social worker into class to speak with the group. This was just one class. Now they can no longer take a walk with a friend or shoot hoops while masked after hours of online instruction? This is not the way forward if we are to avoid a mental health epidemic for our young people; the scientific research doesn’t support it and our students are suffering.

Research tells us that human connection and time spent outdoors in nature is exponentially beneficial for one’s health. This past weekend, I have felt as though the infringement on my civic liberties were so stringent that I should rethink going outside for fear of running into someone I knew. I went for a run anyways, and ran into someone I knew. We felt strange about catching up in that moment and I was reminded of how controlled the movement of our bodies are under this current stay-at-home order; this individual loss of control is leading to real despair and physical symptoms of stress in our adult population as well.

Most importantly, I also thought about our essential workers without paid sick leave, avoiding a COVID test when they feel unwell for fear they may not be able to go into work and, therefore, not able to pay rent and provide for their family. When they do go into work, they are wedged in between their co-workers in a poorly ventilated warehouse. Which interaction is spreading COVID this morning? This answer is glaringly obvious, and in my perspective, inhumane for those forced into a dangerous situation without a vaccine to ensure a paycheque. Doctor’s are telling us, these are the interactions that are spreading COVID and these are the people that are getting very sick. 

We find ourselves in yet another social justice battle during this pandemic. Please provide the funds and infrastructure to allow our essential workers to take a paid day off when they are ill. Vaccinate the individuals who live in neighbourhoods that are driving the vectors of this recent outbreak and temporarily halt providing them to the affluent individuals who have the luxury to work from home. Let the kids go outside and see a friend, they are not driving these numbers; this is a sociodemographic issue and it must be treated as such by those in charge.

Thanks for reading and keep well,

L.

Technology & Education in the time of a pandemic – and beyond

Sigh,

For those of us here in Ontario, this week marks a bleak moment in the pandemic. Our COVID numbers are staggering and once again, we have been forced indoors, while our health care heroes cope with the increasing number of critically ill patients in ICUs. One way I cope through these times is by exercising my creativity. Thank goodness, then, that my school granted us access to the CAIS National Leaders conference this past week. While I was emotionally depleted, I was intellectually filled up after learning from a variety of educational experts who helped us to unpack these extremely intense times in education. Two of these sessions really stayed with me – both took up the future role of tech in student’s lives, but in very different ways. This is especially timely as we move back into our online worlds and continue to live in this mass, ongoing tech experiment in education.

A Durable Trend Towards Online Learning: Luyen Chou, Chief Learning Officer at U2 and Sarah Prevette, Founder and CEO at Future Design School masterfully took us through future academic trends in higher education. A striking point they highlighted was the widespread questioning of the value proposition of higher education for consumers; this pandemic has shaken post-secondary institutions in their complacency as students question why they are there and if it is worth it. The shocking case of Laurentian University is a jolt for these powerful institutions as they come to grips with the fact that they are not immune to the ever-changing landscape of education. Both speakers asserted that this questioning is causing universities to leverage online learning as a tool for student success and, more provocatively, as a more durable trend towards online learning in the future. I would say, though, that the future is already here – the University of Guelph just launched the first, fully online, Ontario undergraduate degree this past week.

Sarah and Luyen were asking hopeful questions about the future of online learning in higher education such as ‘how can we foster a sense of collaboration and community online?’ and ‘how can we leverage tech to make it immersive and experiential?’ Sadly, many of my former students and professors I speak to tell me that online learning in university currently involves traditional lecture style lessons taught to a whole lot of black screens in place of students. I hope these questions get addressed for our post-secondary learners if this trend is to endure.

Tech, Science & our Young People: Dr. Shimi Kang, a Harvard trained doctor and media expert, took us through healthy tech use for our young people (and ourselves) – she did this through an explanation of the science behind those dopamine hits we know so well from social media likes and activity. She compared these dopamine hits to our battle against excessive sugar consumption – healthy tech use involves limiting these dopamine hits (like sugar) and replacing them with tech free time or time spent online that is more healthy, such as creating content, learning and connecting with friends through play and games – and of course – making space for tech free times in the house, such as at dinner time or before bed.

Dr. Kang’s science-based approach to healthy tech use was so welcomed, but I was left wondering – if academic institutions are making the movement to online learning, how can we strike harmony between guiding our young people to find that balance between healthy tech use, limited screen time and more in-person interactions in a post-COVID that will involve more time online?

The Future of Online Education: The reality is that online learning is here to stay and whether we like it or not, it is the future of education. There are many benefits to online learning such as self-paced discovery and an emphasis on creativity and critical thinking, but as educators, we must focus on the potential downfalls of this new way of learning if this is the landscape of our young people’s academic futures. For the past year, our young people have been disconnected from their peers in extraordinary ways as they immersed themselves in their online worlds out of necessity. We have turned our eyes away from the darker side of this drastically increased tech use, such as lack of connection, decreased mental health and increased cyberbullying, because we believed it to be a temporary state. We are learning that this is not the case, and students will be spending more time in their future learning and interacting online, so, what now?

Creating Critical Digital Citizens: Our students need a mandatory credit course in healthy tech use and critical media literacy; our educational system is so far behind in creating critical tech consumers, it is mind-baffling to me. Presenting this important work to leaders at a conference is just not enough. Just like our young people learn about civics, they need to understand the civics of their online tech communities. We must teach them about the power and usefulness of tech in their education and the trends towards online learning and collaboration coming in their post-secondary experiences. This future is not about us, it is about them; so they must know.

Most importantly, we need to address the mental health issues associated with increased online learning and interaction, the effects of tech on the human brain and the ability to critical consume media and recognize mis- and dis-information. When we give these tools to our young people, I believe only then can we entertain the trend towards enduring online learning. To avoid this, is irresponsible of the educational systems that guide youth.

I will begin petitioning the government for this mandatory learning and taking it up in my classroom and counselling sessions, and I hope you will do the same!

Hang in there,

L.

A Pedagogy of Kindness

Hello to all,

I recently rewrote my teaching philosophy and wanted to share this with you – this year I have decided to formalize the concept of kindness as I work through this challenging time with my students. It has been beyond helpful to rethink how I show up for my students in a time when so much has changed. I hope you can take something from it – and remember to also be kind to yourself as we work our way through this dark month – there is light ahead.

My teaching philosophy is grounded in a transformative approach. I do not want to ‘fill up’ my students with research and information, but rather, I wish to invite them on a co-created academic journey that allows them to explore learning in a way that is meaningful to them. I believe this is accomplished by encouraging voice, asking exploratory questions and acting as a guide and facilitator of learning as opposed to the all-knowing teacher. This concept of transformation applies not only to my students, but to myself as well; I welcome the idea of being transformed by my student’s thoughts and I encourage intellectual challenge and diverse perspectives in my classroom.

As I update my teaching philosophy we find ourselves in a global pandemic that has had a plethora of effects on education and student wellbeing. This current global situation has caused me to pause and reflect on how I show up and interact with my students on a daily basis, both virtually and in person. With these global changes, should come changes in teaching philosophies as well. This year, I have refocused my teaching philosophy to that of a pedagogy of kindness. Through this formalization of kindness, I have reset my intentions with students to encompass, at the core, relationship building and the co-creation of knowledge, trust and understanding.

I have been sitting with this idea of kindness and have come to the conclusion that no other tenants of my teaching philosophy can be quite as effective without this first piece in place. Developing trust, understanding and empathy are at the root of any transformative learning experience. One cannot truly dive into life-changing discovery without first having trust in their teacher. I believe that exploring kindness in the classroom is also intimately connected to critical pedagogies and the acceptance of difference. The many facets of one’s identity will shape their experience and performance in a course and I am cognizant of and celebrate this difference as a teacher.

A pedagogy of kindness manifests quite literally in all of my teaching practices and I always come back to it. I believe I can accomplish this through giving voice and really hearing students; how they learn, what they know and where they want to go with their learning. When learning is personalized, transformation and engagement are actualized. I often begin my courses with questions; questions that will guide how we learn through the course together and discover and apply fascinating concepts to our everyday lives.

I ask for frequent feedback and believe that assessment should involve a continuous process of learning and (un)learning certain biases and theoretical concepts together. I encourage my students to ask for feedback before the submission of an assignment so they can refine and submit their most critically reflective work. If a student is willing to work through drafts of an assignment, deep learning and engagement occurs and with deep learning comes academic success. When a student is not able to submit work on time, or is struggling through a personal issue or learning difficulty, I believe and support them and I come back to a pedagogy of kindness. I will work with them in whatever way they need to find success, especially this year.

I want to understand how my students learn because I care; I want my visual and kinesthetic learners and those with learning differences to feel there is instruction that meets their unique needs. I strive to create this differentiation in my lessons and lectures through a variety of teaching strategies. I choose to offer traditional lectures, small group break outs, one-on-one learning and hands-on, authentic experiences for my students. I also believe in the importance of providing students with the opportunity to co-construct lessons and lead their peers in learning communities.

My research expertise and practice are centered intimately around student health and wellbeing. As a physical educator and sociologist, I draw on critical pedagogies; feminist, intersectional and post-colonial theory to unpack embodied perspectives of wellbeing. My top priority is teaching from a place that honours difference and prioritizes my student’s wellbeing through these theoretical lenses. In a recent post I discussed the importance of self-actualization and how this concept is intertwined with student wellbeing. When students are inspired to create social change, solve big problems and embrace difference, they access citizenship and wellbeing simultaneously; purpose and being of service to others is also part of one’s own path to personal wellbeing. My teaching is centered around individualization in this regard; I want to connect with each of my students and understand the social causes that create meaning in their lives. When I discover this, I can then work with my students to explore the learning that will inform their next steps in the community and their lives. In this way, a single course may unfold in a myriad of ways for a diverse group of students. I believe it is in this place of individualized deep learning and self-actualization that magic can happen in a person’s academic journey.

Finally, I believe in the pure joy of learning. We can often go to a negative place when forced onto zoom classes in our current reality. At no other time has it been more important to find the simple joy in coming together as a community to explore complex concepts in inspiring ways and to learn more about ourselves as human beings; this very concept is why I am a lifelong learner myself. I believe in the hope and positivity that comes with continuously learning and discovering.  I like to laugh with my students in the classroom, I like to explore the outdoors in walking meetings and to discuss inspiring topics with inspiring people. I believe these simple concepts shape part of my deeper teaching philosophy. 

🙂

L.

Redefining Resilience in 2021: a response to pandemic burnout for Educators & Parents

Well Everyone,

We made it to 2021! Humankind has banned together (while staying apart) and experts have created a life-saving vaccine; there is much to be proud of. In the reality of our everyday, however, this pandemic is far from over, and people are still sick. For us educators and parents, it is time to dig deep while simultaneously protecting ourselves as we enter what is hopefully the final stretch of this dismal marathon.

A marathon is a good place to start this post; if you run long distances you may have felt that indescribable pain of ‘hitting the wall’ at a certain kilometre mark. It hurts, and it is the product of overexertion as your body starts to tell you to stop what it’s doing. The cumulative psychological toll of this pandemic is not so different from hitting the wall in a marathon; have you hit a psychological wall yet this year? If so, what did it feel like? By now, sadly, many of you will know when this happened. Enter the ‘stress cycle.’

The Stress Cycle – When the human body experiences prolonged stress, it has trouble completing the stress cycle. Here’s something new for me – a science explanation! Bare with me. When we encounter an outside stressor, say a new daily high of COVID case numbers or a student in crisis, our bodies may jump into ‘fight or flight’ mode; this evolutionary mechanism that causes our heart rates to spike, blood to flow to our extremities and the diversion of resources away from things like digestion.

These evolutionary traits were really convenient for running from those Saber tooth tigers in ancient times, but in today’s world, this mechanism doesn’t always serve us in the best ways. Why? Because in pre-historic days, you simply either fought or fled from the dangerous situation, and your body prepared you to be good at it. If you survived, you went back to your village, hugged your people, and the stress cycle ended – digestion continued, heart rate slowed, life continued, and you were all good.

Today, this is not so simple. Say you have an argument with a colleague and it kicks this ancient hormonal mechanism into gear. You can’t really jump across the table and give your colleague a swat as you may have back then. Instead, your stress response triggers, and then nothing really happens. You remain cordial and then go stew in your office afterward, stress hormones ablaze! You have not completed the stress cycle. If this becomes chronic, your body will start to feel it; your stomach may ache, your head may hurt and you might feel fuzzy. Over time, you get burnt out.

Burn out – So, if your fight or flight mechanism kicks in too often (because of constant stressors in your life) and you don’t complete the stress cycle, you have a lot of stress hormones kicking around in your body. The thing is, we can’t avoid the stressors; the stressors they will always be there, especially these days. We have to go inward.

In their book Burnout; The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Nagoski & Nagoski offer a refreshing take on tackling the stress cycle and avoiding burn out. While journalling and gratitude are invaluable practices, these women assert that you must approach the physical stress response with physical coping mechanisms. It makes sense. Here are some ways to break the cycle and get through these next few dark and stressful months.

  1. Exercise – Yep, as always, this is the best strategy for you to avoid burnout, it’s as simple as that. What isn’t always clear though, is that exercise can mean very different things to different people. Perhaps you run that marathon, or maybe all you can handle is a guided muscle relaxation in bed at night; both exercise, both capable of breaking the stress cycle by telling your body that it survived the stressful event. Bottom line, if the body goes into flight mode, then throw on your runners and let it fly, however that looks for you.
  2. Affection – Oh, this one is my favourite physical coping mechanisms. Kiss your partner for 6 full seconds, or hug them for 20 seconds. Affection and human connection alerts your body that you are safe and have survived a threat. Go hug someone in your bubble; it feels so good, and completes your stress cycle. Swoon, you guys!
  3. Breathing – A common, but powerful tool to get through hard times, it only takes 1.5 minutes per day to make a difference and tell your body, hey!, the Saber tooth isn’t on my tail anymore! Breathe in for 5, hold, exhale for 10, hold. It really makes a huge difference. Put it in your calendar.
  4. Laughter and positive social interaction – A big belly laugh is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your stressed out body. Laughing and interacting with others, even over FaceTime or zoom can make a big difference because it reminds your brain that you are safe and in a world that is good and fun. We really need to remember and check in with these facts this year.

Let’s redefine Resilience in 2021 – Finally, let’s all agree that resilience does not mean coping through a prolonged stress cycle that never ends. This is not resilience, this is silliness, and it is bad for our health. The militaristic understanding that has come to define resilience in the past is making us sick and tired; science says so. If we do not have downtime to breathe, move, connect, feel, and recover, we will actually be less productive as humans. The very act of breaking the stress cycle and replenishing our reserves will help us to show up for our children, our students and our people. Please do these things for yourself as we head back to school – science says you will be better for it!

L.

Storytelling – raising awareness of IBD

Hi Everyone,

I am veering slightly off path for this post to honour and raise awareness for Crohns and Colitis Awareness Week (Dec 1 -7th). My husband Blair suffers from Crohns Disease (CD), a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) of the GI tract. It causes all sorts of symptoms, but is primarily associated with GI issues (using the bathroom A LOT) and the accompanying symptoms of weight loss, fatigue and malnutrition, to name a few. For this post, I want to contribute to the IBD community by telling my husbands story in hopes that this invisible and debilitating disease can be better understood.

In the summer of 2014, 4 months before the birth of our first child, I stumbled upon Blair writhing in pain in our spare bedroom. It was one of those moments that you can remember like it was yesterday. As a man, Blair is known for fighting through pain and sickness (a symptom of being conditioned as a stoic boy in our society), so the state he was in was really worrisome. I rushed him to the hospital, suspecting appendicitis.

When tests came back negative, we started into the very frustrating process of a CD diagnosis; more testing and more waiting. In that period of waiting, Blair lost 30 pounds. Eventually, after a couple of months, he came home upset and told me the news; again, another moment I feel I could live in right now. I was sitting on our small beige couch in our Toronto home and Blair was sitting across from me in his work clothes. I really had no idea what we were talking about – what was Crohn’s Disease? It sounded bad, and it was.

At this time, Blair worked a finance job in downtown Toronto and commuted to work during these first few hard years of learning to manage his IBD. This is when we really realized the invisibility of the disease; Blair would often ride the subway home at night, hunched over in pain in the crowded group, and no one would think to offer him a seat; how would they know?! It’s invisible. When I was pregnant, someone always offered me their seat on the subway, and I didn’t really need it.

Over the next two years, Blair would go on and off many different drugs to try to manage his symptoms. The worst of the bunch for him was prednisone, which caused his face to swell up, his moods to yo-yo and his head to ache; and it really didn’t help his CD much in the end. As all of this was happening, Blair became a father. After the birth of our second child 2 years later, he was experiencing a flare up and had to leave the hospital room and sleep in the car as he was feeling so terrible. I didn’t mind, because I knew how bad it must have been to have to sleep in a car after the birth of your child. This was definitely a low point.

Thankfully, Blair’s employer at the time was one of those hard to come by sensitive Bay Street men, plus, his brother had CD. I remember Blair coming home saying his boss gave him a bear hug on a day when he wasn’t doing that well and shed a little tear for him. He also told him to go home and stay there as long as he needed. This display of male camaraderie and open emotion was special on multiple levels. I don’t think Blair’s boss would have had the same level of empathy or understanding had his own brother not suffered from the condition. This is why raising awareness is so important; this interaction could have been much different.

Unfortunately, not every employer has recognized Blair’s struggles with IBD, and it has contributed to some pretty stressful times for us as he has tried to navigate managing his CD and working a professional job. At our stage of life as young professionals, this is one of the most important reasons for raising awareness about IBD; to help employers understand how debilitating this condition can be. Trust me when I say, Blair wishes he could be productive at work every day during a flare up but it is humanly impossible at times, if only because he needs to spend most of the day in the bathroom. During the first week of school this year, Blair landed in the hospital because he lost so much fluid during a flare up and needed intravenous nutrition. Work wasn’t even something he could think about in these few days it lasted.

When our youngest child turned 1, we decided to leave the city and move to the Kawartha Lakes, where I am from. We would have the help of my mother, and live in the country, free from commuting on public transit and the hustle of Toronto living. Blair’s CD was not the primary driver of us choosing this different way of living, but it was definitely a factor in our decision-making process.

These past couple of years have been better for us. Blair has started taking an intravenous drug every 6 weeks that does a pretty good job of controlling his CD symptoms. The only issue is that it lowers his immunity considerably, so he can’t venture out too far in a global pandemic. Work-from-home options are actually really beneficial for people with IBD , though, and I hope those who have the good fortune to WFH get this option when the pandemic abates.

The silver lining of IBD might be the resilience and gratitude that comes with good health. When Blair is feeling really well, we are all grateful. Even our small children recognize when daddy is feeling good. CD adds layers to Blair’s identity and helps him to feel empathy for others on a level that many can’t understand. I will never pretend to understand what someone with IBD goes through, but I too have developed a new level of empathy for those living with chronic diseases. Please check in on someone you know with IBD; most of the time, they just need someone to listen.

Happy holidays and good health to all,

L.