Intellectual Risk: What tethers us?

Intellectual Risks: A lesson from the high ropes. Recognize your supports when pushing the limit.

One of the ten International Baccalaureate (IB) Learner Profile attributes is Risk-taker. As we know that our brains react to both physical and emotional threats in a similar fashion, physical challenges can teach us a lot about meeting  the demands of an intellectual challenge, with all the emotional threat that this may involve.

The dreaded classroom presentation is a great example to compare to the high ropes course; it being particularly apt due to that primitive amygdala of ours, which takes over when we think that things may not go well for us, either on a wooden platform 20 meters above the ground or in front of the class.

On the high ropes, we manage our fear because we are tethered in a physical sense, or at least I hope you are if you ever go up. When students get up in front of the class to present, what tethers them? What can they use to override their self-preserving fight or flight responses in the face of an emotional threat.

Having observed a class of Grade 7 students encouraging each other on the high ropes last week, I would say that the supportive culture of classmates is as much a tether as the safety rope connected to their harness. Knowing that you will be supported by your peers, regardless of how you do, is the strongest tether we can have when taking an intellectual risk. Building this supportive culture in the classroom and recognizing its impact is a vital step in the empowerment of our students as risk-takers. How explicit do we make this in our classrooms?

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Wild meat, bully burgers & honest advice

Students received some very honest advice last week from Lois-Ann Yamanaka, prominent contemporary Hawaiian author. As a former English teacher (although I am guessing that Lois-Ann will always be a teacher at heart), she is well positioned to help our aspiring young writers and also those who do not yet know that they are aspiring – because that’s what school’s about. Lois-Ann told our students to write from their heart, not their head. Heart to Hand. The consequence of not writing from the heart, Lois-Ann explained, is poor writing, this being expressed by the author with greater clarity, of course. It is our own stories and emotions (the fears, the hope, the anger, the love) that should provide our inspiration to move the reader with our writing. Successful writing is measured in laughter and tears.

This powerful piece of advice resonated with the audience, students and teachers alike. We enjoyed the stories and were confronted with the insidious reality of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of minority groups in Hawaii. With a wonderfully vivid character like Lovey to place these complex ideas in context, I think we all left with a deeper understanding of this world in which we live and an awareness of issues to confront as we move through our lives. Afterwards, one of my students remarked that she had never considered how powerful words could be – to empower and also to repress. It was a new thought, a new idea in her mind, a new kernel of truth in her heart – and who knows where this will lead. Thank you Lois-Ann Yamanaka for sharing your stories.

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