Tag Archives: The Virtues Project

The One Thing I Wish I Had Known Before I Began This Crazy Journey

On one of the whiteboards in my classroom I have a schedule for the day. It keeps me on track and helps my some of my more anxious students prepare for what’s coming next. Aspects of the agenda change but some are constant, like the second to last item which is the time in the day that I set aside to “Honor the Spirit” where I acknowledge each of my students (and sometimes collectively) for the virtues that I saw in them that day. It used to be the last thing on the agenda but on some of those crazy days that end with a boisterous activity or intense game, it would get lost somewhere between cleaning up and getting out of the door on time. It has become too important to forget.

I wish I had known years ago how important it is to honor the spirit in my students every single day. These are the moments when the wounds and successes of the day are mediated through a lens that looks beyond the failures and accomplishments to the spirit of the student who in an act of courage, comes to school each day. While it is preferable to honor the spirit in those teachable moments, opening a space near the end of the day means it doesn’t get forgotten. It is an opportunity to let them know that no matter what has happened over the course of the day, that they have been seen in a meaningful way and that their presence matters and is valued. It is especially important on those days when it is the hardest to do as it opens the door to forgiveness and hope and in that process invites courage to accompany us on to new possibilities in the coming days.

My heart aches for the years that passed when I did not fully appreciate the importance of the practice of honoring the spirit. In as much as I wish I acknowledged far more students much more regularly for their gifts of character, I am saddened by how I didn’t know how the practice would enrich me, my view of the world and my own spirit. You see, when you authentically honor the spirit in others each day, you finish the day with an overwhelming sense of gratitude which allows you to appreciate and celebrate life as it unfolds whether through trials or small graces. I have taken to telling people I have the best job in the world and it is not only those moments when I take the time to see and acknowledge the virtues in my students that make it so, it is also the sense of belonging and community that emerge out of making it a daily practice.

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Nurturing Activism in Gifted Students

Having an awareness of how high gifted students can set the bar for themselves has made me proceed carefully into conversations around activism. One highly gifted child that I have the pleasure to know made the off-hand comment to me once that anything less than a Nobel Peace prize would seem an insignificant contribution. So while locally, nationally and internationally, child activists are doing amazing work and have been well recognized for their efforts, it is important to balance our conversations about these  tremendous role models with an understanding of the many layers to activism.

In our smallish community we are fortunate to have some amazing role models. One such individual is Tenille Nadkrynechny who at 15 began using her musical talents to ensure the homeless youth of our community have a safe shelter to go to. Her talents have been a source of inspiration to many of our local students. We are also very proud of Canadians Craig and Mark Kielberger whose activism began at the age of 12 championing the rights of child labourers. In the 21 years since their incredible work with the “Free the Children” organization has evolved into the internationally recognized Me to We movement. This movement has come to our community in the form of Mighty Peace Day. And we cannot forget Malala, who was catapulted onto the world stage after being shot for championing the right to go to school. She went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

So how does one begin talking about activism with students who have tremendous compassion and wish to make a difference in the world? Depending on the child and where they are setting their bar, it may start with a conversation about our fascination with eminence. In some of her talks, Linda Silverman reflects on eminence being a wrongheaded guide for giftedness when she explains how at one time eminence/giftedness was measured by the number of books one had written about them. Based on that interpretation the most gifted individual on the planet at one point would have been the race horse Sea Biscuit. While Sea Biscuit may have been a very gifted horse with a very gifted trainer, we can’t all be Sea Biscuit for a few obvious reasons. We also can’t all be Malala for just as obvious reasons.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t be activists. In fact, the next conversation might be about how activism is a daily activity-the product of a thoughtfully lived life. Every time we are faced with a situation that calls us to action: standing up for or to a friend, seeing someone in need, deciding what we will or will not purchase or consume, voting, choosing a topic for an assignment…we are activists. For my anxious and perfectionistic students who might find this concept paralyzing, I would turn to the The Virtues Project and contrast the excellence and moderation definitions with one another. In fact, it is the cultivation of these and other virtues as we proceed with pursuing our passion that will allow us, should an opportunity arrive, to be an activist for a cause larger than ourselves, and proceed with the confidence, compassion, integrity and humility required of those who might be called upon to lead.

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Giftedness and the Impact of Trauma

If you’re a news hound, it’s been a summer of scary news stories from all parts of the globe. My iPhone has made it really easy to find these stories as they emerge…just one swipe to the right and there it is…a deadly accident, acts of terrorism, an environmental disaster and wait…”First shot, new target, led the assault…” No worries. Just a metaphor for a story on pipeline negotiations but it got my attention.

If I’m not careful I can start to have a view of the world that not only frightens me but raises my anxiety levels as I wonder about the future for my children and the children that I work with. Friends tell me that there is a simple solution. Stop swiping to the right. Turn off the news when it pops up on the radio. Scroll over the headlines on FaceBook. And then go into your garden, hang out with your friends, go fishing and you will see that the amazing world we live in is still there. You can stop the trauma.

But even if I can turn away from it, should I?  I live and work in a world that demands I be present for a variety of reasons. For example, we know that gifted students can be traumatized by world events. For some, their sensitivities and tendencies toward deep thought and active imaginations can lead to vicarious traumatization. We need to be sensitive to this and look for ways to support them. (SENGifted.org has some great resources including these Tips for Helping Gifted, Highly Sensitive Teens and Children Cope with Trauma. )

But even more troubling this past year has been the number of children who have come across my radar who are dealing with first hand trauma and exhibiting signs of giftedness. Here’s what makes it especially difficult. Often the trauma is not fully disclosed or acknowledged by the parent so there is no therapeutic intervention as well as behaviours that come with no “explanation.” Another confounding problem is that in the classroom, these flight or fight responses may be interpreted as a behaviour issue and be addressed in behaviour plans that do not incorporate support for trauma. And finally the testing of children who are in a state of hyper-arousal is unreliable and therefore they may not be identified and given access to gifted support which can add yet another level of frustration.

In this article by Dr. Bruce Perry, Violence and Childhood, he writes that it is important to help traumatized children understand their traumatic responses to triggers as they may not feel in control and as a result create an negative internal dialogue: stupid, sick, irrational, bad… He also notes that it is important to offer them hope, which includes an image of a better future and a better world as well as the first hand knowledge that not all adults are unpredictable, inattentive, abusive or violent. Interactions matter and responding with respect, humour and flexibility can start the process of feeling valued. But that isn’t always easy. There is truth to the saying that the children who are the most difficult to love are the ones who need it the most.

The world is full of trauma whether we experience it directly or vicariously. Turning away can be another act of violence…we need to be there for the traumatized who are in our lives as well as those who need us to be aware of what is happening elsewhere in the world so we can make political, social and economic choices responsibly. There is a virtue that can help us with this and it is called detachment. It allows us to experience our feelings without allowing them to control us as well as let go of the things we cannot change. At the same time it gives us the wisdom and grace to be in the world and choose how we will act as opposed to react. You can learn more about the virtues here.

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2016: Using the Virtues Project in meeting the Social/Emotional needs of Gifted Students

Over the past number of years I have been committed to learning and embedding the language of the virtues (The Virtues Project) into my professional and  personal life. At first it seemed like a simple enough task, after all, it isn’t as if I don’t already know the words. But it started out feeling very awkward to say the words “I see your determination,” or “Thank-you for your courtesy,” or “I need your self-discipline.”  I had become comfortable with short cuts like “Great job!” “Thanks!” and “Pay attention!” and to deviate from the auto-responses in an effort to really “see” the person, be present in the moment,  and most importantly to understand and acknowledge what I was seeing and needing meant that I had to change what I was looking for and who I needed to be to speak with authenticity.

But when you start looking for the virtues in the people around you, it really is like putting on a different set of “glasses” or lenses with which to see the world. Perfectionism can be redefined as idealism that requires an understanding of moderation and humility to fully blossom. Emotional over-sensitivities can be understood as empathy and compassion which may require an understanding of detachment to balance out how incredibly overwhelming they can feel. A temper tantrum can be transformed into learning how to balance commitment and determination with flexibility. In my mind, the value of using the virtues as part of a social/emotional curriculum for gifted learners cannot be understated. But it is not the kind of curriculum where each week you choose a virtue to study and learn. It is a daily search and acknowledgement for the virtues that are already there that need acknowledgement and/or cultivation.

This recent Ted Talk by my mentor in the Virtues Project, Christine Ayling, is a great place to get an introduction to what the project is all about as well as the five strategies in working with the virtues. In 2016 it is my goal to continue learning how to further develop the five strategies she talks about in my own life and practice as well as share some of those insights here. All the best to all of you in 2016!

Gifted and Struggling with Relationships? The Virtues are a Good Place to Start

Gifted or not, relationships can be difficult. Much of my research in my masters thesis focused on the impact of relationships on learning and the focus of three years of intense study into curriculum along with interviewing teachers confirmed that yes, relationships are difficult. In a school setting, there are many things that contribute to these difficulties.

1. Assessment. Learning is about opening yourself up to new ideas, taking risks, exploring the distance between what you know and what you have yet to discover and potentially being transformed by the experience. Knowing that this journey is constantly being “evaluated” can place stress on the relationships in the school setting as evaluations lead to expectations.

2. Expectations. Schools are rife with expectations coming from students, parents, teachers, administrators, community groups, economic think tanks and government about what could and should be happening in them. Because the expectations are so varied and needs are so different, there are some things that schools are able to deliver and some things they are not due to this diversity.

3. Diversity. As much as we would like to say we embrace diversity, it is impossible for us to ever fully  understand the experience of another human being. When I ask colleagues to imagine what it would be like to be a gifted student in a classroom, the assumption is that it would be easier than it is for most. They can’t begin to imagine the sensitivities, the self-doubt, frustrations and worries that can plague what appear to be the most capable of students. In the same way it would be difficult to fully understand the experience of other groups of students: ELL students, FNMI students, LGBT students…and ultimately all of our students. Outside the building everyone has a story and experience that they carry with them into the school environment.

So what did I learn from researching relationships and their impact on learning? That ultimately good relationships emerge from believing the best about ourselves and believing in the best in others. It means letting go of assumptions when things get challenging and seeing if you can find out what the other person needs. It means practicing flexibility, forgiveness and humility while embracing care. Institutions are what they are: places designed to help us conform to the perceived needs of our society. What makes them positive places is the humanity that we bring to them as we navigate the expectations and the diversity.  Once I help my gifted students understand the nature of institutions, my favourite resource for addressing how we can bring in our humanity is The Virtues Project. The core belief is that we are all born complete with the virtues required for this difficult journey full of difficult relationships. Our work is to honour and bring out the best in each other along the way.

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Forgiveness and other “Songlines” for 2015

I feel overwhelmed. Often. As a person who loves new information and learning, there has never been a time where information and opportunities to learn have been more accessible. This morning alone, searching through my twitter feed, I saw at least 10 Ted Talks that look amazing! That’s not counting any of the other posts I see that look intriguing to explore. Add to that the SENG Webinars, the short courses at Schumacher College and the new offerings from Coursera…Wow! Time to set some goals, make a plan, resolve to…

Did I mention that I get overwhelmed? Often? So I put away the iPad and snuck down into my basement studio where I am working on a song. It’s about forgiveness and entitled “Still Somewhere To Go”. Songwriting is ESSENTIAL practice for me. It’s not about writing a hit song or even whether people like them or not. (Though there is some joy in finding resonance with others!) It’s about tapping into and creating songlines to navigate my way through the familiar, yet “cluttered” places I find myself in. (I have borrowed the word/idea of “songlines” from an indigenous Australian tradition. Please read about how indigenous Australians use music to mark geography…it’s quite fascinating.) Songwriting guides me and I feel as exhilarated as I imagine all cartographers must as I map out where all the thoughts and ideas in my head are taking me.

So why a song about forgiveness as 2015 looms? Many students and friends have told me that of all the virtues, this is the one that is the most difficult. My own experiences are mixed…sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it takes time but to date, for the most part, I have been able to get there and I say that with gratitude; I have been fortunate in the degree of the grievances I have experienced.

But in the past few months I have realized that as an idealist, there are many things that I have not been able to forgive that can make things difficult. Rene Descartes for the fragmentarity of scientific method and its impact in application. Sacred texts for their endless interpretability. Systems and their impossible task of defining themselves in a changing world. Entrepreneurial evangelical-like changemakers who believe they have found the key to… The inability of words to adequately express complexity. In essence, all the things that take me away from seeing the beauty in all the things as they are. We are all in the process of becoming. Being angry or discouraged by the things (or people) that are not as we believe they should be isn’t really helpful. Seeing them as part of or in the middle of an astonishing journey…can be incredibly agonizing and breathtaking at the same time. Forgiving the “world” for not living up to my expectations- a pretty humbling experience. Yet now I feel less overwhelmed than when I feel it is up to me to constantly “make things happen”. Things are happening. Maybe not always the way I think they should…and that’s why the next song will need to be about humility.

And that is why for me songwriting is essential. It’s not easy to get to the final chorus without finding a bridge to get you there and that can take a lot of contemplation. But once you’ve written the song, you have something to sing when you are back stumbling through a place that you thought you’d already explored.

If I ever finish my song “Still Somewhere To Go” I will try to find a songline for humility. There are many virtues to explore in the journey of becoming. It’s one of the reasons why The Virtues Project has become such an important part of my practice. Another map of sorts, it is connected to many cultural and sacred traditions from around the world and ergo rife with songlines that have been guiding us through many terrains for many years. All the best to you as you journey through 2015!