Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit; the month of June rolls in with hot humid weather, and life slowing down, close enough to normal for me to write my typical start of the month blog post with the childhood invocation of good luck.

Today, being the first Saturday of June, the Essex Rotary Club is having their annual Shad Bake. I've never been to a shad bake before, but a friend has spoken highly of them, so I'm thinking about working this into the schedule if possible.

Then, tomorrow, Miranda's book, Don't Make Art, Just Make Something gets launched up in Somerville, MA. I'm really looking forward to the event. Miranda just received her Masters of Education in Community Art, and the book has a bit to say about the educational system. For example, see this video of Miranda reading an excerpt from her book.

It fits well with Sarah Darer Littman's Op-Ed in CTNewsJunkie, An Open Letter to Connecticut Students.

June will see the end of the 2013 legislative session in Connecticut. I'll complete the CT Health Foundations, Health Leadership Fellows program and be doing various social media presentations.

Perhaps most importantly, I'll be spending time, when possible, swimming.

Thinking Outside the Oval Circle

As I sat at the Commencement ceremonies at Lesley University's Graduate School of Education, I thought to myself, "When was the last time you saw a help wanted ad asking for a standardized employee, must be good at filling in oval circles?" Most of the help wanted ads I see are looking for unique creative thinkers that must be self-starters able to work well in teams.

It seemed as if many of the teachers in the audience who had gone on to get advanced degrees knew all to well the failings of our push towards more standardized testing. The messages from the speakers were about the value of radical approaches to education and compassionate inclusiveness; when we think about 'them', all those people that are different from us in this shrinking world, we will eventually come to understand "They are us".

Looking at things from through the lens of health care reform, a topic I've been immersed in recently, I wondered what education reform could learn from health care reform. One of the big topics in health care reform, when you get past the hyperbole about Obamacare, is evidence based research into health outcomes. What are the outcomes we are looking for and how effective are different health care procedures?

Perhaps we need to look a similar way at education, what are the outcomes we are seeking? Are we looking to standardize all Americans and make them good at filling in little ovals? Standardized testing may be good at this, but is it what we're really looking for? How about teaching creativity and teamwork? This may be more useful in helping students find jobs and be productive, but is employment and productivity the highest goal we should be seeking? Where do values like compassion fit in?

Another key topic of discussion in health care is establishing the proper level of testing. Our health care costs have gotten out of control, in part, because of an over-reliance on testing. How often should a patient have a mammography? A PSA test? A colonoscopy? When are MRIs really called for?

If a patient tests negative for a condition commonly screened for and doesn't have a history indicating the likelihood of a condition developing, perhaps they should be tested less often. Maybe we should look at the same thing with standardized testing of students.

Many of my friends are eager to dismiss standardized testing outright. It has been promoted by corporations that benefit from it, and has not been designed by teachers in the front lines. Yet I've spoken with others that defend it, particularly as a tool to address underachieving schools, often in poor urban ethnically diverse school districts.

Following the idea of testing in health care, if a school is performing well, perhaps it shouldn't have yearly standardized tests. Perhaps every three years is sufficient, maybe even less frequently, depending on the stability of the teachers, the administration, and previous test scores. Yet for school districts that are not performing well, they might be needed on a yearly basis.

By moving away from standardized testing, schools can pursue lessons that will really help students in the real world, while schools that aren't managing to cover the basics continue to work on fundamental topics. Of course, this begs the question of what the basics really should be, what really is fundamental to a good education. As we think about a core curriculum, are we really teaching what will be core to students success in the twenty-first century, or, are we teaching what is core to maintaining the profits of an educational testing complex. That's a topic for a different blog post.

What is the Role of Art?

We live in a polarized society where just about everything is right or wrong, black or white, either/or, and rarely both/and. Perhaps this is some of the starting point of the discussion about the Amity High School Theatre Department's production of Sweeney Todd. It is violence ladened entertainment, or it is art. Even when talking about art, we find this dichotomy, art for art sake versus art as a means of societal change.

Last night, at the Amity Board of Education, I suggested a middle ground. Can we look at Sweeney Todd as both art for art sake, and art capable of bringing about positive societal change? Can art contain distasteful violence and be redeeming at the same time? If we are willing to step outside of our preconceived assumptions, it just might be possible.

For me, this relates back the whole idea of indirect lessons. Kids learn football for football's sake, yet at the same time, they are learning about teamwork. There's a lot of teamwork you learn when you are in a musical. Yet there's even more. There is a certain amount of emotional intelligence and empathy that can be indirectly learned by the cast and the audience a like. There can be catharsis and redemption even in a play about revenge.

Amity has a great tradition of theatre, yet one thing that I've not been able to find around that has been groups gathering to share with one another what they have experienced and learned from attending the productions.

The dust up around the production of Sweeney Todd appears to be offering an opportunity to fill this need. Over in a discussion on the Orange Patch, The Rev. Ann Ritonia wrote,

"a community discussion on violence is a wonderful idea. All are invited to attend a continuation of a community dialogue on April 23rd at St. Barbara's Greek Orthodox Church sponsored by the Orange Interfaith Clergy Fellowship. Prevention of Violence in our Culture: The Next Steps will begin at 7 pm and childcare will be provided. The public is welcome and Middle and High School Students are most welcome to participate in the discussion."

I hope people will attend Sweeney Todd. I hope they will then join the discussion at St. Barbara's Church. Let's celebrate and share art for art's sake that brings about positive social change.

"Art Isn't Easy"

This evening, I attended the Amity Board of Education meeting, where the public comment ended up being about the theatre department's upcoming production of "Sweeney Todd". I decided to go after I saw an announcement in the Patch, Violence Continues at Amity High School.

It was an unfortunate headline for an unfortunate announcement. The violence continuing at the high school is in the form of the musical, "Sweeney Todd". One high school student commented that the only violence at the school is freshmen during the first part of the school year, and that most of the time, Amity High School is a pretty mellow place.

The announcement resulted in an article in the Patch, "Parents Plannning [sic] to Protest at Amity BOE Meeting". It appeared in both the Bethwood Patch and the Orange Patch. Between the two articles and the announcement, there have been around 40 comments on the topic. It was also picked up in the New York Times.

Many of the comments talked about those opposing the production as "small-minded protesters [who] should be ashamed of themselves" and who "should get a grip on reality". Yet I think this misrepresents what is going on.

The first person to speak talked about an inter-faith coalition that was concerned about violence in society, and particularly as it exists in the media. She raised concerns about the violence in the musical and if it was teaching the sort of lessons we want to teach our youth. Others spoke about the musical in terms of art.

I spoke about how, perhaps if we think seriously, the two positions aren't as far apart as people would like to imagine. Art is a powerful way for people to deal with trauma, with the evil that is in the world. It provides an opportunity for people to discuss violence and the sort of society that we want to be part of.

I encouraged everyone to attend the musical, and then to gather with friends to discuss it and broader topics of violence in society. Afterwards, I encouraged the husband of the first speaker to attend, and to distribute leaflets inviting other theatre goers to an open discussion on a later date about violence in society and how art, and the musical addresses this problem. We shall see if anyone takes me up on this.

After I spoke, Howard Sherman echoed some of the same themes, reflecting on Sondheim's words, "Art isn't easy". Art isn't easy. Confronting evil and violence in our world isn't easy. Teaching our children isn't easy. But all of it can come together to help make the world a better place.

So, please come see Sweeney Todd, and then engage in discussions about the music with your friends and neighbors. Join in a broader discussion about how we can make our community a better place.

(This blog post has also been submitted to The Patch)

Can Empathy Be Taught? Online?

For the CT Health Leadership Fellows Program this month, I've been reading Daniel Goleman's "What Makes a Leader?" In it, he asked, "Can Emotional Intelligence Be Learned?"

Being the social media person that I am, I wondered if we could look at this from a different angle, "Can empathy be taught online?"

My mind went to a few different videos. One was Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. The lecture is about an hour and a half long and is very powerful.

In the lecture he tells the audience:

OK, and so one of the expressions I learned at Electronic Arts, which I love, which pertains to this, is experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And I think that’s absolutely lovely. And the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera. And these kinds of head fake learning are absolutely important. And you should keep your eye out for them because they’re everywhere.

Perhaps the head fake, the indirect learning, or when it comes to learning emotional intelligence, some sort of 'heart fake' is part of how empathy is learned or how it can be taught. If we learn by doing, perhaps we lead by example. Perhaps what matters in social media is not the content of the post, but the feelings that surround it. Perhaps, to twist McLuhan, it isn't even the medium that's the message, but the emotions that surround the experience of the medium.

Two other videos come to mind, and I always link them together. They are by Jane McGonigal. The first is Gaming can make a better world. The second is The game that can give you 10 extra years of life.

In the first video she sets up the importance of gaming, and in the second, she makes it intensely personal. The second also ties nicely back to Goleman's article. McGonigal starts off the second video saying that she is a gamer and because of that, she likes to have goals.

In this, she comes close to capturing the five components of emotional intelligence at work, Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Motivation, Empathy and Social Skill. She starts off by talking about the Top five regrets of the dying, all of which could me mitigated by playing more games.

She then explores the idea of post traumatic growth in contrast to post traumatic stress disorder. She notes that people experiencing post traumatic growth talk about how they end up doing things that make them happy, feeling closer to friends and family, better understanding who they really are, having a new sense of meaning and being more focused on goals and dreams. She notes that these are the opposite of the regrets of dying people, and I notice that they seem to mirror the five components of emotional intelligence at work.

So, what does it take to experience post traumatic growth? She talks about resiliency. As a side note, one of the Rabbis at the funeral I attended on Sunday made some comments about resiliency that sounded very similar. She described four types of resilience: physical resilience, mental resilience, emotional resilience, and social resilience. In the video, she suggests ways to build up these resiliencies.

Again, as a social media person, I'm wondering if there are ways to build up these resiliencies online. Are there things that can be shared via social media that will help others build up these resiliencies?

When I think about so much that is shared online, it is about the content itself; people praising or cursing the President or members of Congress. People advocating for various issues. Yet perhaps this is not making a difference, or, even worse, it is having a different effect than intended. Are people just becoming more polarized, more offensive by focusing on the content?

Where does indirect learning and emotions around the medium fit in? This is a thought I've been focusing a lot since the shooting in Sandy Hook. I've avoided, as much as possible, news reports going into the horror of the event. Instead, I've focused on sharing stories of people helping one another. I've especially been interested in posting pictures of cute animals, particularly when they are helping others. For example, Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses has many images and stories, that I believe can help build some of the resiliencies that McGonigal talks about.

Can empathy be taught online? Perhaps; perhaps by focusing on head fakes about resiliency. I'm trying to bring some of that into my social media footprint. Are you? What sort of impact are you having online?

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