She rises still

I rose today and found out that Maya Angelou had died, but in her beautiful words I found inspiration and an intention for my days:

My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.

Maya Angelou wrote frequently about courage. She realized that it takes courage to love and be loved, it takes courage to express empathy, it takes courage to avoid making the same mistakes twice, and it takes courage to see ourselves for who we are. Like Aristotle, she thought that courage was “the most important of all virtues. Because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtues consistently.”

600full-maya-angelouWithout courage, it is difficult to have faith in the unseen and unknown; without courage, hope becomes a struggle; and without courage, it is nearly impossible to fight for justice. For most of us, courage is a word that we use to describe other people, not ourselves. We think that someone who is courageous faces danger all the time without any fear. But Maya Angelou seemed to know that being courageous is about embracing fear with resolution, and acting in spite of it. A courageous person has the self-possession that allows her to live life fully. Courage can be quiet too.

To be courageous is to accept risk and uncertainty. In the absence of such courage, we often resist, as Sally Kempton says, “not only life’s difficulties but also life’s potential sweetness.” We deny ourselves the pleasure of opening to love or to personal growth because it might upset the delicate balance of life as we know it.  But Maya Angelou was not afraid to disturb or to change. She experienced abuse, poverty and segregation, and still embodied hope, faith and courage. She was a dancer, poet, author, actor, mother, and activist. She was not caged by any label, any role or any experience.

How do we become courageous? Eleanor Roosevelt said that, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.” We become brave by practicing courage one day at a time; by saying “Yes, I can”; by letting go of fear, and moving toward love.

Keep hope alive

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” So said Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago, and yet it has taken a very long time for schools to consider student engagement in a serious way.

The school system in my community has just announced that they will partner with the Gallup polling organization to measure hope, engagement and well-being in its students. They are the biggest of many school systems that are measuring well-being and putting social/emotional learning into practice. Taking a more holistic approach to student achievement isn’t just some feel good strategy. Social and emotional wellness has been found to be directly linked to student achievement and long-term success in life. The ability of a student to set goals and work toward them requires that he or she have a sense of hope – the belief that the work will lead to something good – and a feeling of being engaged in the process.

While there seems to be some hesitation on the part of some local politicians to fully embrace the idea – they don’t want to seem “silly” – the science backs it up. A 2011 study showed that students demonstrate academic gains when social emotional learning (SEL) is emphasized in school; and Daniel Goleman cites neuroscience research on how the emotional center of the brain is linked to the areas of the brain involved in cognition and learning.IMG

How do schools nurture hope and increase engagement and well-being? Developing self-awareness, self-management and interpersonal skills usually figure prominently in SEL goals. Achieving them entails nothing less than changing the climate of the school. SEL activities might include role-playing stressful situations such as bullying, working on anger management and teaching children the language of expressing emotions.

The president of Emotionally Intelligent Schools, Marc Bracket, uses an acronym to describe social/emotional learning: RULER. It stands for “recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating” emotion. Having the words to describe feelings, and being encouraged to express them, is a necessary step to being able to manage emotions better, and the teacher’s role is key in that process. As Daniel Goleman has said, “Teachers need to be comfortable talking about feelings.”

One of the measures on the Gallup survey being used in my district is “There is an adult in my life who cares about my future.” Whether that adult is a parent, a teacher or another mentor, the presence of someone who exhibits concern and empathy for a child is an important backstop for them, and makes it more likely that they will ask for help when they need it.  When I think back on my school years, I remember the teachers who truly cared for me as bright spots in a not-always-happy environment. Those were the teachers I really wanted to please, and I like to believe that I learned more from them than from the teachers who did not inspire me to commit to myself.hope

Holding a positive view of oneself, having a hopeful outlook and being goal-directed are all qualities that relate to resilience – the ability to adapt and bounce back from stress and adversity. Resilience doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems, but it makes you more able to see beyond them – to be happy in spite of them and to take steps to improve your situation

The American Psychological Association says that it’s not success that makes people happy; rather, it is happy people who “work toward goals, find resources they need and attract others with their energy and optimism” who become successful.