Teacher, author, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris, examines the need for considering balance and purpose for our students. Teens are reporting as running on empty. Striving but not thriving. She discusses supporting students to build optimism, curiosity, and integrity.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:32 Promoting student character traits for thriving rather than striving. Our guest today is Deborah Farmer Kris. She posted an article with this title, “Striving or Thriving? Steps to Help Kids Find Balance and Purpose,” and it caught my attention. I contacted her and asked her if she’d join us here and she agreed. Deborah is a author often featured in NPRs, Mind Shift and PBS Kids for Parents. She’s also a workshop presenter for both teachers and for parents. So welcome Deborah.
Deborah: 01:11 Thank you so much for having me.
Steve: 01:13 I’m wondering if we can start with why the focus on balance and purpose.
Deborah: 01:21 So the title, “Thriving vs. Striving” is one I borrow from my dear friend, Michele Borba, who has been a leader in this field of character education for years, she’s an educational psychologist, and thriving, which really goes back to that kind of Greek sense of flourishing. What does it mean to live a life where we’re flourishing versus striving, which if you walk into almost any middle and high school, you see a lot of amazing kids who are striving to do well, and they are striving to get good grades and they’re striving to do the things we’re telling them to do to get themselves ready for college but you do not see them thriving emotionally or psychologically. They are exhausted. They are tired. They are stressed, everyone’s stressed, but they’re dealing with some chronic stress issues and not feeling like they have the support.
Deborah: 02:17 And so one of the things that Michele has done that I have interviewed her about is to begin to look at these character traits that help us move from striving more toward thriving. And there’s one piece of data that I just can’t get out of my head and it was looked at by Challenge Success out of Stanford University, where they interviewed thousands of parents and high school students in high achieving school districts. Now, these students are actually at the highest risk for psychological difficulties right now. And she basically asked the parents, what do you value most? What do you want for your child? And they gave those great answers. I want my kids to be happy and to basically thrive, but they asked the students, what do you think your parents value most? And they said, getting good grades, getting into a good college, the basic checklists.
Deborah: 03:11 And so when you see that gap, what you have a recipe for is kids who are doing the check marks, but don’t know why other than the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. And that’s not the recipe for lifelong thriving. And so this idea of purpose and having a sense of doing things you care about that you believe in, that you feel curious about, this really contributes to a sense of not only confidence, but optimism for the future. And so some of the things that give us a sense of purpose are doing things we truly care about. And what you discover is that a lot of kids, when they get up to high school, the things they love doing in elementary school and middle school, their hobbies, their passions, they’re not doing them anymore and they’re not because they don’t have time, but what they’re losing along the way by replacing it by what club should I join and what internships should I take over the summer is that connection to that deeper sense of purpose. And that, as parents and educators, we can step back and help them tap back into that, asking those questions, those motivational interviews of what really gets them excited and encouraged them to pursue that. That is a great thing for mental health.
Steve: 04:28 You triggered an earlier podcast that I recorded with two authors who had written an article titled, The Dark Side of Rigor,” and they talked about parents having the misconception of what rigor was in a high school program, which was a lot of work to do versus rigor being a depth of engagement that was probably driven more by interest and curiosity and the opportunity to step back and I was just connecting that as I was listening to you now with the difference there.
Deborah: 05:15 It’s true. And one of the things I always loved about teaching upper elementary and middle school is that these kids were so connected often to that sense of what got them excited. And if they weren’t excited about something, helping steer them toward, like, I could be the observer and notice that they seem to really be getting into blank, maybe they’d like to try scratch because they really like how things are organized. Or I can draw upon their interest of statistics with math to really kind of fuel and help them make those connections. That sounds great for elementary, but then in high school, they have to have this course load. But when you look at the great learners and discoverers and entrepreneurs and thinkers, they’re excited about ideas.
Deborah: 06:07 I had a chance to interview Docker Kelner from the Greater Good Science Venter at Berkeley and his research on awe is truly awe inspiring. But he really looks at that some of the greatest transformational thinkers of our time are just deeply curious and follow it. The sense can get from just really allowing yourself to taken in by the beauty of whether it’s basketball statistics or the natural world, or the story you’re working on, or the beauty of code if a child who likes coding, isn’t that what we want for them when they are done with school and are trying to find this career that’s hopefully an intersection of what they care about and does good in the world and allows them to be self-sufficient as well.
Steve: 06:57 In the article that I read, you talked about seven different traits connected to being able to flourish as adults and you and I had a little chat and we picked three of them that we said we’d deal with in the podcast. So they were optimism, curiosity, and integrity. So jump in there, any place you’d like to start and let’s take a look at each of those.
Deborah: 07:28 So optimism is not rooted in just a happy thing. Optimism is the sense that you are feeling like the future has something beautiful, even if right now you’re struggling. And so if you are really struggling with something personally, or even with academically, but you have optimism and that can be rooted in the support system you have, it can be rooted in hearing stories from other people and your family about how they overcame things. They have a sense of this trajectory that life has its ups and downs and its struggles, but that it is a meaningful good life despite it, or even because of it. That’s really key. So a big piece of optimism I believe in families is actually storytelling. And it’s sharing the stories that we have and our family has, and people we know who have been through challenges and how they work through them and what they created in their life. I actually just finished reading Susan King’s, “Bittersweet” for an article I did. I interviewed her recently. And it’s all about this sense that optimism isn’t about thinking life will be perfect, it’s about thinking that life will be meaningful in all of its beautiful messiness. So that’s optimism.
Steve: 08:53 Stories sounds like a piece that teachers could be tackling in tasks to have kids explore those both within their families and outside.
Deborah: 09:07 Yeah. And not only that, telling the stories of people in, in your field who have gone through challenges, there’s this wonderful research out of Columbia, about kids and their perceptions of scientists. And often they think scientists are just born being good scientists. And so they had one group of students read just basic stories about discoveries, but they had another group of students read about scientist struggles either because of discrimination of race or gender or poverty or just difficulty in, you know, failure after failure. And those that read about scientists struggles, that changed their self-perception of themselves as scientists and it contributed. So these stories you’re getting to the classroom, right? So they don’t think that, “oh, you know, I’m just not a math person,” to show them the mathematicians who have wrestled for years with beautiful problems. These stories of struggle actually create optimism because it’s that sense of I’m not alone and that just because it doesn’t come easily, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Steve: 10:12 So curiosity or integrity, which one you wanna do next?
Deborah: 10:16 I’ll just briefly jump into curiosity. And I just wanna connect that to this sense of awe and wonder because awe and curiosity are deeply connected. And when I asked Dr. Kelner about his research on awe, he said, a big piece of awe, which is antithetical to much of schooling is slowing down. It’s paying attention, it’s wandering it’s you have your class outside and you say, let’s take a look at this really closely. It’s putting the painting or that one line of poetry that inspires awe in you and letting them explore it in depth. So it’s not so much about the breadth of coverage, but that depth that allows kids to wonder, and to ask big questions without just thinking about am I gonna be questioned about this on a test? And it turns out that curiosity of course has great academic outcomes, but it also has good mental health outcomes, that when we, even people who are elderly, who are go on walks once a week and just pay attention to what’s out there in nature, the bird sounds, that contributes to mental health.
Deborah: 11:28 And I just think about the times where I just knew my students needed to go outside and we went outside and did read aloud and being out there and pausing to look at the clouds, how quickly that was a refreshing activity that brought a sense of closeness in community, but also it’s recharging the curiosity batteries for kids.
Steve: 11:47 With the part you just said there, I hear great reflection for teachers on, as I’m thinking back over the month, where did awe occur? And if I can’t name some, it would drive me to be looking for something that I need to create as an opportunity. I can’t make the awe happen but I need to create the opportunity.
Deborah: 12:14 Mm-Hmm. It’s almost like you provide almost the gateway to awe. And so if you could even ask them in a unit, what inspired your awe or curiosity? Like, what was the thing that you learned that created a spark for you? Or, in teaching English, I’d often say, I want you to go back and highlight one sentence in last night’s reading that you found beautiful or interesting or provoking for some reason. Let’s start class that way. Let’s start with what piqued your curiosity, because that’s an authentic discussion that I’m not pulling teeth, they’re bringing it because it’s authentic. And what I discover is by the of class, they had covered everything, but it was from them not from me. And so tapping into your students’ curiosity is actually tapping into motivation.
Steve: 13:05 And the we’ve got left is integrity.
Deborah: 13:07 Yeah. Integrity is more than honesty I think is just what I wanna leave you with. I think we talk about academic integrity and we think, okay, that means that they’re not cheating and they’re not plagiarizing and that’s important. But when you think about why some kids are cheating and plagiarizing, really good kids who are smart kids who don’t necessarily need it, and by smart, I mean, that they’re driven in that way, like they could do this, but if they’re being told so often that the most important thing is the good grades, then, virtues and values are often in conflict with each other. I mean, it’s like, do I be honest or am I compassionate about what the dress looks like when my mom says, “how do I look?” An often, we pick the one we feel like in that moment supersedes the other one. And so they feel that getting those amazing grades supersedes just borrowing a couple of answers from a friend.
Deborah: 14:02 What we want with integrity, integrity really comes from this idea of a sense of wholeness, like an integer, a whole number, being authentically themselves. It’s much easier for them to be authentically themselves if we allow them to be. If we realize that authentically pursuing some of their interests might mean they’re not a straight A student and that’s okay, because maybe after school, they are working on a community farm because they love doing it and maybe that means there’s not quite as much time for homework and we’re not going to punish them for that because we are looking at the whole picture and that balance. And so if we allow them to kind of bring their authenticity and we get curious about it, then it’s much easier for them to have that integrity that we really want for them.
Steve: 14:51 So reading your article and now listening to you today, that word authentic gets hit quite a bit. You wanna just give us a little bit more around that? I could imagine inviting people into my classroom to look for it. Look for it in the kids and look for it in me. So talk a little bit more about the power of that word.
Deborah: 15:21 I think part of it comes from who’s doing the pushing and the pulling, right? So if you have students and sometimes you see these students who are doing everything right, but there’s no spark. I think about the scene from Runaway Bride, which is not a great movie, but she’s left a lot of people at the altar and she realizes, somebody asked her one day, how do you like your eggs? And she realizes she doesn’t know, because when she’s with one man, she likes and scrambled with another it’s poached. And I think we do that with our teachers. Well, who are you as a writer? I don’t know. It depends on my English teacher. I turn into a chameleon based on the needs of my teachers. And I worry about that when I teach. Are they acting this way and responding this way just to please me?
Deborah: 16:05 Or am I making room for questions they have that may not fit my curriculum? Am I making space for them to bring insights that I didn’t put in the lesson plan? Am I making space for those awe moments? Am I paying attention to when they come in and they’re just not looking quite their same exuberant self. Am I telling them, I notice, I noticed this, I noticed that because kids love to be seen. And I think that phrase I noticed from, I noticed you seem really interested in blank, to, I noticed that you have done a lot of extra help with your family this last week and I know that’s probably been tiring. That is just such an invitation for them to bring their authentic self to class and know that it’s a safe place to grow and flourish.
Steve: 17:01 Interesting. My wife’s an elementary counselor and over the weekend, her school had a international fair and I attended with her and we were walking around, but every time she noticed kids, that she let them know she noticed them, I could see the impact on the student.
Deborah: 17:23 They light up. They light up when they’re seen. Susan David, who I just love and I’ve had a interview several times, she wrote the book, “Emotional Agility,” she’s a Harvard based psychologist, but she says in her native, South Africa, the Zulu greeting is “sawabona,” which means quite literally, I see you. And I feel like that is such an appropriate for adolescents who are struggling. It’s not expecting them to be any one way. It’s saying I see you and I’m glad you’re here. And so I think about that as a teacher too, is when a student walks in late, what does my face say? Does my face say, I can’t believe you’re late again or does my face say, I’m glad you’re here? And they’re reading us. And so if they read us and they see that my face lights up and I’m glad you’re here, we can talk later about why they’re late. But I think the first thing feel is a sense like, teachers mad, she shamed me. There’s a shut instantly. What we communicate in our body language, all of that, these are things that allow students to develop that optimism, that curiosity, because we make space for them.
Steve: 18:35 So earlier today, I recorded a another podcast with a principal trainer coach and he was sharing questions that we should be asking kids at the end of the year to gather data for ourselves, self-reflection for the kids, but gather data for ourselves to be thinking about. And as I’ve listened to you now, I’m gonna go back and touch base with him because I think I got another great question to add. He posted a list of 20 that people could start with. But would it be great to be asked kids, when was your authentic self in the classroom or when did you feel most authentic in this course? And if we could get the kids to pause and think about that, their responses I think could tell us a whole lot.
Deborah: 19:29 Oh yeah. It’s such a big piece of school and classroom culture to say, what is my agenda for the kids and am I making room within that for them to explore, have integrity, develop their confidence, have moments of awe, allow their curiosity in their questions. Because when we’re not in the classroom, when they’re on their own, those are the very traits that we want them to have.
Steve: 20:05 Well, Deborah, thank you so much. I’m wondering if you could just share with teachers listening in here, some resources that they can find by touch and base with you and the best way for them to go about doing that?
Deborah: 20:18 Sure. So my website is parenthood366.com because much of my work is parent education, but within that, they are going to find all of my articles, links to Mind Shift, which is the NPR education blog to PBS Kids, if they are teaching younger ones, and so that’s just kind of a central gathering spot for a lot of different resources that I have.
Steve: 20:41 Well, thank you very much. Appreciate your time today.
Deborah: 20:45 Thank you for having me.
Steve [Outro]: 20:48 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.