Cultivating Joy Takes Work: 3 Ways to Turn Happiness Into a Habit

Back in the fall, Michelle Shiota noticed she wasn’t feeling like herself. Her mind felt trapped. “I don’t know if you’ve ever worn a corset, but I had this very tight, straining feeling in my mind,” she says. “My mind had shrunk.”

Shiota is a psychologist at Arizona State University and an expert on emotions. When the COVID-19 crisis struck, she began working from home and doing one activity, over and over again, all day long.

“I will be honest, for the past 14 months, I have spent most of my waking hours looking at a screen, either my laptop, my phone or a TV screen,” she says, often from the same sofa, in the same room in her San Francisco home. All that isolation — and screen time — had taken a toll on Shiota.

During the pandemic, many people have felt their mental health decline. The problem has hit essential workers and young adults, ages 18 to 24, the worst, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in May. The percentage of adults with signs of anxiety or depression has grown threefold, from about 10% to 30%.

Although some people are starting to test the waters of public life again, planning vacations and socializing more, others may still have lingering signs of what psychologists call languishing. They may feel an emptiness or dissatisfaction in day-to-day life. Or feel like they’re stuck in weariness or stagnation.

Luckily, an emerging area of brain science has a new way to help lift yourself out of languishing — and bring more joy into your life. It worked for Shiota.

“I had to expand my consciousness,” she says. And she did it by intentionally cultivating a particular emotion.

Explore ways to cultivate well-being with NPR’s Joy Generator.

How emotions arise

For thousands of years, there’s been a common belief in Western culture about emotions — that they are hard-wired and reflexive, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett writes in the book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. “When something happens in the world … our emotions come on fast and uncontrollable, as if somebody flipped a switch,” she writes.

But when researchers look at what’s going on inside the brain and inside the body during specific emotional states, the theory doesn’t hold up.

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have begun to shift how they think emotions arise. Rather than being inevitable, hard-coded experiences, researchers now think emotions are malleable, and people have more influence over them than previously thought.

Say for example, you’re walking in the woods, and you see a grizzly bear, says neuroscientist Anil Seth at the University of Sussex. “You recognize it’s a bear,” he says, “and then what happens?”

Previously researchers thought the emotion comes first. “You see a bear and then you feel afraid,” Seth says. “Because you’re afraid, your brain then jacks up your adrenaline levels.”

Your heart rate rises. Your breath quickens. Your pupils dilate. And blood rushes to your skeletal muscles. The old theory was that “the fear sets in train all kinds of flight and fight responses so that you are well-prepared to run away and live another day,” he adds. In other words, the emotion (i.e., fear) triggers the physiological responses (i.e., an adrenaline rush).

But according to the latest research, the human body probably works the other way around, Seth says. “The brain registers a grizzly bear, and that perception sets in train all the physiological responses.” You get an adrenaline rush. Your heart rate goes up. You start breathing faster. Blood rushes to your muscles. And then the emotion comes.

The brain senses these physiological changes and decides which emotion to conjure up. The emotion is an interpretation of what’s going on both inside the body (the adrenaline rush) and the outside of the body (the sight of the bear). “The brain has to figure out what caused the sensory signals,” Seth says.

The chosen emotion not only helps the brain make sense of these signals, but it also helps the brain predict better the immediate future and how to handle the situation at hand. Which emotion would be most useful? Which emotion will help me survive?

To figure that all out, Seth says, the brain uses one more piece of information — and this part is key. The brain takes into account your past experiences, your memories.

Let’s return back to that encounter with the grizzly bear. If your past experiences with bears come largely through news reports of attacks and maulings, then your brain will likely interpret your bodily sensations — raised heart rate, raised blood pressure, sweaty palms — as fear. Lots of fear! And this emotion will help drive you away from the bear. “So you can live another day,” Seth says.

But what if your family hunts for a living? And your past encounters with a bear ended in a wonderful feast for you and your neighbors. Then your brain may interpret the adrenaline rush — the heavy breathing and raised heart rate — as excitement. This positive emotion will help drive you forward toward the bear, while all the physiological changes help you bring home dinner.

“Your brain uses memories from the past in order to create the present,” says Barrett, who also does neuroscience research. “It’s bringing knowledge from the past to make sense of the immediate future, which then becomes your present.”

Neuroscientists call this “the predictive brain.” Understanding how these predictions work is “very powerful knowledge,” Barrett says. It means that emotions aren’t hard-wired reactions to particular situations, which are out of your control (i.e., you see a bear and therefore you must feel afraid). But rather it’s the opposite. “You can, in fact, modify what you feel in very direct ways,” she says.

Emotional muscle memory

It’s not about trying to force a happier or less fearful feeling in the moment, Barrett says. But rather, it’s all about planning ahead. You can stack the deck in favor of your brain, choosing positive, uplifting emotions in two major ways, she says.

The first one is a no-brainer: You can take care of your body physically. According to this new theory, the brain constructs emotions based largely on physiological signals and other sensations from your body. So by boosting your physical health, you can decrease the chance your body will send unpleasant signals to your brain and, in turn, increase the chance, your brain will construct positive emotions instead of negative ones. “You can get more sleep. You can eat properly and exercise,” she says.

The second approach to influencing your emotions may be less familiar but likely just as impactful: You can “cultivate” the emotions you want to have in the future.

“If you know that your brain uses your past in order to make sense [of] and create the present, then you can practice cultivating [positive] emotions today so that your brain can automatically use that knowledge when it’s making emotions tomorrow,” Barrett says.

By practicing particular emotions, you can “rewire” your brain, she says. “Your brain grows new connections that make it easier for you to automatically cultivate these emotions in the future.” So when you start to feel a negative emotion, such as sadness or frustration, you can more easily swap that negative feeling for a positive one, such as awe or gratitude.

“For example, when I am video chatting with somebody in China, I can feel irritated very easily when the connection isn’t very good,” Barrett says. “Or I can feel awe at the fact that someone can be halfway around the world, and I can see their face and hear their voice, even if it is imperfect, and I can be grateful for that ability.”

In this way, emotions are a bit like muscle memory. If you practice the finger patterns for a chord on the piano, a few minutes each day, eventually your fingers can play those chords with little thought. The chords become second nature.

The same goes for emotions. To help pull out of the pandemic blues, it’s time to start “practicing” positive emotions — and it won’t take as much as learning all the chords.

All you need is about five to 10 minutes, says psychologist Belinda Campos at the University of California, Irvine. “Hopefully it wouldn’t take people as much effort as it does to eat healthier or to exercise,” she says. “Positive emotions feel good. I think people will find them rewarding enough to return to them and keep doing them.”

Scientists say this practice is helpful to prevent or work with everyday doldrums and weariness. It isn’t intended as a replacement for treatments, such as counseling and medication, for serious mood disorders or anyone going through intense or prolonged bouts of depression.

The antidote to isolation

A few decades ago, scientists used to lump together all kinds of positive emotions into one concept: happiness. Since then, a group of psychologists, including Campos and Shiota, figured that there is a whole “family tree” of positive emotions, including pride, nurturant love, contentment, nostalgia, flow, gratitude and awe.

One reason these emotions often make us feel good is they shift our focus away from the self — that is “me and my problems” — and onto others, Campos says. “They help put the self in its balanced place, of not being absolutely the highest thing on the to-do list. They help us focus on the joys that relationships can bring.”

She adds, “In this way, positive emotions are part of what helps you to put others before the self.” And helping others often makes people feel good. “So, for example, people report levels of higher well-being when they’re giving to others, and it can feel better to be on the giving end rather than the receiving end,” she says. “I think that’s more evidence that focusing on others can be really good for us.”

The idea of cultivating positive emotions is pretty simple. Choose one of these emotions and then do a specific action regularly that helps evoke it. Psychologists have devised suggestions for how to get started, but it can be as simple as taking time to notice and appreciate the small things around you that uplift you. (Read three tips to get started at the end of this piece.)

Over time, your brain will start to use these emotions more often — and turn to negative emotions less frequently.

Take, for instance, gratitude.

For the past year and a half, Dr. Sriram Shamasunder has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shamasunder is a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, and he spends about half his time in low-income communities around the world.

To help bring more “light” into his life, Shamasunder started to keep a gratitude journal. It was part of a project for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Each day, Shamasunder simply jotted down things around him for which he was grateful. “So not necessarily spending a whole lot of time racking my mind, but just everyday occurrences that were powerful or meaningful or just simple and beautiful,” Shamasunder told The Science of Happiness podcast. He jotted down the doctors and nurses working on Sunday, “the unseen hands who created a vaccine,” “the evening light, magical and orange and blue,” and a tree outside that provides refuge to birds, ants and squirrels.

By intentionally cultivating gratitude, for even a short period each day, Shamasunder found it easier to evoke positive feelings throughout the day. “The act of naming the gratitudes carried into the next day and the next, where I became more aware of things in my life that I should cherish in the moment, or I need to cherish.”

An awe a day keeps the malaise away

Back in the fall, when Shiota, the Arizona State psychologist, felt her mind shrinking, she knew exactly which emotion she needed to cultivate.

She got up off the couch, drove West from her San Francisco home and ended up at the edge of the ocean. “I am trying to reconnect with the vast natural world, with the universe beyond my professional and personal responsibilities, and beyond this moment in time,” Shiota writes in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. “I am searching for awe.”

Shiota is a world expert on awe. She says the emotion is difficult to define, “but I think that what we are dealing with is a change that happens in our mind — and in our bodies and in our feelings — when we encounter something so extraordinary that we can’t explain it.”

That encounter can be with something grand, such as a panoramic view of a red sun dipping into the Pacific Ocean. It can be with something minuscule, such as the black spots on a ladybug. (How did they get so perfectly round?) It can be a scent, a taste or sound. “It can be a very complex and powerful song that you’ve never heard before or even a scene in a TV show,” Shiota says.

Whatever it is, the extraordinariness of the event makes you pause, for a bit, Shiota says, and try to figure it out. How does a rose smell like a lemon? Why does a perfectly ripened peach taste so good? “We simply slow down our body, slow down,” Shiota says.

And this pause calms your body. “I’ve found evidence that the activation of our fight-flight sympathetic nervous system dials back a little bit.”

The feeling of awe also widens your perspective, she says — which Shiota desperately needed after spending so much time looking at screens. “I had to consciously force myself to look further away. I had to let my senses — my sight, my sound, take in a broader scope of what was going on around me.”

In addition to going to the beach, Shiota also simply walked around her neighborhood, looking for unexpected and inspiring things.

“There was this amazingly elaborate, chalk drawing in recognition of somebody’s birthday. There was a couple, in which one person was clearly helping the other learn to roller-skate on the San Francisco hills. And they’re clinging on to each other for dear life,” she says with a chuckle. “Then the flowers! If you look closely at flowers, in a way that you never take the time to do, you’ll see how incredibly intricate they are.

“So the opportunities for awe are there,” she says. “Look for what moves you, what pushes your sense of boundaries of what is out there in the world.”

It took a little time — and patience — Shiota says, but eventually these “awe walks” helped her recover from her pandemic funk. Practicing awe released her mind from that constraining “corset.”

“Then my mind was able to spread out and take up the space that it needs to take to feel OK,” she says. And once her mind released, her body followed. “When you take off the corset, your whole body goes, ‘Oh, oh! That’s much better.’ ”

Three ways to practice happiness

Psychologists say you can improve your well-being if you recognize moments of positive feelings, value them and seek them out more often. Below, find a few other ideas for cultivating positive emotions and turning happiness into a habit. To explore more ideas, check out NPR’s Joy Generator.

1) Share some appreciation: Campos recommends this simple practice. Get together with some friends and write out on cards three things that you’re grateful for in the other person. Then share the cards with each other.

“We’re using this task right now in my laboratory, and it seems to be very evocative of positive emotion,” she says. And though the data is preliminary, she says, “what we see so far is that people enjoy writing what they appreciate in others, and they enjoy sharing it with the other person. It seems to be affirming bonds.” Sometimes it even ends in hugs.

2) Take an awe walk: Take a five-minute walk outside each day where you intentionally shift your thoughts outward. Turn off your cellphone or even better don’t bring it with you. “Focus your attention on small details of the world around you,” psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo at Claremont McKenna College suggests. Look for things that are unexpected, hard to explain and delightful.

For example, take a moment and find a crack in the sidewalk, where a weed is poking out, Barrett says. And let yourself feel awe at the power of nature. “Practice that feeling over and over again,” she says. “Practice feeling awe at colorful clouds, an intricate pattern on a flower or the sight of a full moon.”

3) Listen to a calm concert: A recent meta-analysis from the University of Michigan found that sounds of nature, including birdsongs and water sounds, lower stress, promote calmness and improve mood. Find a bench in your neighborhood under a tree or near water. Sit down, close your eyes and consciously listen to the natural sounds around you. Listen for birdsongs, rustling wind or trickling water. Try sitting for at least five minutes whenever you get a chance. Allow and enjoy calm to wash over you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Three Strategies for Advancing Antiracist Practices

“The water we’re swimming in” or “The smoggy air we’re breathing” are two well-known metaphors for talking about racism. They describe how racism is both everywhere and constant, which means it’s also present in classrooms, even when teachers have the best of intentions. 

This year’s Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools (DWSC) Conference focused on how teachers can work towards antiracist practices to bring about policy changes and create positive outcomes for students.

“How do we create more anti-racist schools? That’s the question we’ve been looking at,” said educator and conference founder Joe Truss. “The conference spotlights a whole lot of people’s work that have been iterating and innovating in their own sphere.”

Truss has a legacy of supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging white supremacy culture in their schools through workshops, monthly check-ins and large gatherings. This year marks the first formal DWSC Conference with keynote speakers Dr. Bettina Love, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Dr. Gholdy Muhammad.

Joe Truss

“Joe’s conference really helped us center that schools can be liberatory spaces, but it definitely has been historically a space that has been violent towards kids,” said Nguyen Huynh, a teacher at DeJean Middle School in California. At the conference, educators are able to reflect, connect with one another and develop plans for better serving the needs of their students. 

Grading Quality Over Quantity

After reading Tema Okun’s characteristics of white supremacy, one of the recommended pre-readings for the conference, Huynh re-examined his grading. This past year, he stopped grading regular assignments because he felt students were doing the assignments in order to get a good grade, not deepen their understanding. He gave them the space to practice self-reviewing skills and gave them all the answers with the assignments. “It helps them build their own skills of checking themselves and also self-reviewing,” he said. 

He also prioritized developing students’ mastery of content and skills. He took the pressure off students of having just one shot at demonstrating what they learned in tests and used a variety of assessments instead. For example, if he assigned a quiz, students were able to have unlimited retakes. For one assessment, he had students draw from their personal experience and use their advocacy skills to write a letter to the district superintendent about whether they wanted the school building to open or stay closed. 

Many students preferred having the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery with the letter and show authentic learning. Huynh has received positive feedback about scaling back on grading assignments on the quarterly surveys he gives students. “My kids are saying, ‘I enjoy learning in this class’ or saying that it’s much less stressful now that I don’t grade everything.”

Huynh has faced a few issues getting parents on board with nontraditional assessment. While alternative ways to measure student learning are increasing in popularity, they are not widespread, so it’s hard to get buy-in. There was pushback about the emphasis on reflection and whether students were continuing to build important skills. “I think it definitely highlighted what we need to do next year about how to communicate these new things with grading, especially because it’s normally not what people are used to.”

Part of a letter written by one of Huynh’s students (Nguyen Huynh)

Students Seeing Themselves in STEM

Calvin Nellum is a physics and math teacher at Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit. His work with Joe Truss focused his attention on how STEM education can be more antiracist by bringing in math tools from Black, Indigenous and POC cultures. “Allowing scholars to see themselves in science, that was my task,” said Nellum of bringing culturally responsive lesson plans into his predominantly Black classroom. “Just teaching scholars that science is them. It’s more than just using it to make things. It’s in you. It’s in your culture.”

Using a site called Culturally Situated Design Tools, Nellum shifted his curriculum to include coding the curves of Adinkra symbols created by the Ashanti people of Ghana using Scratch programs and calculating the arcs found in Anishinaabe Native American architecture. Students were able to examine visuals from these cultures and use math as a way to explore intricate designs. “These patterns and symbols and circles – all of these things that they use to represent nature, represent honor – represent where they come from. They have embedded mathematics in them.”  

He’s seen growth in his students’ confidence in STEM subjects and he presented the success of his lessons at the DWSC conference during the Anti-Racist Teachers and Leaders Symposium. “We got a lot of growth and I wanted to share the results,” said Nellum. “There are culturally responsive lesson plans for science and math teachers.”

Community-centered Classwork for Deeper Learning

Beth Vallarino, a humanities teacher at Tahoe Expedition Academy in Truckee, California, has been involved in Truss’s monthly check-ins for educators trying to become more justice-oriented in their teaching practice. She gravitated towards his educator-centered rubrics on anti-racist teachings. “Rubrics allow us to have a shared understanding and shared language about what quality or proficiency or success looks like,” said Truss. 

Using the rubric to reflect on her teaching practice has helped her identify priorities and gaps in the assignments and projects that she assigns students. Additionally, the rubrics provide questions that guide teachers to develop classwork that explores historical and current events in their community. She said rubric questions like “Was there a recent event that was either controversial or celebratory?” and “What’s the official history of your area?” are instrumental in helping students learn more about significant local history. 

“Kids were able to find out a lot about Truckee that’s not necessarily on a plaque,” she said. Using the rubrics as a guide, Vallarino’s class examined Squaw Valley Ski Resort’s decision to change their name because it contains an offensive slur against Native Americans. Students discussed the historical context that might have contributed to the naming and why the name should or shouldn’t be changed. “It’s interesting to present information in varied ways about what’s going on in our community and have them come up with their own ideas and opinions about what’s going on.”

In a conference presentation, Vallarino shared how her students have been identifying and speaking with experts, college students and organizations implementing justice, equity, diversity and inclusion work – also known as “JEDI” work. Students presented what they learned to their school administration alongside recommendations for how their school can be improved. 

Vallarino plans to identify ways that antiracist teaching can extend even further beyond classroom walls. “I want to be more involved in developing opportunities for parents and families because it can be really challenging if your kids are learning something that you personally don’t know about or aren’t aware of,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is that it’s really critical for schools to provide opportunities to educate communities.” She’s exploring ways to develop a shared vocabulary about antiracism and its role in improving humanity with students, caregivers and communities to build deeper understanding and energy around social justice work. 

Building Capacity and Sharing the Work

While Vallarino is hoping to build more collective capacity in her community, Huynh is hoping to build capacity to take on more antiracism work within his school’s staff. After attending Truss’s workshops last year, he brought five colleagues to the conference. “A lot of the work has to involve getting enough people on your side and moving forward together. And so for me, I made the decision to try to get many staff members to go just so there’s more sustainability,” he said. “We just need to keep building capacity because I think it’s really hard on our staff of color and myself.” Sharing the work helps reduce burnout among POC educators and gives co-conspirators an opportunity to help.

Truss agrees that one of the merits of the conference is getting everyone together to immerse themselves in a topic. He’s hoping that people not only learn from the sessions, but also are able to learn from the model of how the conference handles conversations about challenging and disrupting the status quo. 

“Seeing what quality professional learning looks like allows them to go back and lead it,” said Truss.

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Millions Of Teens Experience Abusive Relationships. Here’s How Adults Can Help

No parent imagines that teen dating violence could affect their child. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of women say they experienced intimate partner violence before they were 18. Shailaja Dixit, who works at Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments (SAVE), a nonprofit that helps survivors of intimate partner violence, says adults need to acknowledge that teen dating violence is real.

Dating abuse can happen to anyone — it doesn’t matter if the teen is a good student, plays sports or seems happy. A teen in an abusive relationship may not understand what’s happening or have the experience to know what to do — so adults are critical.

Here are a few tips for adults who can help.

Normalize conversations about relationships and sex

I think one of the best things that adults can do is make conversations around healthy relationships and sex a normal conversation that you have,” says Melissa Espinoza, who also works at SAVE, counseling youth. She says having casual conversations gives both of you an opportunity to share values and expectations. Start simple: “Are your friends dating anyone?” or “Have you thought about dating?” Espinoza says, don’t be discouraged if your teen acts as if you don’t understand or doesn’t say much — they are listening.

Use a story in the news or a movie to ease into conversations about how relationships are portrayed in popular culture and ask the teen what they think. Don’t worry if you feel awkward or stumble through the first few chats, Dixit says. “This is like a muscle that develops,” she says.

And don’t think of this as a one-off conversation; rather, think of it as one that is ongoing.

Be a trusted adult

A trusted adult could be a parent, but relatives, school counselors, pastors or even friends’ parents can support a teen, too. It’s a good idea to encourage your child to grow relationships with trusted adults in addition to their parents, so they have a network of support.

Espinoza says if you want to be one of these safe, trusted adults, you need to balance the protectiveness you feel for the teen with respect for their decisions. Let them know they can talk to you about anything. Many times, teens are scared of sharing something like relationship abuse — believing that they may get into trouble for dating when they weren’t supposed to or that they won’t be allowed to go out anymore.

“Just take the time to listen to what they have to share and don’t give just advice,” Espinoza says. “And then, if they ask for it, share your input as well.”

She says that doesn’t mean you can’t share your values or what you believe, just do it so that the emphasis is always on how much you love the teen.

Espinoza suggests setting aside time when you can go for ice cream or take a walk or shoot hoops. That helps build that relationship because it shows you are available. It also makes it easier to spot changes in a child such as if they become withdrawn or start changing how they dress or suddenly have different friends.

Dixit says being “emotionally observant” goes a long way. But, she cautions, if a teen shares something about their dating partner, don’t freak out, even if that’s how you feel inside. She says dismissing the relationship and connection the teen feels can backfire. “If the parents say, ‘Hey, you can’t see [that person],’ what ends up happening? They’ll start sneaking out or sneaking around.” She says have open and honest conversation instead by saying, “Let me hear your needs and you can hear our needs as parents, too. And how can we help you?”

Model healthy relationships

Dixit says showing a teen what a “healthy relationship” looks like is at the heart of preventing abusive ones. “It’s really the ability to feel like you’re equal when you’re with your partner. Is there humor? Is there respect? Do you feel scared when you voice an opinion, or are you heard and received? Do you feel physically safe? Do you feel mentally safe? Is there respect for boundaries?”

She says that sometimes, parents inadvertently model similar power dynamics as abusers — where they don’t empower teens to set boundaries, where they equate love with control. “If the youth sees love as control and invasion, then we have not helped them build the muscle that recognizes boundaries and asserts [them],” Dixit says.

Examine how boundaries are treated in your home, she says. How do members treat emotions? Is there a culture of shame and silence when you are unhappy with your teen?

While all this is something to strive for, Dixit also says, recognize that no parent is perfect. “I have to remind all adults to have self-compassion.”

Recognize that friends are important

Remember that developmentally, your teen’s peer group is very important to them at this age, and they can be a strong source of support. “Friends can get where no hotline [or] parents can,” Dixit says. An abuser relies on isolation, and a friend can break that. They can also remind the teen that they’re worth loving and respecting.

Even if you don’t like your teen’s friends, it isn’t helpful to criticize them or tell your teen they can’t hang out together. Instead, try to develop a dialogue so your teen feels heard.

Reach out for help

Dixit says if you suspect or know abuse is taking place, it’s important to reach out for professional help. There are advocacy groups in every state — the more local the better because laws can differ. If you’re helping a teen in an abusive relationship, don’t stigmatize mental health, she says.

You can talk to counselors in organizations like hers, confidentially. Dixit says a counselor can help involve the teen in decisions so they have buy-in. And they can help your teen create a “safety plan” or a way to reach resources. That might include clarifying who the teen’s safe adult is or which phone numbers a teen should memorize, should they need them.

This safety plan will differ based on the context. For example, in school, a safety plan may mean having a buddy walk with the teen between classes or having a code word with friends to indicate that the teen needs help.

These friends can reach out for professional resources, too. Espinoza says she always tells teens that when a friend is in an abusive relationship, they are not breaking the friend’s trust by telling an adult what’s going on — in fact, they are helping.


The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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5 Ways To Stop Summer Colds From Making The Rounds In Your Family

Perhaps the only respite pandemic closures brought to my family — which includes two kids under age 6 — was freedom from the constant misery of dripping noses, sneezes and coughs. And statistics suggest we weren’t the only ones who had fewer colds last year: With daycares and in-person schools closed and widespread use of masks and hand sanitizer in most communities, cases of many seasonal respiratory infections went down, and flu cases dropped off a cliff.

That reprieve might be ending. Social mixing has been starting up again in much of the U.S. and so have cases of garden-variety sniffles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just warned physicians that RSV, a unpleasant respiratory virus, is surging right now in southern states. And it’s not just happening in the U.S. — researchers in the U.K. and Hong Kong found that rhinovirus outbreaks spiked there, too, when COVID-19 lockdowns ended.

My family is at the vanguard of this trend. Right after Washington D.C. lifted its mask mandate a few weeks ago, both my kids got runny noses and coughs, and as soon as they tested negative for COVID-19, my pandemic fears were replaced by a familiar dread. I had visions of sleepless, cough-filled nights, dirty tissues everywhere, and — in short order — my own miserable cold.

“If someone in your house is sick, you’re not only breathing in their sick air, you’re touching those contaminated surfaces. You’re having closer contact, you’re having longer exposures,” says Seema Lakdawala, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who studies how influenza viruses transmit between people. It can start to feel inevitable that the whole family will get sick.

Take heart, my fellow parents-of-adorable-little-germ-machines! Lakdawala says many strategies we all picked up to fight COVID-19 can also stop the spread of many routine respiratory viruses. In fact, they may be even more effective against run-of-the-mill germs, since, unlike the viruses behind most colds, SARS-CoV2 was new to the human immune system.

Those strategies start with everyone keeping their children home from school, camp and playdates when they’re sick and keeping up with any and all vaccinations against childhood illnesses. Beyond that, specialists in infectious disease transmission I consulted offer five more tips for keeping my family and yours healthier this summer.

Tip #1: Hang on to those masks

In pre-pandemic times, it might have seemed like a weird move to put on a mask during storytime with your drippy-nosed kid, but Dr. Tina Tan says that’s her top tip. She’s a professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and a pediatric infectious disease physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

When it comes to influenza, a rhinovirus, or any of the other respiratory bugs constantly circulating, “once these viruses touch your mucous membranes, whether it’s your eyes, your nose or your mouth, you do have a chance of contracting it,” says Tan. Masks help stop infectious particles and virus-filled droplets from getting into your body.

“You don’t need a N95,” Tan says. A light-weight surgical mask or homemade cloth mask can work as long as it has two or more layers. The mask-wearing also doesn’t have to be constant. “If you’re going to be face to face with them — they’re sitting in your lap, you’re reading to them, you’re feeding them, etc. — then I would say wear a mask,” Tan advises.

Even better, if it’s not too uncomfortable for your sick child, have them wear a mask, Lakdawala says. “If your kids are old enough to wear a mask, that would probably be the best strategy, because then you’re reducing the amount of virus-laden aerosols in the environment.”

How long should you stay masked-up?

For most respiratory viruses, “the infectious period is probably similar to that of COVID,” says Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta and medical editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ site HealthyChildren.org. It might technically start a few days before symptoms begin and last for up to two weeks, but your sniffly kids are likely most contagious during those first runny-nosed days Shu says. “You could have kids over [age] 2 wear a mask for the first three or four days of symptoms,” she suggests.

And if you can’t bring yourself to wear a mask or put one on your child inside your own home to fight a cold, don’t worry. Lakdawala has a few more ideas.

Tip #2: Air it out, space it out

When Lakdawala’s 5- and 8-year-old kids get sick, “I open the windows, I turn on the fans, I get a lot more air circulation going on in the house,” she says — that is, weather and allergies permitting, of course.

“A lot of these viruses tend to circulate more during the colder weather, so where you live is going to determine how much you can open your windows,” Tan points out. But certainly, she says, “the better the ventilation, the less likely the viruses are going to get transmitted from one person to another.”

What about buying HEPA filter air purifiers, or changing the filter in your heating and air conditioning system? “I would not suggest going out to purchase extra HEPA filters just for this purpose,” says Dr. Ibukun Kalu, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Duke University. For hospitals that are treating very contagious and serious pathogens like tuberculosis or SARS-CoV2, those upgrades may be important, she says. “But for all of the other routine viruses, it’s routine ventilation.”

Kalu says you might also want to think strategically about creating some social distance — when it’s possible — like strategically having the parent who tends not to get as sick provide the one-on-one care for the sick kid.

Obviously, you can’t isolate a sick child in a room by themselves until they recover, but Lakdawala says not getting too close or for too long can help. When her kids are sick, “I do try to just not snuggle them — keep them a little bit at a distance.”

Tip #3: Don’t try to be a HAZMAT team

There’s good news on the house-cleaning front. “Most of these viruses don’t live on surfaces for very long periods of time,” says Tan.

The research on exactly how long cold-causing rhinoviruses can survive on surfaces — and how likely they are to remain infectious — isn’t definitive. As Dr. Donald Goldmann of Boston Children’s Hospital poetically put it in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal a couple decades ago, “Despite many years of study, from the plains of Salisbury, to the hills of Virginia, to the collegiate environment of Madison, WI, the precise routes rhinovirus takes to inflict the misery of the common cold on a susceptible population remain controversial.” That’s still true today, doctors say.

There’s some evidence that contaminated surfaces are not very important in the spread of colds. In one little study from the 1980s, a dozen healthy men played poker with cards and chips that “were literally gummy” from the secretions of eight other men who had been infected with a rhinovirus as part of the study. Even after 12 hours of poker, none of the healthy volunteers caught colds.

Shu’s take home advice? Be methodical in your cleaning of often-touched surfaces (kitchen table, countertops and the like) with soap and water when everybody’s healthy, and maybe add bleach wipes or other disinfectant when someone in your household has a cold. But don’t panic.

Tan agrees. “Wipe down frequently-touched surfaces multiple times a day,” she says. “But you don’t have to go crazy and, like, scour everything down with bleach.”

You also don’t need to do a lot of extra laundry in hopes of eliminating germs on clothes, towels, dishtowels and the like — that can be exhausting and futile. Instead, just try to encourage kids who are sick to use their own towel — and do what you can to give towels a chance to dry out between uses. “Having some common sense and doing laundry every few days — washing your towels every few days and washing your sheets every couple of weeks — is probably good enough,” Shu says. “You don’t need to go overboard for run-of-the-mill viruses.”

Don’t fret that there are germs everywhere and you can’t touch anything, says Lakdawala. “If I touch something, that — in itself — is not infecting me,” she notes. Instead, it’s getting a certain amount of virus on our hands and then touching our own nose, eyes or mouth that can infect us. “If I just go wash my hands, that risk is gone,” Lakdawala says.

You can also skip wearing gloves around the house. “People think that they are safe when they’re wearing the gloves — and then they touch their face with their gloves [on]” and infect themselves, she says.

Instead, just make it a habit to wash your hands frequently.

Tip #4: Seriously, just wash your hands

“The same handwashing guidelines for COVID also apply for common respiratory illnesses,” Shu says. That is: regular soap with warm water, lathered for about 20 seconds.

“The reason why 20 seconds is recommended is because some studies show that washing your hands shorter than that doesn’t really get rid of germs.” She warns that there hasn’t been a whole lot of research on this, and 20 seconds is not a magic number. “But it is thought that anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds is probably good enough to get rid of most of the germs,” she says. (Note: No need to drive your family crazy singing the birthday song twice — y’all have options.)

“Wash your hands before you eat, after you eat, after you go to the bathroom … if you’re changing your child’s diaper, et cetera.,” says Tan. “And if you’re going to use hand sanitizer, it has to be at least 60% alcohol.”

“Your hands are probably the most important source of transmission outside of someone really coughing or sneezing in your face,” Kalu adds.

Tip #5: Don’t give up, but do keep perspective

So, what if your beloved child does cough or sneeze in your face? Should you then forget all this stuff and just give in to the inevitable?

Don’t give up, says Lakdawala. “Just because you got one large exposure in your mouth and in close range, it doesn’t mean that that was sufficient to initiate an infection,” she says. Whether you get sick from that germy onslaught is going to depend on a lot of things — the particular virus, whether the sneeze landed in your mouth or nose, whether you’ve been exposed to some version of that virus before and more.

One tiny positive side effect of the coronavirus pandemic for Lakdawala has been a broader public understanding of “dose-response” in viral transmission. “Just because somebody breathed on you once doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what’s going to get you infected,” she says.

Consider practicing the swiss cheese model of transmission control, Shu says. “Every layer of protection helps — if you find that wearing a face shield is too much, but you do everything else, you’re still going to limit your exposure,” she says. Just do what works for you and your family.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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The Importance Of Mourning Losses (Even When They Seem Small)

When someone close to you dies — maybe a parent, a spouse or a sibling — it’s a big loss. Those around you might acknowledge that loss by showing up with food, checking in or maybe sending a card. But what about when a neighbor dies? Or that long-awaited family reunion is cancelled? There’s a chance others might not acknowledge or recognize it as a loss — and you may even feel guilty for even feeling this way.

Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka calls this ‘disenfranchised grief’. He coined the term in 1989 to capture this feeling of loss that no one seems to understand and that you don’t feel entitled to. “Disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported,” he says.

Doka says disenfranchised grief doesn’t just occur when someone dies — it includes other losses that aren’t acknowledged: a pet dying, losing a job or missing out on milestone events like prom or a 50th birthday celebration. “The pandemic of COVID-19 will be followed by a pandemic of complicated grief, because so many losses are disenfranchised,” he says.

We spoke with Doka and therapist David Defoe about why it’s important to acknowledge, understand, and honor those losses while also adapting to a changed life.

Listen to the full conversation on Life Kit at the top of this page or here.

Know that these types of losses are valid, natural and normal

Some relationships, like an online friend, an ex-spouse or a godparent, aren’t the same for everyone. In many Hispanic families, Doka says, godparents are very significant. “We even called godparents ‘compadres’ and ‘comadres,’ which literally mean ‘to father with’ or ‘to mother with.’ But if a godparent dies, most of society will just shrug it off, ‘Well, OK, sorry, but what’s the big deal?”

You may be mourning your daily commute because it was time to be alone with your thoughts and decompress, you might miss social outings and the joy they brought, or you may miss being able to volunteer and feel a sense of purpose. All of that can create disenfranchised grief. “Grief is a reaction to a loss, not just a reaction to a death,” he says.

Don’t dismiss how you feel: acknowledging the loss and what it means to you is the first step.

Get to the root of the grief

You might mistake the grief you are feeling with depression and anxiety. Defoe says some of the symptoms are the same: numbness, trouble focusing, feelings of being overwhelmed. But he says your feelings of grief won’t go away unless you address them. “We say depression and anxiety are conditions of the mind, while grief is a condition of the heart. The grief that is associated with loss has to be dealt with on the emotional and the heart level. You can’t think your way into better grief,” says Defoe.

Even as more people are getting vaccinated and life is slowly returning to “normal,” Defoe says, it’s important to deal with these feelings, because they won’t go away. “They stay with us. When we don’t take the time to appropriately grieve our pain and our emotional stuff that we put aside, it comes out. We’ll get angry, we’ll get apathetic, we start realizing that there’s some things that used to not bother us, but now we’re easily triggered,” he says.

Talk to someone and tell them what you need

Talk to friends about how you are feeling. Let them know how they can support you in grief. You might find a therapist helpful. Finding community in support groups, whether in person or online, can also help you create connections and process the grief. There’s power in being with people who have an understanding of what you’re going through. “One of the least advantageous things that we can do is try to mourn by ourselves,” says Defoe.

Find a ritual to honor the loss

For losses associated with disenfranchised grief, there are no established, societally-approved rituals. “There’s no casket, there’s no burial. There’s nothing like that — you have to figure out how to navigate a new world without even a sense of conclusion,” says Defoe.

Create your own conclusionary rituals. It could be journaling, creating a piece of art, planting flowers, running a race or getting a tattoo. Remember, all grief is processed at a very personal, individual level, so rituals will be specific to you and how you are feeling. “We don’t get over losses,” says Defoe. “We have to then figure out a way to move beyond them.”


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Spring Numbers Show ‘Dramatic’ Drop In College Enrollment

Undergraduate college enrollment fell again this spring, down nearly 5% from a year ago. That means 727,000 fewer students, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

“That’s really dramatic,” says Doug Shapiro, who leads the clearinghouse’s research center. Fall enrollment numbers had indicated things were bad, with a 3.6% undergraduate decline compared with a year earlier, but experts were waiting to see if those students who held off in the fall would enroll in the spring. That didn’t appear to happen.

“Despite all kinds of hopes and expectations that things would get better, they’ve only gotten worse in the spring,” Shapiro says. “It’s really the end of a truly frightening year for higher education. There will be no easy fixes or quick bounce backs.”

Overall enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since around 2012, and that was true again this spring, which saw a 3.5% decline — seven times worse than the drop from spring 2019 to spring 2020.

The National Student Clearinghouse attributed that decline entirely to undergraduates across all sectors, including for-profit colleges. Community colleges, which often enroll more low-income students and students of color, remained hardest hit by far, making up more than 65% of the total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring. On average, U.S. community colleges saw an enrollment drop of 9.5%, which translates to 476,000 fewer students.

“The enrollment landscape has completely shifted and changed, as though an earthquake has hit the ground,” says Heidi Aldes, dean of enrollment management at Minneapolis College, a community college in Minnesota. She says her college’s fall 2020 enrollment was down about 8% from the previous year, and spring 2021 enrollment was down about 11%.

“Less students are getting an education”

Based on her conversations with students, Aldes attributes the enrollment decline to a number of factors, including being online, the “pandemic paralysis” community members felt when COVID-19 first hit, and the financial situations families found themselves in.

“Many folks felt like they couldn’t afford to not work and so couldn’t afford to go to school and lose that full-time income,” Aldes says. “There was so much uncertainty and unpredictability.”

A disproportionately high number of students of color withdrew or decided to delay their educational goals, she says, adding to equity gaps that already exist in the Minneapolis area.

“Sure, there is a fiscal impact to the college, but that isn’t where my brain goes,” Aldes says. “There’s a decline, which means there are less students getting an education. That is the tragedy, that less students are getting an education, because we know how important education is to a successful future.”

To help increase enrollment, her team is reaching out to the high school classes of 2020 and 2021, and they’re contacting students who previously applied or previously enrolled and stopped attending. She says she’s hopeful the college’s in-person offerings — which now make up nearly 45% of its classes — will entice students to come back, and appeal to those who aren’t interested in online courses. So far, enrollment numbers for fall 2021 are up by 1%. “We are climbing back,” she says.

A widening divide

Despite overall enrollment declines nationally, graduate program enrollments were up by more than 120,000 students this spring. That means there are more students who already have college degrees earning more credentials, while, at the other end of the spectrum, students at the beginning of their higher ed careers are opting out — a grim picture of a widening gap in America.

“It’s kind of the educational equivalent of the rich getting richer,” Shapiro says. “Those gaps in education and skills will be baked into our economy, and those families’ lives, for years to come.”

The value of a college degree — and its impact on earning power and recession resilience — has only been reinforced by the pandemic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans with a college degree were more likely to stay employed during the pandemic, and if they did lose a job, they were more likely to get hired again. Unemployment rates were higher for those without a degree or credential beyond high school.

“Almost all of the income gains and the employment gains for the last decade have gone to people with higher education degrees and credentials,” Shapiro says. “Those who are getting squeezed out of college today, especially at community colleges, are just getting further and further away from being able to enjoy some of those benefits.”

In the National Student Clearinghouse data, traditional college students, those 18 to 24, were the largest age group missing from undergraduate programs. That includes many students from the high school class of 2020, who graduated at the beginning of the pandemic. Additional research from the clearinghouse shows a 6.8% decline in college-going rates among the class of 2020 compared with the class of 2019 — that’s more than four times the decline between the classes of 2018 and 2019. College-going rates were worse for students at high-poverty high schools, which saw declines of more than 11%.

For communities and organizations tasked with helping high school graduates transition and succeed in college, the job this year is exponentially harder. Students have always struggled to attend college: “It’s not new to us,” says Nazy Zargarpour, who leads the Pomona Regional Learning Collaborative, which helps Southern California high school students enroll and graduate from college. “But this year, it’s on steroids because of COVID.”

Her organization is offering one-on-one outreach to students to help them enroll or re-enroll in college. As part of that effort, Zargarpour and her colleagues conducted research to help them understand why students didn’t go on to college during the pandemic.

“Students told us that it’s a variety of things, including a lot of just life challenges,” she says. “Families being disrupted because of lack of work, families being disrupted because of the challenges of the illness itself, students having to take care of their young siblings, challenges with technology.”

The biggest question now: Will those students return to college? Experts say the further students get from their high school graduations, the less likely they are to enroll, because life gets in the way. But Zargarpour says she is hopeful.

“It will take a little bit of time for us to catch up to normal and better, but my heart can’t bear to say all hope is lost for any student ever.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Ready, Set … Think! Hackathon Aims To Kill Off Fake Health Rumors

A new drug makes teen girls collapse! And it’s secretly a birth control pill, part of a plan to reduce the national population.

Those are some of the rumors that revolve around the treatments for life-threatening diseases.

Now imagine you have 24 hours to come up with a plan to discourage people from believing the rumors and encourage them to seek treatment.

That was the challenge at this spring’s Hackathon, an international competition hosted by the Task Force for Global Health’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center. While the competition sounds very COVID-relevant, in this case, the event challenged participants to dispel misinformation surrounding diseases like leprosy, Dengue fever and schistosomiasis.

“Rumors and misinformation are threats to progress [against diseases] and are not a laughing matter. They cost lives,” says Moses Katabarwa, a competition judge who works at the Carter Center’s Uganda River Blindness program and has seen how misinformation prevents patients from taking life-saving treatments. “Well-proven ideas can be threatened unless we tackle [rumors] intelligently and wisely head-on.”

Fourteen teams participated in the virtual event, composed of up to four students in any major and from any school. They included students from Emory University in Georgia, the University of Buea in Cameroon and Aix-Marseille University in France.

A panel of public health experts looked at the solutions to see how innovative — and practical — they might be.

The first-place team won $2,000 and the chance to present their ideas in November at the annual meeting of the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases. Second place also earned the opportunity to present the solution at the meeting but no cash prize.

Here’s what the top two came up with.

This pill pack is designed for you!

The winning team from Boston University had an idea for a better pill package. Clockwise from top left: Bridget Yates, Caroline Pane, Samuel Tomp and Julia Hermann. (Caroline Pane)

Getting people to take a pill to prevent elephantiasis is a matter of trust.

That’s what the winning team in the Hackathon found out.

Elephantiasis is a horrible condition, typically triggered by a parasitic worm. (The disease that causes it is called lymphatic filariasis.) If afflicted, a person’s limbs and genitalia swell. It’s very, very painful. In Tanzania alone, more than 6 million people are affected.

Taking the drug albendazole can help kill the worms. So why wouldn’t you take the pill?

Caroline Pane, a 20-year-old public health major at Boston University, and her three teammates analyzed a 2016 study where researchers recorded first-hand interviews with villagers in southeast Tanzania about why they did or did not accept treatment for the disease. Pane and the team recognized a recurring theme: The villagers didn’t trust the health officials or the drugs they were giving out. As one woman in a village said: “We don’t trust free drugs; they have been brought to finish us off.”

Other rumors, as noted in another study, were that the drug could cause infertility.

The team’s solution? Redesign the pill packaging to build trust and confidence among Tanzanian communities.

The students got the idea after watching an educational video on the mass distribution of the drug in Tanzania.

“[Health officials] take a big white bottle that’s covered in scientific writing in English to a village and just hand out pills,” Pane explains. “The writing is foreign to them; they don’t understand what it says. I probably wouldn’t take it either if I was them.”

In another study about the treatment that the team reviewed, one interviewee said, “There is no sign [on the drug] that it is for mabusha or matende,” the Swahili words for swollen scrotum and swollen limbs. “You have to trust in the government to swallow the tablets … the program doesn’t come with enough knowledge.”

To quell these fears and build trust, the team designed and proposed a single-dose pill pack with information about the pill’s purpose and side effects in Swahili.

The team also created a comic on the pill packaging to overcome any language barriers. The illustration shows how lymphatic filariasis spreads through the bite of a parasite-carrying mosquito, depicting a popular Tanzanian cartoon character who wears traditional African garb and jewelry catching the disease.

The team hoped that patients would be more willing to take the pill if they say a familiar character downing a dose.

Katie Gass, who helped design the Hackathon and is the director of research at the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center, thought the idea was excellent.

“People don’t want a pill out of a random bottle dumped in their hand,” she says. “This was a very simple, elegant and community-focused idea.”

A rumor-finding tool — and a board game, too

Students from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran and the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna proposed a computer program to help locate the source of disease rumors. Clockwise from top left: Sina Sajjadi, Saeed Hedayatian, Yasaman Asgary, Alireza Hashemi. (Alireza Hashemi)

To stop rumors in their tracks, the second place team decided to map them.

The rumors were about schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease prevalent in tropical and subtropical regions such as Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. The disease is spread through contact with water contaminated by parasite-carrying snails and can cause anemia, malnutrition and even organ damage.

“The rumors are not about the disease itself, but about the cures and preventions health officials are trying to implement,” says team member Sina Sajjadi, 28, from the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna. “One that’s popular [across regions] is, ‘They’re trying to test their drugs on us.’ ”

He was one of the four physics, computer science and math students on the team, from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran and the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna.

Instead of focusing on a particular rumor surrounding the disease, the group proposed mapping where rumors are prevalent to identify regions that need further education about the disease and its treatment.

“We focused on where the rumors come from, like Facebook or Twitter,” says team member Yasaman Asgari, 21, who attends the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.

The team proposed creating a computer program to analyze online social media sentiments around treatments for schistosomiasis. The program would flag and map false claims using GPS data. Public health experts would then be able to pinpoint hot spots of misinformation – and create campaigns to address specific rumors. The team also suggested calling upon online influencers in the region to help dispel the falsehoods.

There’s one more part to their plan: making a custom board game to teach children to be cautious around water sources such as ponds and streams, which could be infected with parasites. In regions with schistosomiasis, all freshwater is considered unsafe unless it’s boiled, filtered or treated with chlorine.

“We would have different water sources on the board, as is the case for real-world villages,” explains Sajjadi. The goal of the game is to avoid interacting with water contaminated with the worms.

While the students say they did not pull all-nighters to complete the 24-hour challenge, Gass wants to give the Iranian team a special shout out.

“Hats off,” she says. They presented their work to the judges “when it was in the middle of the night for them.”


Nadia Whitehead is a freelance journalist and science writer. Her work has appeared in Science, The Washington Post and NPR. Find her on Twitter @NadiaMacias.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Voice, Chat and DM: Remote Learning Tools That Make Sense In Person

Understandably, many teachers were hesitant at the start of distance learning. Most saw only the new format’s deficiencies when compared to their physical classrooms. However, as educators adapted, many discovered new ways to teach literacy skills digitally. Some of these skills ended up being liberating, enlisting multi-modal forms of communication and connecting students in a uniquely online way. 

When the school year began online in fall 2020, Sylviane Cohn’s third grade class was just beginning to develop a skill of suddenly increased importance: typing. 

But Cohn discovered advantages to her students typing some of their assignments during virtual education. Watching her students’ writing appear on their respective Google Docs in real time meant she could provide simultaneous feedback. The process of editing on the computer — liberated from the messiness of revising on a piece of paper — made the process less burdensome and more enjoyable for her students.

Early in the school year, Cohn had her students type two or three sentences of a story. One line at a time, they added dialogue, imagery or other embellishments. The process encouraged her students to try new strategies and freed them from the space constraints of a notebook page. “Over the course of a couple of weeks, they were able to create these much longer, more nuanced and detailed stories than they ever could have created in one fell swoop,” she said.

Relieving Social Anxieties via Virtual Feedback  

Stacey Reeder, a sixth grade ELA teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, observed that her sixth grade students suggested edits on each other’s papers more comfortably when separated by screens. The asynchronous aspect of virtual feedback not only allowed students to take their time when giving feedback, but to do it at their convenience.

Virtual feedback also removed the social barriers that may prevent students from wanting peer feedback. The fear of watching a classmate’s eyebrows furrow as they read was removed from the equation. Some students may have felt less anxiety when they shared personal anecdotes and didn’t have to then look their editors in the eyes.

“When it’s not face-to-face, kids can be a little more vulnerable and a little more specific about the feedback they give, because sometimes in sixth grade, it’s a social thing,” said Reeder.

Much like how anonymity can embolden people on social media, Reeder claimed, there was a level of vulnerability that can be tapped into when writers and editors are separated by screens. Added was the security that students knew that their teacher would see all given feedback, ensuring students’ comments remained kind and helpful.

After seeing the benefits, Reeder decided to keep asynchronous, online peer feedback as an option for the students who returned to her in-person classroom.

Hearing a Human Voice  

For her own feedback to students, Reeder began attaching audio notes to assignments. Her students appreciated the ability to hear feedback rather than just read it. Audio feedback also provided students with the option to scroll through their work while listening and to replay feedback while writing. 

Given the shortened instruction time of online classes, there wasn’t enough time for every student to fully express their thoughts on the reading or participate in a class discussion. So Maribel Parenti, a third grade teacher in Redwood City, California, assigned students audio reflections between one and three minutes, depending on the depth of response necessary, on Google Classroom. Students were asked to reflect on a book’s chapter, provide summaries or explain characters’ actions.

Much in the way students might participate in a classroom, Parenti’s students worked out their thinking by answering out loud. Parenti could check reading comprehension for every student through a metric designed to be less formal than a homework assignment or test. She could then give students feedback by responding to their posts with her own voice recordings, which she found faster to make than writing a response. In her feedback, Parenti could agree with a student’s argument or ask them to expand on certain points — to which her students could then upload an audio reply.

The assignment was specifically to check comprehension, centering thinking processes more than writing skills. Parenti prioritized verbal responses for her students who struggle with reading to increase their comfort with the activity. For her students at or above reading level, she would often write her responses to provide more reading practice.

Early in distance learning, Parenti assigned students handwritten responses, which she struggled to read when held up to the screen. Typed submissions stressed her students struggling with typing and spelling skills. She wanted to explore the different ways her class could have a conversation.

Through audio, she could also hear the voices of her students who tended to not participate in her virtual classroom. Her more reserved and anxious students appreciated the chance to fully participate without observation from their peers. Their responses were given and received privately.

“They’re just talking to themselves or to the computer and no one is seeing them,” she said.

Parenti planned to still offer this participation option when her classroom becomes fully in-person: students who don’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts in class could have the opportunity to upload them online later, privately and in their own time.

Parenti also provided the option for students to upload video responses on Flipgrid. She called its features “Instagram for kids,” as students can add stickers, face effects and stock image backgrounds. Her students with humorous streaks appreciated the ability to sport virtual glasses and digitally change their hair colors. 

For one response, a student chose a newsroom background and delivered his answer with the formality of a nightly newscast anchor. Parenti shared his video with the class to provide inspiration. She watched as students shared ideas and tried out features or techniques their classmates used, receiving new insight into each student’s ingenuity. 

“Every single one of them is so different and they’re so creative that I’m just like, ‘Wow,’” she said.

The Upside of Zoom

Aeriale Johnson, a third grade teacher in San Jose, California, helped her students express their creativity through the Zoom chat. This feature specifically allowed students to participate during times when they’d regularly be unable to speak, such as when watching videos or listening to a book. Rather than hold their questions and wait to be called on — running the risk of forgetting or running out of class time — students could type their thoughts, questions and reactions as they came to them, uninterrupted, in the Zoom chat. 

During storytime, students put crying emojis during the book’s sad moments and heart emojis during sweet ones. When the class watched videos, Johnson joined them in the chat as they wrote what they saw, thought and wanted to learn more about. Her students asked questions about environmental issues, racial justice and the year 2020. Johnson would pause class to catch up on the chatbox feed, responding to messages and answering questions.

“That also shows you’re not just typing to a chat box for no reason, like, I value what you’re saying and I think that it’s important,” said Johnson.

Zoom’s chat also includes a direct message feature, which Johnson’s students used to talk to her privately. While in-person, a student could come up to her and ask to speak one-on-one, their classmates could still observe that this took place, decreasing the situation’s privacy. With direct messaging, students could ask questions they might not feel comfortable vocalizing in front of the class or typing in the chat.

Harini Shyamsundar, a secondary math teacher in San Pablo, California, shared that her students appreciated the chance to use the Zoom chat during the transitions and uncertainty of virtual learning. 

“[With] the newness of online learning and the kind of fear and uncertainty that students had around it, the ability to communicate using that chat tool, to privately communicate with the teacher to ask for help in this really not intimidating way, has been huge,” said Shyamsundar.

Using the Zoom chat as a forum space, Shyamsundar encouraged her students to describe concepts and communicate to solve problems. Her students’ ability to privately chat with her to ask for help was something she wanted to keep when her class becomes fully in-person. 

“They can maybe put it into some sort of form and I’ll have it on my screen and I can answer it to the whole class,” she said. “I think it would be a really great adaptation to continue.”

By March 2021, Johnson’s third grade class had started asking how to best replicate the chat box when moving back to in-person class. Her students proposed virtual tablets or whiteboards with dry-erase markers — anything that would allow them to respond quickly and occasionally use emojis.

Strategies for Thinking Visually 

Kristin Tufo, a middle school science teacher in Portland, Oregon, thought her students might be tired of seeing their own faces after virtual education. So she decided to transform the annual seventh and eighth grade science fair into a podcast series. The episodes tackle questions posed by kindergarteners: Why is snow white? Why is cotton candy fluffy? Why do farts smell?

Without video, her students must rely on their description skills to share their discoveries and relevant scientific processes — sharpening their writing skills.

“It’s good for their writing skills to have to describe things in such a way that little kids can picture it,” said Tufo.

While Tufo previously incorporated visuals into her teaching, her classes prior to virtual education prioritized discussion and demonstration. Wanting to provide visual aids to her lectures, she began taking notes on screen for her students to copy or use as inspiration. She included drawings, a practice known as sketchnoting, to illustrate processes like fossilization or chemical reactions. 

“Rather than just watching a video of something, the act of actually writing or trying to draw something that represents it should give them a higher understanding of the idea,” Tufo said.

Tufo turned to this process to convey her lessons and engage her students during decreased lecture times. Wanting to better imprint lessons in their minds, she encouraged her students to write their notes by hand. She cited scientific theories that visual aids and the act of physically writing assist with memory, as well as her training on the importance of the resistance of pen on paper in helping students with dyslexia.

With practice, some of her students who initially lacked confidence in their artistry found they enjoyed incorporating drawings into their notes. Some began sketchnoting in their other classes, too, she said.

Though she didn’t wish to dismiss the gravity of the pandemic, Parenti expressed gratitude that virtual education forced her and other teachers out of their comfort zones and encouraged experimentation with new technologies. These experiments, she expects, will influence education moving forward, like her own third grade class’ option for asynchronous participation.

“Now I have more tools under my belt that I’m going to be able to use with my students once we go back in person,” Parenti said.

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Distance Learning Tools That Teachers and Students Hope Become the Norm

When distance learning necessitated a reliance on technology, many teachers began experimenting with digital tools. From the student perspective, experiences were mixed. Some appreciated the new opportunities created by these technologies, especially in contrast to some limitations of in-person learning. Others chose to return to more analog methods, determining what worked best from the prior world and consciously choosing to keep some of the newer tools acquired during remote teaching.  

“I’m just glad teachers know how to use technology better now,” said Edward Huang, a senior at San Mateo High School in California. 

Huang wanted to return to in-person instruction, but he was grateful for the technological upgrades his teachers made during this period. Homework that once near-exclusively consisted of written packets began to include videos. Lectures were often recorded, meaning he could rewind or rewatch to study for exams. His teachers all posted assignments online in a consolidated place, with assignments correctly uploaded to the proper files and posted on the promised dates.

MULTI-MODAL COMMUNICATION 

Huang’s English teacher began posting prompts during virtual class on Nearpod, giving students roughly five minutes to make a quick claim or argument about an assigned book. These responses were read privately by the teacher, with strong examples read to the class and feedback provided individually. This process, Huang said, encouraged students to be more comfortable and honest responding to reading material than they might be in a classroom setting. They wouldn’t need to stand before the class and announce their opinions.

“Before, English would be one of those classes where I’d be uncomfortable to speak in. But now that I can just type in my answer, I feel like I’m more comfortable,” said Huang.

Time constraints might not allow every student to participate during a class discussion. By requiring each student to write a response, teachers can receive more understandings of student comprehension levels and personal thoughts.

Huang personally found it easier to talk with his teachers over Zoom, helping him form closer relationships with his instructors than he had pre-pandemic. While Huang appreciated the anonymity of Nearpod responses, he also valued the ability to read his classmates’ attributed posts on Canvas discussion boards. Many of his classmates made jokes about the overly formal way students respond to each other, using language they might not say in a classroom setting, like “concur” and “to that point.” These discussion boards gave him greater insight into his classmates’ points of view, even though he often agreed with them. He read all of his peers’ insights in greater detail than what he would typically get from an oral classroom discussion, where dialogue is linear and people have to wait their turns to speak.

“Being able to read what they’re thinking in English (class) to this level isn’t something that I would have been able to do in in-person learning,” he said.

BETTER AUDIO TECH 

Teachers found voice technology as a way to amplify personal connections. Katlyn Bare, an 11th and 12th grade teacher in Cincinnati, began leaving voice — rather than written — comments on her students’ essays during virtual education. Using the Chrome extension mote, she recorded 30 to 90 seconds of feedback for each student. 

Hearing her voice, she theorized, provided students with a more natural connection than words on a screen could. When leaving a voice memo, she was more likely to begin with positive feedback than she was in her written comments. Voice memos made approaching feedback less daunting for students: listening to a single audio file might seem more manageable than reading rows of comments. This process was easier for Bare, too — in decreased time, she could provide more feedback to a greater number of students.

NO TECH FOR LESS STRESS

Some teachers found themselves encouraging their students to return to pen and paper during virtual education to prevent a feeling of inundation by technology. In her classes, Heather Bradley began encouraging her students to write their notes on paper toward the end of their first semester of virtual learning. She is a teacher at Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Maryland, where she teaches adult English for Speakers of Other Languages.

The act of writing down new words from the reading, rather than copy-pasting from a device, allowed her students to more thoughtfully consider each term. Her students’ applied reading skills improved as a result. The process also eliminated the need to toggle between screens when taking notes. While especially helpful for her students with less digital experience, writing notes by hand also seemed to lessen her students’ overall technology fatigue. She pointed to the emotional toll posed by distance learning’s webcam surveillance.

“Being able to look away from your screen, at something else, to do your work gives students a renewed sense of intimacy,” she said. “I feel like their stress factor lowers, and when you lower that stress factor, they are more readily able to access the content of the lesson.” 

Avoiding technological overload during distance learning was a personal choice some high school students made without explicit instruction.

“I personally really don’t like having to stare at my computer more than I have to,” said Melina Kritikopoulos, a high school senior in Santa Clara County, California. 

Some of her classmates took notes directly on textbook PDFs or online documents. But Kritikopoulos preferred writing on paper. Drawing special characters and formatting was easier by hand than creating her preferred layouts and symbols online. She also remembered content better when she wrote it down rather than typing it.

Though Kritikopoulos was required to turn in typed notes for one of her classes, she still wrote first drafts of her notes by hand — choosing this despite the extra time it took her to type those up. Possessing a set of personal notes provided her with freedom to include jokes or asides, which she said fought boredom and helped with her retention of the course material. 

Rae Wymer, a high school student in San Francisco, California, also cited memory as a factor in her choice to write by hand. During virtual learning, she found paper note-taking comfortably reminiscent of in-person education. 

“It’s just more familiar, you know? Like out of all the changes that we’ve gone through over the year, of changing to distance learning and kind of getting accustomed to doing everything through a computer screen, it’s nice to still have the same style of notes or style of note-taking that I would have if I was doing it in person,” said Wymer.

With a return to full in-person instruction top of mind for many students, parents and educators, many are conversing about the technologies to retain. Some educators and students were able to utilize this period to determine what worked best – championing new digital assets, old-school practices or a combination thereof. By allowing students to explore both digital and offline domains in their education, many can exit virtual education with a better understanding of what worked for them.

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Teachers Say Laws Banning Critical Race Theory Are Putting A Chill On Their Lessons

As Republican lawmakers across the country advance state bills that would limit how public school teachers can discuss race in their classrooms, educators say the efforts are already having a chilling effect on their lessons.

In recent weeks, Republican legislatures in roughly half a dozen states have either adopted or advanced bills purporting to take aim at the teaching of critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in law and society. Conservatives have made the teaching of critical race theory a rallying cry in the culture wars, calling it divisive and unpatriotic for forcing students to consider the influence of racism in situations where they might not see it otherwise.

In reality, the bills many Republicans have proposed do not directly address critical race theory. Instead, many ban the teaching of concepts that educators say they don’t teach anyway.

A bill signed into law by Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt bans lessons that include the concept that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that a person’s “moral character is inherently determined by his or her race or sex,” or that someone should feel discomfort, guilt or distress on account of their race or sex.

Nonetheless, educators say the newly adopted and proposed laws are already forcing teachers to second guess whether they can lead students in conversations about race and structural racism that many feel are critical at a time the nation is navigating an important reckoning on those issues.

In Oklahoma City, teacher Telannia Norfar said she and her colleagues at Northwest Classen High School had planned to discuss a schoolwide approach to help students understand current events – including the murder of George Floyd, family separation at the Mexico border, and the use of racist terms such as the “China virus.”

“We need to do it, because our students desire it,” she said. “But how do we do that without opening Oklahoma City public schools up to a lawsuit?”

She said how and whether they’ll do that is now unclear. Paula Lewis, chair of the Oklahoma City School Board, said though the state’s new law bans teachers from discussing concepts they weren’t discussing anyway, and though its penalties are not yet clear, the danger is the fear it instills.

“What if they say the wrong thing?” Lewis said. “What if somebody in their class during the critical thinking brings up the word oppression or systemic racism? Are they in danger? Is their job in danger?”

The Black Wall Street Memorial in Tulsa. The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 published its final report in 2001. It found that the city of Tulsa had conspired to destroy Greenwood. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Confronting the bloody past

This year, many teachers in Oklahoma are planning lessons on the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when hundreds of the city’s Black residents were murdered by white mobs. It’s taken years for education officials to integrate the episode into state teaching standards. While the new law does not ban its teaching, Lewis said it is likely to limit how much teachers feel they can dive into conversations about topics such as structural racism and white supremacy before and since the massacre.

Lewis acknowledged that in a conservative state such as Oklahoma, there are many parents – especially white ones – who support the idea of shielding their children from uncomfortable conversations about race. But she said that’s why they’re so important.

Similar bills have been adopted or advanced in states including Idaho, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

In Texas, a bill that has passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature would impose restrictions similar to Oklahoma’s, including banning public universities from requiring students to take diversity trainings. It would also require teachers who discuss ugly episodes in history, or controversial current events, to explore “contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”

That bill, H.B. 3979, was written by Republican Steve Toth, who often rails against critical race theory as anti-white, anti-Christian, and anti-American. His office did not respond to an interview request.

Vida Robertson directs the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown. He called Toth’s bill “a concerted attempt by Republicans to stifle a widespread and overwhelming demand for racial equality and social justice in the United States by mischaracterizing critical race theory as some abhorrent plot to undermine America.”

He said it will give parents who are uncomfortable with the nation’s ongoing racial reckoning a tool to go after teachers.

Feels like the thought police

Meghan Dougherty, who helps public school teachers in Round Rock, Texas, develop social studies lessons plans, said Texas teachers already feel that pressure, including one of her colleagues who during the pandemic gave students a virtual lesson on race and prejudice in U.S. society. She said a father at home overheard a portion of it.

“Then he wrote an email to the administration complaining that the teacher was accusing his child of being a racist when they were having a conversation about implicit bias and what implicit bias is and how it affects us,” Dougherty said.

She said the proposed bill makes it feel like the thought police are descending on Texas. She said she knows teachers who are already self-censoring. They’re “afraid to speak out on issues because they feel there are going to be repercussions from their districts,” she said.

Paul Kleiman, a high school history teacher in Round Rock, said he’s concerned about the provision in Texas’ bill that would require him to teach all sides of current events and ugly chapters in history without giving any side deference. How does he do that when teaching subjects like the holocaust, or the civil rights movement, he asked.

“Does the state of Texas want me to stand up and spend class time saying, well, let’s look at all sides of this topic?” Kleiman said. “I don’t think that’s what the state of Texas wants. But that’s what this bill does.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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