Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Not-So-Harmless Cannabis Story



How many times have you heard something like this: "Smoking a joint is just a harmless way to relax, a bit like having a martini"? Mostly I hear this from young adults and teenagers. It is critical that we (parents and teachers) give our teens correct information about drug use, especially when its use has graduated into harmless banality. It's a fact; my students really don't believe that smoking a joint is bad for them. Here's what I hear them say: 1- it's better than smoking a cigarette, 2- it's the same as having a martini or a glass of wine, 3- it has no adverse effects on the brain, and finally, 4- my parents smoked and they're OK! The point of this post is not to prepare a full frontal attack on the debate surrounding marijuana use but simply to pass on the latest information out of McGill University. (Points 1 and 4 should be the subject of a future separate post.)

From Science Daily, I learned that young Canadians (among the highest cannabis users world-wide) are courting mood and other emotional disorders because of daily marijuana consumption. Teens report using marijuana to deal with stress and anxiety except that the very substance they use to self-medicate is creating another problem; depression. A study done by Dr. Gobbi and published in the Neurobiology of Disease showed that" daily consumption of cannabis in teens can cause depression and anxiety, and have an irreversible long-term effect on the brain." It seems that the serotonin and norepinephrine levels are depressed in regular marijuana smokers. These two neurotransmitters are partly responsible for stabilizing moods and in the case of serotonin, lifting our moods. In other words, smoking a joint might help them feel relaxed but it is actually depressing them by altering important levels of neurotransmitters responsible for well being. (When my students in psychology study the brain, I make sure that they know how to self-regulate serotonin levels in natural ways such as exercise.)
The same study also reported that the teenage brain (still maturing until the early twenties)is more suspectible to damage from cannabis than the adult brain.

Both of these results are important information to relay to our children and students. Depression and anxiety is a serious issue for teens. These years can be difficult ones, even for the most well adjusted teenager. When I think of students who have learning difficulties, who are excluded from the 'popular' groups, who are coping with their parents' marital stress, who are trying to find their own path in life AND get the grades, I am reminded of my 'raison d’ĂȘtre' as a teacher: help them find their own inner resources to get through the challenging times in life.
I don't think that sharing this recent information with any of my students who have already adopted the habit of regular marijuana smoking will make any significant immediate difference. But I do think that it's part of my very important duty to make sure they hear it from me, often, clearly and honestly. I'd encourage my readers to read the study for themselves and teach the teens in their lives the 'real dope' about their beloved not-so-harmless drug.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Best Time to Learn

The prospect of two weeks off invariably has me making lists; friends to call, books to read, papers to correct and courses to plan for the new year. Somewhere in the midst of the very long 'to do' list, I indulge in my favorite activity - learning. Yesterday I discovered David Jakes. He is an educator/recent administrator of many years who recently presented at the NYSCATE conference along with Sir Ken Robinson and Chris Lehmann. I spent an entire afternoon reading his recent blog posts and listening to his keynote address at the conference. I appreciate his clear thinking and the way he reframes the urgent questions in education. David Jakes goes beyond the 'web 2.0 hype' and asks the question, "What does it mean to be well educated in the 21st century?" His presentation reviews what we already know about the virtual world and some other relatively new phenomena such as augmented reality and how that will impact teaching and learning.
His presentation slides are available here and you can listen to his keynote address here (as well as Sir Ken Robinson's musings about creativity and schools).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why I don't watch 'teacher movies'

I did something out of character last week and in a moment of weakness, probably encouraged by the imminent approach of the holiday break, showed a movie in class that was not directly related to course content. (I'm not a grouch; I just never have enough time to cover content!) One student brought in the agreed upon movie: Freedom Writers with Hilary Swank. As they munched on popcorn and emoted for all the right scenes, I fumed, figeted and couldn't help from commenting all the way through. It couldn't be helped; it is impossible for me to watch these Hollywood renditions teacher-hero who saves the day. I hope I didn't ruin their viewing experience.

What is wrong with these movies? You know the ones; there is a long list and some incomparable actors on that list with the likes of Sidney Poitier. I'm going to risk an unfair generalization here while I try to express my frustration with these teacher-hero movies: they are simply too simple. The script that makes the teacher the unsung and misunderstood hero who turns the social tide of cultural, economic and spiritual decay away from the patethetically corrupted adolescents is too much for me to bear. Its partial truth doesn't redeem it either.

I have taught in schools where my life had been threatened. I have lived with fear in my guts when I walked down a corridor because the kid I just had expelled would have his possee take out their frustrations on my son in another school. I have worked in a school where my students drank bleach in a suicide attempt because no one believed what they said about their abusive step father. No need to go on. Many of us have been there. In my second year of teaching, I realized that my students didn't need me; they needed parents who loved them, police to protect them, social workers to advocate for them; but me? No, not me. What I wanted to give them didn't fit into any curriculum. It was almost too much. I almost left the profession; but happily I didn't.

I don't watch 'those teacher movies' because they distort complex solutions to incredibly difficult problems with one swipe of the Hollywood brush. We love the hero-underdog teacher. We hate the teacher-principle who is wooden, closed and reactionary. It's so stock, so predictable and so unfair to paint teachers in this way.

A teacher's heart is like a sponge; you don't see what she/he absorbs all day long and what they need to 'squeeze out' at the end of the day. (I'm aware that this analogy applies to everyone but I'm trying to make a point.) We face a diverse crowd with diverse needs and we want to be relevant and meaningful. Teachers want to make a difference. Sometimes the student is disinterested. "Am I boring?" we ask ourselves. Sometimes the student is lacking skills or simply can't pay attention because his heart is too busy worrying about the parental divorce looming on the horizon. There are too many scenarios to count but each one is important and registers in our teacher's heart. We only want them to learn. We want to help them be more tomorrow than they are today. I don't watch 'those teacher movies' because they remind me of a painful past and don't do justice to the reality of the solutions demanded of us.

In reality, kids succeed when all parts of their lives move harmoniously for their growth; this means, their parents, their peers, their teachers and especially their own inner beings. I don't think Hollywood can capture the subtleties of that one.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Skyping Existentialism

What a blast! Today's last philosophy class before the Christmas break was a whopper with both existentialism and nihilism on the agenda. (It's a high school philosophy class so the content is simple and accessible for the kids.) Two students had notified me that they'd be missing today's class and suggested that they skype in and follow along. We set it up, gave them a call and had their smiling faces (of course they're smiling; they're in Florida) projected up onto the screen. My students loved it and for the first ten minutes, the class was all about the tech, waving at one another and asking about someone's bubba in Florida. But then we settled down and got into the nitty gritty of the day. There were some microphone/sound issues but we worked out the kinks.

In my English class, another student has set her sights on getting Jeannette Walls (we just read her memoire) to skype into the class. That would be so cool.

Skype has wonderful potential for the classroom. Think of the incredible connections we can make! Guest speakers who might not otherwise make it to school can connect directly with the students via skype. Students who are not able to be physically present in the classroom can now particpate via skype.

I can see those classroom walls crumbling...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Your Brain on Google


Most of us are familiar with this scenario: You sit at your desk to do "x". As you begin the task at hand, you decide to check your mail/facebook page for just 'one second'. Thirty minutes later, you might return to the initial task. The web and its wonders has a way of seducing us away from our work priorities and 'squandering' our precious time surfing, reading, and engaging with the virtual world. I'm always amazed at how much time I can spend in front of the computer but I'm equally amazed at how much I learn.

This study out of UCLA explains some of the reasons why the 'black hole of the internet' can suck us in so quickly. It seems that surfuring, reading, learning, and just generally exercising web literacy is excellent brain food. Internet searching involves complex tasks of reading, selecting between options, evaluation, prioritizing and in short, challenges the brain in ways that other learning does not. This study involved people between 55-76 years of age; half were already computer literate and the other half were not. The study concludes that the brains of those respondents with pre-existing web skills showed more active brain function in more regions than those with fewer or no skills. This is good news for Baby Boomers who already use the web and a powerful incentive for those who don't!

But what about our students who seemed to be plugged in 24/7? If internet searching increases the brain activity twofold (as per study's conclusions)in a way that simple reading does not, then what does that mean for classroom teaching and learning? It's true that we read web pages but we also make many other decision involved in the process of searching for information. This heightened neural activity is seen in the brains of those searching the web and not in those involved in simply reading a book. The researchers at UCLA reported thier most striking finding was that "Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading."

This is exciting news. This is a powerful argument in favour of one to one laptop initiatives and against the technophobes who think that 'technoignorance' is bliss. While laptops in the classroom may still only be expensive pencils that don't engage the young brains to their fullest potential, it still is a step closer to integrating the web into teaching and learning in a way that is dynamic and relevant. The future is theirs - the students - so let's step up and do the techno dance together.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Remembering December 6th, 1989

Sometimes it's good to take a step back and remember the past. Today is the day I remember fourteen young women and the bright lights that Canada lost on that day when an angry man took revenge on the innocent. The gunman turned his hatred loose on the female engineering students and believing that these 'feminists' were the cause of his pain, he murdered them. Every year I remember and every year it feels the same; sadness for their families, amazement at how much pain the human heart can carry and hope that this next generation of young women will not suffer the hatred of men.