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Dr. Grauer's Column - We Don't Notice

We Don’t Notice

Is this the most ecologically disconnected and destructive culture in human history?

Who knows, but there is no denying we are in uncharted water and have a chance to map it. As teachers, our only real job is to help our students study that map to the future as it unfolds, to notice how things are developing in their world—to be sensitive to what is happening all around them. Sensitivity to the environment is the essence of intelligence. This begs the question: What if the “discovery education” we have aimed at all along is more important than ever, and it’s as simple as that? (Interesting fact of the day: Grauer actually owns the national trademark on “Learn By Discovery.”)

Guest speaker Mike Wilken-Roberston, cultural anthropologist and author of " Kumeyaay Ethnobotany", exploring the wildlife corridor on the Grauer campus with 8th Grade students - January 12, 2021

A few of our kids (and, actually, most kids nationwide) have been confined to homes and Zoom rooms for going on a year now. What’s that done to discovery education? First thing to remember: they have not lost anything, they just have something different. Some of us want to learn what that something is, and to tap into it.

When humans are alone a lot and sidelined by things like pandemics (or wars or governments), we may feel more powerless, as though we watch life like a TV show or video game… or we can just zone out to tv shows and video games for mega-hours, instead of life.

Ironically, terribly, and misguided as they were, the people storming the US Capitol building last week really were breaking free of their sense of victimization… not appropriately, but with enormous empowerment and zeal. We want those qualities for our kids in their homes and Zoom boxes, not for lawless looters. We want our kids empowered. All the same, was what we got last week predictable in these times? Should humans naturally rise up when they feel powerless?

Some of our kids were outraged at the storming of the US Capitol where our Congress people were at work. Others showed almost no reaction at all, and were not shocked or surprised. I think our seniors were the most upset, which is good data for us, because our job as educators is to develop graduates who notice what needs noticing.

But there were also those students who were wondering what the grown-ups were so upset about. What was stormed and broken into? Why does that matter? Was it just more TV? Students failing to react to an outrageous situation is, of course, not a political issue for us, it is an educational one. We have a big job to do when students do not respond much to earth shaking events. It’s a wake-up call. Insensitivity to critical events is a psycho-educational issue.

7th Grade Grauer students practicing introductory Spanish with their classmates in Mimi Robinson's class - January 12, 2021

The psychological term, habituation, is the process of growing accustomed to a situation. We are 10 months into a pandemic lock-down. We grow accustomed to our time out of nature, our time separated from others with so little physical affection, time on screen, and our time feeling powerless—we’re humans. We’re supremely adaptive, in this situation, to a fault. So, our students adapt to all this.

Youth are exposed to large amounts of violence and aggression in media, which may lead to desensitization. Add to this: the aggression is not restricted to just one media type, but many including television, film, music, video, and computer games. Our youth are reporting more PTSD symptoms and greater identification with fictional characters, more passivity. The students who rise up and stay active through this are exhibiting incredible emotional resiliency and strength. But overall, the psych reports coming out are pointing to diminished empathy and reduced emotional reactivity of American kids.

Here at Grauer, we hosted small group forums in every single classroom, to explore student feelings and engagement in the phenomenal events of the times: environmental, political, medical, social. With teacher and parent discussion, we saw some of our more passive students starting to react, to awaken. Some began to notice things they had tuned out.

Still, we have to ask: what else might not many students notice—When the last monarch butterfly dies? When Black or Native Americans are denied a vote? When the next movement to marginalize minorities is launched? When the next glacier disappears?

Grauer High School Theatre students discussing their next projects with Theatre teacher Erin Langen - January 12, 2021

Never in my lifetime has the call for student activism been greater. With students feeling more isolated and passive, the role of teachers today is to invite and inspire things for our students to do on their own or in teams like experiences in nature, activism and social engagement, creative art projects, puzzles that lure their curiosity, things they can explore, and passionate conversations. This is no time for a passive education. This is no time for standardization.

Back to my whole point, the question: What helps kids develop a voice at a time of habituation?

Our students have been more alone, but they have not learned nothing. Maybe they have learned less of curriculum and less of social skills, but how many are digging into their own resourcefulness and creativity?

There is another psych term, dishabituation:  enhancement of habituated behaviors due to the presentation of a new stimulus. Dishabituation, presenting new stimulus, is our job as teachers, more now than ever—giving them exciting, deepening, engaging things to respond to. This is no time for students to receive passively, it is the time for them to respond and create: do a case study, do a puzzle, write or dance or sing along with a song, write a story … express something felt, wake up. Our challenge to our students now is not just college prep or final exams, or even grades. Our challenge to them, our mandate as teachers, is to challenge our students:

  1. To create beauty!
  2. To express their unique selves or thoughts.
  3. To create their own voyages, real and imaginary.
  4. To trust that their creative expression is alive and received by their teacher—Socratic method is at a premium.


Finding ways for students’ creative expression and naturalism are the most critical moves for health and development we can open up right now. At this time of great disconnection from nature and one another, we recall what we have learned time and again: that the relationship between nature and human mental health is basic and essential—that this is an infinite artistic and scientific reservoir. Honoring this recollection is the teaching challenge of the time. Teachers have many roles and sometimes we lecture or instruct …but not now. Now our role as facilitators, midwives, appreciators and listeners is at a premium.

Grauer 11th Grade English students reading with teacher Brian Dugan in the gazebo - January 11, 2021

What are the awakeners? It does not matter if it is in the curriculum, because we are a mile behind in that anyway. What matters is that students can respond with some emotion, and they can explore where they are called to explore.

Listening for reactions and responses from our students also means we have to survey our students and study the impact our teaching is having on them—and understand what they are going through at this time. This could take time during our weekly core values groups.

I love our curriculum and I will not be telling any teacher not to do it. I am noting that the teaching methodologies that incorporate chances for our kids to judge what is going on, express emotions about it, experience natural forces (even from their lawn chairs), and to create new artistic expressions are paramount right now.

Moreover, even those teachers who have less time and opportunity to do any of this are charged with doing it for themselves: with getting outside and allowing their bodies and minds to react to the natural world. We do this for our students, too, but really for ourselves, knowing that the effort will somehow impact our presence with our students and with one another.

Those of us who can ignite the curiosity of our students so that every day is filled with new observations and noticing, and give them a voice that says no to victimization and marginalizing by crazy health conditions and crazy social forces, will be the greatest teachers of the generation.

And to answer my opening question, the only way to notice when we are losing our connection to nature… is to notice.


Dr. Grauer wants to hear from his readers. Please click on the "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

7th Grade Grauer students practicing introductory Spanish with their classmates in Mimi Robinson's class - January 12, 2021

Grauer High School Theatre students discussing their next projects with Theatre teacher Erin Langen - January 12, 2021

Guest speaker Mike Wilken-Roberston, cultural anthropologist and author of " Kumeyaay Ethnobotany", exploring the wildlife corridor on the Grauer campus with 8th Grade students - January 12, 2021

Dr. Stuart Grauer, speaking at an event at The Grauer School - January 13, 2021

Grauer 11th Grade English students reading with teacher Brian Dugan in the gazebo - January 11, 2021

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