Living in the Growth Zone

Every fall, my school takes our kids on a camping trip in the woods of New Hampshire. When we get there, the counselors take us out into a clearing and draw three concentric circles in the dirt. The center circle, they tell us, represents our comfort zone. Being in our comfort zone feels good. It’s, you know, comfortable.

But staying in the comfort zone doesn’t push us. We’re not going to learn much there. So they point to the second circle and call it the “growth zone.” That’s where we safely push ourselves to try something new or challenging. We’re able to grow there, but it isn’t always comfortable.

The outer circle is called the “danger zone.” When we’re in our danger zone, there’s no learning happening, because we don’t feel safe. We shut down.

The counselors explain that, during the camping trip, everyone should try to live in their own personal growth zone–whatever that may look like–to get the most out of the experience.

My best example is the “night hike.” It’s actually just a walk in the dark down a gravel road or across an open field, but to those city kids who have never been outside in the woods in the total darkness before, it’s huge. They hear rustly forest noises and see stars sprayed across the sky, and it’s overwhelming for some of them. They hang onto each other and hiss, “It’s too quiet!” And then the next year, they look forward to that hike. Their comfort zones expand.

One of the other things students do on the trip is write “intentions” for the year ahead. Intentions aren’t so much concrete goals as they are statements of who and how kids want to be. We ask them to reflect on what it looks and feels like when they are being their “best selves” and go from there.

Since I missed the camping trip this year, I’ve been thinking about mine on the road lately.

My intention for the rest of this year as Teacher of the Year is to push myself into my growth zone, to get more comfortable being uncomfortable.

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This morning, I was relieved to see that Alabama’s citizens voted against Roy Moore for Senate. They rejected a man who has been accused of sexual assault, who said that America was “great” when slavery was legal, who equated being gay with being a sexual predator, who suggested that getting rid of all of the Constitutional amendments after the 10th might be a good idea.

Except here’s the thing: when you break down votes by race and gender, 63% of White women voted for Moore.

As my sister wrote on Twitter, “Hey, fellow White women? DO BETTER.”

In Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, she talks about Bill Bishop’s research. As Americans, she explains, we have “geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups in which we silence dissent, grow more extreme in our thinking, and consume only facts that support our beliefs…. This sorting leads us to make assumptions about the people around us, which in turn fuels disconnection” (47).

It would be easy to dismiss the White women who voted for Moore as totally different from me, to tell myself and the world that we have nothing in common. Easy, maybe. Safe. Comfortable.

But I’ve been paying attention, lately, to which men in my life are doing the work when it comes to the #MeToo movement, which ones are listening to women and taking our stories seriously, which ones are looking at themselves. And I know that, as a White woman, I have to do the same kind of work around race.

To be honest, I don’t exactly know what that looks like. But I do know that it connects to my intention. It requires me to stay uncomfortable.

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So what does all of that mean for me as a teacher?

I have been talking and writing a lot lately about how education can and should be a means to work towards social justice, that by equipping students with skills to think critically and engage in tough conversations with each other, we’re helping them become people who can change the world for the better.

I think, though, that I need to keep pushing on this idea of Brown and Bishop’s–that continuing to section ourselves off from one another isn’t ultimately going to be helpful. Maybe we need to get closer, connect with one another more deliberately, to make change. Maybe we need to do the work we’re trying so hard to teach kids to do.

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I’m going to add articles here that help me as I think through this. Send me more if you have them!

White Women, You Need to Talk about Racism

I Am a White Woman and I Must Confront My Racism

Project Implicit (Implicit Association/Bias Tests)