Culture, Creativity, and Mental Health

It's really easy to throw around flippant statements that reference "society today", or "the education system today", or "the system [in general] today", but I don't think we necessarily take the time to fully comprehend the magnitude of these statements.

I have been living in the United States for over seven years now - having moved here from Aotearoa [New Zealand] to spend three months working at a girl's camp in Massachusetts to then teaching outdoor science education in Connecticut, and with every week that passed: I was often met with comments akin to "your teaching style is... different".

I think a huge part of that is due to the fact that for the past seven years, I've been teaching, coaching and mentoring in a society that isn't native to me. I didn't grow up in the States [my mother did]. I obtained my teaching qualifications in a completely different country/society, and therefore the way I approach the entire educational system, and youthwork is, well, different.

With a focus on mental health.

A focus on culture and cultural backgrounds.

And a huge focus on creativity.

Which, I think, is needed - especially with the advent of technology having created a generation that is, quite simply, built different to generations before. Technology has brought with it a whole new approach to society - which looks different on everyone, but the bottom line is this:

Each society is different - and how we approach teaching, coaching and mentoring in each of these different societies also needs to be different.

Let me explain.

Mental Health

I often ask my vocal students to imagine they're trees. In order for them to grow into the biggest, baddest, most resilient tree: they need to establish and grow a solid and thick trunk. Now, in the context of vocalization: that "trunk" is a metaphor for their diaphragm [a muscle that is used to support breath and voice], but in the context of songwriting coaching, or education as a whole, that tree trunk can look like many things:
  • The ability to recognize the power-, and importance of their voice

  • Knowing what tools they can access to minimize the impact of overwhelm, anxiety and stress

  • Understanding that the only way for them to truly shine, is to recognize the other trees that are shading them from the sunlight, therefore stagnating their growth. Too vague? Think of those trees as peer pressure or toxic friendship circles, alcohol or substance abuse [you'd be surprised at how young teenagers can start experimenting these days], and even educational stress and struggles.

It's my job to recognize where they're at with their mental health before I can even begin to look at how I want to start addressing their educational, musical and mentoring needs. It would be impossible for one student, whose father is incarcerated, whose sibling unalived themselves, and whose mother is working seven days a week to make ends meet to absorb and apply knowledge at the same rate as someone who has grown up in a two-parent household, with siblings who are in Ivy League colleges and family nearby.

I'm not stating that to throw shade - we are all doing the best we can, but it's important to recognize where our students are at personally and mental health wise before we can even begin to look at their educational progress and needs.

Which brings us to...

Culture and Cultural Identity

Understanding and recognizing our student's mental health needs is one step... but there's multiple steps that need to be taken - especially when it comes to living-, and teaching- in diverse cultural societies, such as Washington, DC where I live. Having a basic understanding of different cultures is monumental for students' learning journeys.

As I mentioned earlier: I obtained my teaching qualifications in New Zealand - a relatively multi-ethnic country of Maori and Pacific Islanders, Indian, Somalian, Chinese, Thai and Japanese cultures, including the European-Kiwi "pakeha" population. As a result, my peers were diverse across the board, and I learned relatively early in life some of the distinct differences in how each culture presents itself - as well as the misunderstandings between cultures.

For example:

  • A highly animated or passionate conversation between people from some countries can easily be misconstrued as aggressive or angry.

  • Dressing a particular way in one culture can easily be thought of as either too modest, or absurdly inappropriate.

  • If one has visitors, some cultures make it a point to ensure they don't just leave satiated, but with extra food to go - even if said visitors weren't hungry in the first place.

Every culture brings with it a host of different practices and approaches when it comes to interaction, let alone the classroom environment.

So what does culture have to do with education and mental health?

It should be common knowledge that a lot of the teaching practices we use are based on outdated pedagogies rooted predominantly in European approaches. This just doesn't work when it comes to teaching the 2022 and 2023 teenager. With the advent of social media, and Google now being in our back pockets, and words like "yeet" and "pwn" now officially found in the dictionary: you'd think our educational approaches would also be updated.

In my way of thinking: the very first step is recognizing and teaching students from a culturally woke position. No student will listen to an educator if they don't first feel understood.

Many students will find it difficult to understand teachers that aren't relatable, or able to use language in a way that helps them to understand specific concepts [you can talk about trigonometry until you're blue in the face, but if you were to start relating pythagorean theorem to balls on a pool table: you might be surprised at how quickly these lessons can start to be absorbed]. Similarly, the words we use when simply discussing or conversing with one another can have an effect on how much information is retained by students. There's a huge difference between the following statements, for example:

"Writing an effective song is akin to writing an essay paper. You begin by using the first verse as an introduction - give your audience an idea of what you're going to be discussing, then use the chorus as an evaluation of that verse. Second verse, continue along to make your second point - again, punctuated by the chorus's evaluation. The bridge is the final evaluation, however, where - in case they missed the points in verses one and two, they'll have no choice but to fully understand by the end of the bridge".

vs

"Imagine your song is a boxer. The first verse: you're simply shadow-boxing: giving the listener a taste of what your skillset is. The chorus translates to making contact a few times... they're starting to understand what you're saying. The second verse is a little more to the point, but not as aggressive as the chorus, however the bridge? That's the knockout punch to the feelings".

Each example says exactly the same thing... but for two completely cultural audiences.

Creativity Wins the Day

Simply put: creativity is the winning ticket to navigating mental health and cultural backgrounds, experiences and struggles. Of course, creativity looks and feels different to every teacher, mentor and coach, but for me: creativity isn't just a noun - it's a verb.

To exercise my own creativity when it comes to my approach to pouring knowledge into my clients is important, but it's not nearly as important as encouraging my students to explore their own creativity when it comes to learning, growing and self-devlopment.

  • Creative writing when it comes to identifying, understanding and dismantling overwhelming thoughts in their heads.

  • Creative thinking when it comes to the alchemy of transforming formerly disempowering thoughts and ideas into resilient, self-affirming ones.

  • Creative expression as a method of unapologetically standing in their cultural identities, and therefore building a stronger sense of self, self-love and self-appreciation.

  • Creativity and music - especially when it comes to accessing parts of the brain in charge of vocabulary, information retention, and intellectual expression.

Music, in particular, allows people - all people - access to parts of the brain that often lie dormant in the typical classroom setting.

  • The nuccleus accumbens, cerrebelum, and amygdala: in charge of our emotional responses to events, lessons and experiences [ie: classroom activities]

  • The prefrontal cortex: in charge of behavior, expression and decision-making [ie. social interaction, teamwork and group activities - especially when it comes to multi-cultural learning environments]

and

  • The hippocampus: in charge of music memories, experiences and context [ie. understanding and processing information in the classroom]

There are some really Simple Ways to Re-Engage these Parts of our Brain, However...

  1. Listen to music in the classroom - classical music has been shown to stimulate and calm, however: if you're in a multi-ethnic environment, perhaps empowering your students to - every week - contribute music to listen to in the classroom. Perhaps you could even create a classroom-representative playlist on your favorite streaming site.
  2. Encourage your students to write a song, rhyme or rap for their research projects, instead of an essay. The structure doesn't have to be too dissimilar, and your students are more likely to retain the information [thank you, hippocampus].
  3. Have semi-regular dance breaks to give the brain a break, and absorb the information being discussed.
  4. Similar to French class, when students are encouraged to speak only in French for the duration of the lesson: challenge your students to rap/rhyme their conversations with each other on specific topics. This not only engages their creative process and output, it helps them to retain information that comes up through conversation rather than simply information delivery.
  5. Get creative yourself! How else can you use creativity in the classroom to approach cultural understanding, mental health wellness and wellness, and information retention within the classroom environment?

My superpowers are definitely rooted in using songwriting for the brain - whether that's emotional, neurological or mental health: I've been using songwriting, music and creative process to help myself personally navigate my education, overcoming brain damage from a neurological condition that I have, [you can watch me discuss this in my recent TEDx Talk here], and - of course - my own mental health, especially as a teenager.

Now: in 2022 - whilst the world is still trying to navigate COVID and the impacts that it has had on the world, I'm honored to be able to do this work with teenagers, parents, teachers, and workplaces. Using songwriting, in particular, to navigate culture, creativity and mental health.

If you're interested in learning more about what it looks like to work together, you can book a call with me here to discuss what you need, and how I can help.

I can't wait to speak with you!

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