Aug 27, 2011

Summer and the Mother's Curse

As a teacher, I really do get the best of both worlds. During the summer I am a stay-at-home mom and during the school year I work. After many years of this split life, I can tell you that while there are pluses and minuses to both lifestyles, one thing is constant: KIDS. As a mom/teacher, there is never any break from them. Little kids, big kids, tweens and teens: I am surrounded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I love my job, and I love my kids. But sometimes, I think I am losing my mind!

What is it about kids? Sometimes they say the most insightful, soulful things... and sometimes you wonder if there are any neurons actually firing in those brains.  Do you know what I mean? At times I feel completely and utterly insane! This summer I actually heard myself tell my children, "No one in this house should touch anyone else ever again!" Who says that? and actually means it? ME!!! That's who.

Whenever I thoroughly and completely begin to doubt my sanity, I think of  Bill Cosby's stand-up-routine-turned-movie: "Himself." A few weeks ago my husband checked the DVD out of the library for me in order to remind me that my our life is blessedly, laughably normal.

This clip from Cosby's routine beautifully illustrates the nature of my summer "vacation" (Yes, I had a conniption at least once a day. And my children are still not allowed to touch each other. ;-)

We are now one week into the school year. Summer is over and my days are now more reminiscent of Beavis and Butthead episodes (click the link for a glimpse of what life is like with teens in my classroom. I'm serious. Beavis and Butthead are alive and well in my classroom!)

Meanwhile, at home we are still having what I think of as "Cosby moments." Just the other night I told my daughter step by step what she needed to do to take a shower: get a towel, hang it on the towel rack, take off your clothes, turn on the water, get in the shower, and wash yourself.

However, I forgot to remind her to use soap. Did she use soap despite my lack of instruction? Of course not. Is it BRAIN DAMAGE??? Don't answer that.

All I can say is that I hope Bill Cosby is right when he says the mother's curse really does work. Many years from now I envision my daughter looking down into the innocent eyes of a wet but dirty child who is saying, "Well you didn't say I had to use soap!"

Aug 21, 2011

The Power of a Symbol

Several years ago I had a group of students who thought it was "cool" to draw swastikas everywhere. They drew swastikas on their schoolwork, on their clothing, and on their skin. I was horrified. When I asked them to stop, they questioned my motives. "We don't have any Jewish kids here. It's not offending anyone!" I told them it was offending me, and I wanted them to stop.

They did not stop, however. Swastikas continued to appear on their schoolwork and on their skin. One boy used a permanent marker to draw a swastika in the middle of his forehead.  He wore it with pride. He made sure to take off his hat when facing me so that I could see his open defiance of my request. When I looked at him questioningly, asking, "Why did you do that? I asked you to stop." He recited to me the thousands year-old history of the swastika, and assured me (with his blonde hair and blue eyes) that he did not intend for anyone to take it in an Aryan way. He was not a racist or a Nazi, he said.

Flickr Image Credit:Wm Jas 
I was deeply disturbed by his insistence that wearing a swastika on his forehead is something to be proud of. The previous year, a different group of students had gone with me to the local nursing home to interview residents about their experiences in WWII.  Their pain was palpable. To have this young man not show any regard for the memory of that pain bothered me immensely. I could only conclude that my student did not know the more recent history of that symbol well enough. As his teacher, it was my job to teach him. I could look at him and say, "YOU are a racist," which would cause him to become more defiant and angry. Or I could try to get him to see things from another perspective.

While thinking about how to approach the subject, I realized that the biggest challenge would be getting these rural, poor, white kids to put themselves in someone else's shoes. I thought about just showing them a movie like Schindler's List.  But that is just a movie. It is so easy to dissociate one's self from a movie; that's not real--it's Hollywood. Instead of a movie, I got the documentary World War II -- The Lost Color Archives. Even with its gut-wrenching scenes from the concentration camps, I didn't think that my students would find much reason to relate to the footage on a personal level.  I struggled to think of a way to make them aware of what the swastika symbolizes to so many people.

My students have all experienced pain. Some of them have experienced so much pain that I am amazed by their ability to survive. The boy with the swastika on his forehead was one such person. His history involves both physical and sexual violence, both of which deeply affected him. Many of my other students had similar backgrounds.

Two days after discovering the swastika-on-the-forehead , I told my students that we were not going to complete any of our regular schoolwork. "We are going to have a discussion. It will be a really serious discussion and I will be sharing some very personal information with you. It is my hope that you will feel comfortable enough to share some things about yourself, too. Because it is so scary to share such personal stories, I need you all to agree to treat each other with respect. If you cannot handle that, you may leave right now. You will not be penalized for leaving. But you will be penalized if you are disrespectful to anyone sharing their personal stories." No one left.

After sharing the story of one of my darkest memories, I asked my students if they had any similar memories. I was shocked by the number of kids who had been living with immeasurable pain. Rape, physical abuse and mental abuse are far more common than I'd ever thought they were. After an intense period of sharing and tears, I asked those who had been brave enough to share, "Are there things that you see, hear, or smell that seem to send you back in time? Do you have flashbacks?" Each one of those kids could name a scent, an object, a song that froze them in fear, making them return in their minds to the time and place they were hurt so profoundly.  I asked a girl who admitted to flashbacks  how she would feel if I played the song that triggered her flashbacks each day as she entered our classroom. I asked the boy with the swastikas how he would feel if I presented him with the trigger to his pain each day. I told them that while the swastika does have an ancient history as a symbol of peace, there are people alive today who will not see it as such. For those people, wearing a swastika is like forcing them back in time to their moment of pain. Then we watched the documentary together.

We wept together. All of us.

At the conclusion of the film I asked them if they now understood why I was so upset by their casual display of swastikas. With red eyes, they all nodded. The boy with the swastika on his head got up to scrub his face in the bathroom. When he returned to the classroom he said, "This was an intense day. Can we have a group hug?" We all stood at the front of our classroom hugging each other for a long time.

That was the single most powerful day of teaching/learning that I've ever experienced in my career.

For the past week, two things have been on my mind: the movie The Help, and the start of the new school year. The story I just told brings together my thoughts on both subjects.

On The Help:There has been much controversy over both the movie and the book.  I didn't quite understand the controversy until I read this post by Ann Freeman (via Nordette Adams.) I am left wondering: if I read the book, if I see the movie: will I be wearing a proverbial swastika on my head? Am I perpetuating the pain of the past?

On the start of the school year: There is more talk now than ever before about teacher accountability for the learning students do in our classrooms. I just wrote about my most powerful teaching moment--one that deeply affected both me and my students. Yet none of what was taught or learned that day is considered of value in our current educational system. There is no bubble test to measure a student's growth in her/his ability to feel empathy. How do we balance this need for accountability with the need to ensure that kids learn more than just reading and math? For it is my opinion that they also need to learn more about what it means to be human.

Aug 14, 2011

I Choose

Flickr Image Credit: Scintt
Since 1996 I have been teaching in alternative high school settings. Next week I will begin my 14th year in the same classroom, working with a group of kids who are deemed "at-risk" of dropping out. Even after all these years, I still get nervous and excited about the first day of school...but not for the reasons that many people think I do.

It's taken years for me to get used to the reactions I get from people after I tell them what I do for a living. Jaws drop, eyes get big, and shock registers. Some bless my heart and nominate me for sainthood. Others ask very direct questions, like: "Don't you fear for your life?" Here is what I tell them: I am not a saint. I try my best to help kids graduate and I care about them; but I am no miracle worker. They earn their diplomas through their own hard work. My job is to believe in them and to remind them that they are extremely capable of being successful. I do not fear for my life. My students are just kids. Many of them have suffered greatly due to a variety of life situations, and that suffering often creates a tough exterior, a hard shell of protection from hurt. But underneath that shell, they are all soft-hearted kids. They are the ones who should be seen as miracle workers! Many of them are survivors, who somehow manage to not only overcome the obstacles they've faced in their young lives, but also to thrive.

Flickr Image Credit:TimsStrategy 
I recently read this post at De Su Mama, written by a fellow Multicultural Familia contributor. Vanessa blogged about her career in social services working with "at-risk youth," and it really struck a chord with me because I work with the same kinds of kids. She wrote about the way some kids are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles (abuse, violence, addiction, etc.) but are able to overcome those struggles and do amazing things.  She beautifully discusses that quality, as well as how to instill it in our own children--the quality of resiliency. Vanessa's post was linked to another that discussed resiliency in greater detail, naming five characteristics that help develop a child's resilience. One of those characteristics really stuck out for me because it is one I find myself focusing on both with my students and with my own children: Internal Locus of Control.

I have three children between the ages of 7-11. Here's a common scenario in my house: a loud crash, a burst of tears, footsteps pounding up the stairs, a shrieking cry, "MOOOMMMMMMY!!!! A just pushed B and now she's crying!" I separate the brawlers and try to figure out what happened by asking questions. Almost every answer to my questions includes these words: "Yeah, but..." My kids see a chain of cause and effect that always leads to the notion that someone else is to blame for their actions.  "Yeah but if she hadn't grabbed the toy out of my hand, I wouldn't have hit her!" That is an example of external locus of control--it's not my fault I hit's hers!

Similar things happen in my classroom. My new students often come on the first day of school with huge burdens weighing them down--a history of pain, suffering, and failure. (No one comes to my alternative program because they have a history of success in a traditional high school setting--they are all there for a second chance.) Almost all of them start out by saying some variation of, "I can't": I can't do math because I failed it; I can't come to school every day because I have to help raise my younger siblings; I can't graduate because no one else in my family has ever done it.

They have some heart-rending stories about why they can't do things...but rarely do they see anything in their lives as the result of their own choices. They do not have that internal locus of control. "My mom says I have to;" "My friends will give me a hard time;""Yeah, but..." Rarely do they feel they have the power to make their own choices.

I get nervous on the first day of school because I worry about how effective I will be at helping students  students learn this powerful lesson: YOU HAVE A CHOICE. I worry about how many will choose to take responsibility for themselves and how many will blame me, their parents, or others for the things that happen in their lives. I wonder how many will end up strong enough to deal with both the positive and negative consequences of their own choices. (And I worry about how many negative consequences I will have to mete out before the choices-lead-to-consequences lesson is learned.) I get excited on the first day of school because when kids learn that they have the power to choose success, it is an amazing thing to watch! Some of my students start out as young, immature kids; but they leave as responsible young adults whom I admire greatly. I often start out the year feeling like a parent/disciplinarian and end it feeling like I have a new group of close friends. It is extremely exciting to watch kids transform!

To spur on this transformation, on the first day of school I like to let my students know: "You have a clean slate here. Starting today, it doesn't matter what classes you failed or how much trouble you've been in. Maybe you've suffered through a lot of pain because of what other people have done to you. Maybe you don't think you have what it takes to graduate. Well, starting today, you have a choice. You can keep worrying about your past, or you can start planning your future. You can let other people hold you back, or you can choose to break free. It doesn't matter to me who your parents are, why you are here, or what you've done in the past. Right now you are here, and if you choose to try to graduate I am going to help you in any way I can. You can do it if you make the choice to do so." Sometimes I play them this song by India Arie, "I Choose." It is a powerful message about everyone's internal locus of control. A reminder that I have the power to CHOOSE to be the best that I can be...

Resilience, the power of choice, and internal locus of control: that's what's on my lesson plan schedule for the school year. Let's hope they are lessons well-taught and well-learned...

Aug 7, 2011

The Visitor: a review

The name of this blog comes from the Greek language. Empatheia means passion, and it is one of the roots of the English word empathy. Empathy is the ability to identify with or experience the thoughts or feelings of another person.  In all aspects of culture (literature, film, art, food, and language) I am inspired by creations that challenge me to view the world through a new lens. Learning occurs at those moments when my eyes are opened, when I become cognizant of something I never before considered. It begins with a trickle of awareness and then slowly grows into a flow of questions, encouraging me to ask for more information.

I enjoy learning. I enjoy seeing things from another perspective. I take to heart that Native American proverb stating, "Before you judge another man, walk two moons in his moccasins." I look for learning opportunities that help me see the world as a child--with a newness that sparks my imagination, and makes me ask questions. The film The Visitor created such an opportunity for me.

In The Visitor, Walter Vale is a widowed college professor in Connecticut. From the very start of the film, it is obvious that he is in a slump. The class he teaches is filled with glazed-over eyes, a student complains that they have not yet received the syllabus--despite the fact that the due date for their first big term paper already passed. We see Walter whiting out the date on a previous year's syllabus, readying it for redistribution just before he heads to New York City. In NYC, he will be staying in his second home, an apartment, while presenting a paper at a conference on the economics of third world countries. Upon arriving at his apartment, though, he discovers a young Senegalese woman in his bathtub. Zainab thinks that Walter is there for some nefarious purpose and begins screaming in French. Walter backs away and is met by Zainab's Syrian boyfriend, Tarek, who has returned to the apartment just in time to defend his girlfriend from her "attacker."  Walter explains that the apartment is his, and proves it with his keys. The young couple says they rented the apartment from someone named Ivan, who apparently set them up as squatters while Walter taught in Connecticut. Zainab and Tarek gather their belongings and head out to find another place to stay.

Walter looks around his apartment after they leave, and notices a photograph of the couple that was left behind. He decides to seek them out to return it, finding them on the street calling friends and looking for a place to spend the night. Walter stands silently by the couple and you can see the wheels in his brain turning. Eventually, he invites them back into his apartment to stay. With that decision Walter's journey of two moons in another man's moccasins begins.

The film is the story of an awakening--not just for Walter, but also for the viewer.  Walter is made aware of several aspects of both Syrian and Senegalese culture. He also begins to see parts of NYC that he's passed by a multitude of times, but never taken the time to really see. Tarek opens his eyes to a new world, a new way of thinking, and Walter becomes alive again. It is a beautiful story of friendship that becomes horribly complicated when we learn that Tarek is an undocumented citizen. The audience is then awakened to what it is like to live in the U.S. without the proper paperwork.

This is a very touching and thought provoking film. The trailer states, "You can live your whole life and never know who you are until you see the world through the eyes of others." That quote not only beautifully describes the experiences of Walter in the story, but it also captures the experience of those who watch the film: allowing a spark to ignite, allowing questions to form, allowing voices to be heard. I highly recommend this film to anyone who loves to learn, who is willing to see things from a new perspective.

If The Visitor gives you a trickle of awareness that slowly grows into a flow of questions, I encourage you to ask for more information. Visit the Federation for American Immigration Reform to learn more about immigration policy and reform in the U.S.

Special thanks to my mom for recommending this film to me. 

Aug 3, 2011

We DO Need Another Hero!!!

CC photo credit: Oscar J Baeza 
Up, up and away web! Shazam!  Go! Go! Go web, Go! 
He jumped on to the coffee table reciting those lines, mimicking the actions of his favorite superhero, the Amazing Spider-Man!

Since the age of two, my son has been a huge fan of superheroes: Spider-Man, Superman, The Flash, The Thing, The Incredible Hulk and almost every generation of Power Rangers. It seems like every superhero ever created eventually made their way into our home in the form of an action figure. At age three he started martial arts classes. The reason for the classes? Superheroes need to know how to defend themselves! At age four he started soccer and baseball. Why? Because superheroes need to know how to run fast and be coordinated! Any sport he was old enough to play, he joined...because those sports were a part of his self-imposed training regimen--the one required for him to become a real life superhero.

He loved watching and reading about superheroes who are always on the side of justice, always fighting to stop the spread of evil, always focusing on ways to make the world a better place (even though that is not always an easy job. "With great power comes great responsibility," he would say.) He watched the original Superman cartoons from the 1950's, read the original Marvel Spider-Man comics, was a different superhero each year for Halloween, and had superhero pajamas for every night of the week. Bath time was about more than getting clean... It was always an epic battle between Justice League action figures and  Lego bad guys, where the fate of humanity rested in the  heart of one superhero--my son!

All rights reserved jenmardunc
All rights reserved jenmardunc

copyright jenmardunc

It has been a pleasure to tease my now 6th grade son about the origins of his interest in sports! But honestly, he doesn't much mind the teasing. He still enjoys superheroes! This summer he saw Thor,  went to Captain America on opening night and watched several seasons of Smallville during our epic heat wave. These heroes still capture his imagination and make him dream about how he can make the world a safer, happier place.

There has only ever been one problem with his love of heroes: none of the mainstream superguys look like him. Green Lantern from the Justice League was the only brown-skinned hero in his collection of action figures. Recently he discovered the show Heroes on Netflix and was interested to see some people with powers who were not white (the Haitian, Hiro and Ando). He liked the Will Smith movie, Hancock, when he saw it. But that's about it. (Before any die-hard comic book fans argue, I will acknowledge the fact  that there have been other black heroes, but those heroes have never been marketed in a big enough way for my son to know about them. Those characters are never featured in kid-appropriate tv shows or movies, either.)

So, I was excited to learn about the latest incarnation of Spider-Man in The Ultimate Spider-Man series. This version of Spider-Man is biracial, just like my son. The new Spider-Man is half black and half Latino, and his name is Miles Morales. I am absolutely thrilled that my son, whose lifelong dream is to serve humanity on the side of justice, can see a superhero who looks like him! But apparently, not everyone is so thrilled. Stories about the new Spider-Man were posted yesterday. Those stories are now flooded with comments, and not many of them are supportive of the new hero's secret identity. From Time magazine to USA Today, commenters are getting ugly. Some say that they are only angry because they are traditionalists who don't think Spider-Man should change. Some say they are angry because the liberals and their "politically correct"movement are pushing their agenda too far. Many people suggest that President Obama is to blame for the change--whether they believe the birth of Miles Morales is positive or negative. The Altanta Post featured an article today about the backlash being another sign of the fact that we are not yet a post-racial society as many people claimed when President Obama was elected.

Despite the controversy, I look forward to seeing my son, my young hero, find someone that looks like him in a superhero comic. It seems like it can only help him to realize his dream of being a real life superhero when there already is one who looks like him.

What do you think? Are you a traditionalist who thinks Spider-Man should only be the young, white, Peter Parker? Or do you welcome the biracial Miles Morales to the superhero scene?

**For more on Marvel's Black Superheroes, see the series of posts on their website: A Marvel Black History Lesson**


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