Sep 25, 2011

Raising Confident Mixed Girls

I have two daughters and try to keep up with their rapidly changing interests. Thankfully, a few things remain constant: music, dance, and art. They love to create things. They love to make movies of themselves on our computer, to take pictures of themselves, and to paint and draw themselves.

They love playing with Barbies and Barbie online (despite some of my reservations about Mattel)
The Fab Girl Barbie Anna is so GLAM!!!

My oldest daughter loves to draw and make things out of clay.
Dad and daughter on a sunny day in clay: Father's day gift 2011 and an assortment of gifts for me.

My youngest loves to paint and loves Rihanna.
Smiling in the Rain w/Purple Umbrella-ella-ella 

And here they are with one of their many vlogs (video logs). They sing, they dance, and they show you a lot of their personality. (Look out Fanshen, Heidi and Jennifer--they could be your future replacements on MixedChicksChat!)

I sometimes worry a lot about whether or not they are growing up to be confident young women. Then I see things like this and I stop worrying (at least for a little while....I'm a mom--it's my job to worry!)

Sep 22, 2011

An Eye for an Eye Leaves Everyone Blind

As parents we are told that spanking our children teaches them that hitting is okay. We are told that "do as  I say, not as I do," doesn't work.We need to model ideal behaviors. Teach by example. If you want your kids to know that brushing their teeth is important, they need to see you brushing your teeth. If you want your kids to treat others with respect, then they need to see you treating others with respect. You want your kids to read a lot of books, they need to see you reading a lot of books. Modeling ideal behavior is the best way to teach people the importance of that behavior; else they think, "If it's so important, why aren't you doing it?"

If killing people is wrong, shouldn't our government model that belief? The death penalty teaches us that it is okay to kill. But an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

The commandment says, "Thou shalt not kill." It doesn't say, "Thou shalt not kill unless you are the state of Georgia." Murder is wrong. Period.

Read Amnesty International's Death Penalty Facts.

Read about the most recent state-sanctioned murder of Troy Davis.

Take action to stop the next scheduled US executions on Amnesty International's action page.

Sep 18, 2011

What if? Thoughts on Ron Clark Academy, Parents and Teachers

In 2009, I attended  the Risky Business Conference for educators who work with at-risk youth. Mr. Ron Clark was the keynoter. I don't think there was a single person in the audience who wasn't captivated by his presentation. He is an entertainer, and both his classroom and his school (Ron Clark Academy) are lively places. Watch this video to see what I mean.

Ron Clark is very innovative. He has a unique style of teaching, leading, and talking about education. The overwhelming quality I sensed in his presentation at Risky Business is passion. He loves what he does and he loves his students.

Looks great, right? Here's some background on the Ron Clark Academy (from the RCA student FAQ page):
  • Potential students must apply while in 4th grade.
  • Approximately thirty 5th graders are admitted each year. Students in grades 6-8 are not admitted.
  • 5th graders are expected to remain in the program for 4 years in order to achieve the greatest success from the Academy's program of study.
  • Average class size is 30 students (these are not all gifted students; a majority have learning or behavioral issues.)
  • It costs money to attend RCA. There is a sliding scale for tuition and many fees are offset by scholarships, but admission may be limited if there are not enough corporate donations or sponsors.
There are many teachers across the country who have a lot of passion. But their passion is sometimes limited by barriers that the Ron Clark Academy has worked hard to break down. Due to corporate donations and sponsorship, RCA has a beautiful building with up-to-date technology. Class size is limited--the school only has about 120 students, on average 30 kids per grade. Those kids stay together for four years, which means they really build a strong sense of community. They have relationships with each other and with their teachers. And I guarantee you, that RCA parents and teachers also get to know each other pretty well. How could they not when they are together for 4 years in such a small school?

Many things strike me about the Ron Clark Academy. First and foremost is that I think the vast majority of teachers and students would thrive in an environment like the one at RCA. With proper resources, a nurturing environment, and lots of stability, amazing things can happen. Throw in high-interest curriculum that engages students' bodies and can it fail?  

The reality is that most communities and school districts can't break down those same barriers without strong intervention from our government. It would take a great deal of change to make your average public school look anything like the RCA (not to mention a great deal of money.) What can change? On a small in-your-classroom level, teachers/parents/students can work on building better relationships. Education needs to be personal. It needs to be individual. We need to look at each kid for who they are and what they can do and tailor our instruction to meet their needs.

On September 6, 2011 CNN ran a piece by Ron Clark, titled "What teachers really want to tell parents." It caused quite a stir in the Twitter-verse, with both parents and educators taking issue with many of his points. Lots of people have written responses. CNN ran a piece based on comments to Clark's post. Doug Goldberg of Special Education Advisor wrote a piece expressing his frustration with Clark's seemingly antagonistic view of parental involvement that you can read here. In another post about the controversy, 6th grade teacher, Josh Stumpenhorst, reminds us that while there most definitely are some bad parents and some bad teachers, we cannot make assumptions about all parents or teachers. Each individual must be approached as an individual. 

I agree with Josh on that notion of individualizing each educational situation.  That said, I kind of wish Ron Clark had simply sent his letter out to the parents in his Academy. They have a history together, a relationship where such commentary could be like extended family talking after Thanksgiving dinner--sometimes you don't all agree, but in the end you're still family. The rest of us are not a part of that dynamic, not involved in that relationship. I don't know of any other school quite like the Ron Clark Academy. Issues there are not the same as issues in other schools. Most schools don't have the same physical environment (does your school have a slide from the second story to the first?) Few schools have such up-to-date  technology (digital keyboard accompaniment to math songs! and SmartBoards in every classroom!) Most schools don't have such limited class size, and are unable to keep the same small group of kids together for four years. Most schools don't have such a small student:staff ratio (this photo shows 20 staff for about 120 students. Also, note how many teachers of color there are! The staff actually reflects student demographics!) Maybe if we all started out with the same corporate-sponsored structure in place we would have a better chance at creating close enough relationships with parents to say the things the Ron Clark said in his piece. 

Currently in education, we are suffering from a climate of blame. Many teachers blame parents, and many parents blame teachers. One thing many have discovered as a result of the recent Ron Clark controversy is the fact that both groups need to communicate with each other better. There is a common goal here: educating our kids.  The focus should be on how to work together to eliminate barriers to learning; how to turn our schools into strong communities where students, teachers and parents have effective relationships, and are united by a common goal: success for our students. I encourage teachers and parents to reach out to each other--to really listen to each other. Don't blame, and don't assume that what works in one educational situation will work in all situations. Treat each other as individuals. I think that if we all do that, we can start to build relationships, to work together, and to eliminate barriers to learning. What if we all learned to treat each other individually? What if we could stop making assumptions about parents, teachers, students, schools? What if we could truly individualize education? 

Sep 10, 2011

Soul Music & Respect

Music moves me. It sways my body, sings in my soul, and sinks deep in my bones. Thanks to my parents' wide variety of musical interests, I grew up listening to everything: the folk singers of the 60's and 70's, the jazz stylings of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms--not much was left un-listened in our house. My parents allowed me to develop my own taste in music and at age 7 I was allowed to buy my first 45 rpm vinyl record. One of my first purchases was Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." I loved Donna Summer.
Image via
Donna became the first in a long line of women whose voices set my skin tingling, literally moving me and swaying me with their songs.

As I grew older,  I continued to listen to and appreciate a wide variety of music; but I've always had a special relationship with the music of women whose voices seem to come from some other spiritual place. They put the soul in "soul music," if you know what I mean. 

In 2000, I first had the mind-blowing pleasure of hearing Miss Jill Scott sing "A Long Walk." Her voice is the epitome of ear candy;  her lyrics are mellifluous poetry. She became my favorite female artist of all time. I can listen to Jill Scott any time, any day. She can send my spirit soaring, make me misty-eyed with mourning, lure me into laughter at memories of family gatherings.

When my children began noticing that their skin color was different than mine and my husband's, we all talked and decided that they were not brown, black, or white but Golden...and wouldn't you know it--Jill Scott had a song for that, too.

I hope that you get where I'm coming from: I feel huge amounts of respect, and admiration for Jill Scott. More than that...I feel a cosmic connection to this woman because of her music.

And that's why I was totally devastated when I read her piece in Essence about the pain she feels when she sees a black man married to a white woman. Written in March of 2010, it is on my mind these days because Jill has two new releases out. As I read the reviews of her cover of Bill Withers' "A Lovely Day," I was reminded of that wince she feels when she looks at people like my my children. And when I think of her wincing, it kind of steals the joy I get from listening to her music. I begin to wonder how she would feel about me--a white woman married to a black man--listening to her music. Would it pain her? I almost want to apologize on behalf of humankind for the history that causes her so much pain. When I told my husband about my overwhelming urge to apologize, he said I was ridiculous because I am not the perpetrator of her pain. I am not that white woman she describes in Essence. He reminded me that my mother's family came to this country as immigrants almost 90 years after the Civil War ended. I heard him saying all of that, and yet when I read Miss Scott's commentary I still felt guilty. It is irrational, but there it is. I feel it.

At the same time, I also feel some anger and frustration.  My husband and I fell in love in 1993. He didn't hate himself or his heritage then, and he doesn't hate himself or his heritage now. Yet there are many people who say he must because he married a white woman (including another of my favorite artists, Common, who in 2005-- when I'd been with my husband for about 12 years--said that black men who are in relationships with white women show a "lack of self-love.") Our interracial relationship is not about a lack of self-love. It is about loving someone else so much that your love transcends all societal constraints, make-believe systems of racial classification, and social boundaries. According to her piece in Essence, Jill Scott sees my marriage as a betrayal. I find that extremely difficult to swallow.

I have given Miss Jill Scott my admiration, my time, my respect and my hard-earned money. I feel a bond to her because of her music, and I appreciate her beautiful voice, words, and music. But that bond is seriously shaken by the knowledge that Miss Scott views my marriage as something painful. My love, my family, my reason for being makes her wince. Knowing that, it is hard for me to feel her when she sings "Lovely Day."

On one hand, I feel she has given me so much through her music that I want to give something back, to somehow be the ointment that finally soothes the burn of the past. But on the other hand, I am deeply disappointed that someone I admire so much holds such a negative view of a love, a marriage, that I know to be so beautiful. I'm hoping with all my heart that the future brings Jill Scott a truly lovely day, where she can see that love heals wounds rather than causing them.

Sep 4, 2011

Accentuating the Positve

The first weeks of school are hard. My students test my limits over and over again. I dish out consequences repeatedly. I can't let up even once in these first weeks, or they will not learn these valuable lessons:
  • Our classroom is predictable (unlike many of their lives outside of school) 
  • Everyone is the same, but everyone is different. I will do my best to be fair--which means that a student with a disability may have different tools for completing their schoolwork than a student without disabilities. However, the consequences for not completing work will be the same for everyone.
  • Some behaviors are acceptable and some are unacceptable---whether in our classroom, on the job, and in society. Acceptable behavior is rewarded. Unacceptable behavior will have negative consequences. 

Todd's book
This past week I found myself falling into a pattern of negativity: "You can't swear in public like that. It gives people a really bad impression of our school." "Don't talk right now. You're disrupting those who are trying to get work done." Every day I found a way to say what my students were doing wrong. I forgot to tell them what they were doing right.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending a presentation given by Todd Whitaker.  Todd is an educator and speaker who is spreading the word about what good teachers do. His tips are often simple and seem like common sense; however they are not commonly practiced. During the presentation I saw, Todd talked about this common scenario outlining the way teachers handle disciplinary issues in their classrooms: 

One or two kids act up. The teacher yells at the whole class. Everyone feels badly--even the majority of the class, who didn't act up at all.

He suggested that we change that paradigm in this simple way: One or two kids act up. The teacher praises and rewards the kids who did not act up. Those who made positive behavioral choices feel good. Those who did not are left out.

That simple premise is the foundation for a research-based practice called Positive Behavior Interventions and Support or PBIS. Many elementary schools are trying to stop punishing all students for the behaviors of a few, and are instead setting clear expectations, modeling positive behaviors, and rewarding those who meet behavioral expectations. It is a proven program that literally changes the climate of many schools. But all of the guidelines I've seen are for younger kids. I often wonder: How can PBIS be adapted for high schoolers?

Being negative and only focusing on what kids are doing wrong is a tiring business. They get frustrated. I get frustrated. Everyone feels grumpy all the time. Mid-way through the second week of school this year I was so tired that I knew something had to change. I remembered Todd Whitaker's presentation, and I remembered a lesson from a powerful curriculum called Reconnecting Youth (a research-based curriculum designed to help at-risk students attend school more regularly, improve their grades, reduce drug use, and decrease suicide-risk behaviors.) The lesson involves finding something positive about each individual in class and pointing it out publicly. It's been a while since I've used the RY curriculum with my students, but last week I decided it was time to accentuate the positive. 

I got a bag of plastic silver and gold tokens. I printed out a sheet of memo pages with the heading:

A Token of my Appreciation…
Flickr image credit: WayTru 
Then I hand wrote a note to each of my students about something I appreciate about them. I wrote their name, a note of thanks, and signed my first name. When school started, I handed each student their note and a plastic token, saying "This is a token of my appreciation. Thank you ____ ." 

I'm not going to lie. For some kids it was a stretch to think of what I was thankful about. But those kids are the ones who most need to know that I see them, and that I want them to succeed. Their messages included statements like this: "Thank you for coming to school twice this week and trying your best. I know that if you keep coming you will graduate. I believe in you."

Will it make a difference? I don't know. I can only guess that Todd Whitaker, the developers of RY, and PBIS are really on to something with their idea of modeling/rewarding positive behaviors. So I am going to try to think of other tokens, treats or positive rewards to give to my students in the coming weeks. I don't know whether or not it will make a difference to them, but I know for a fact that it feels better to me. New goal: accentuate the positive.

If you have ideas about another token, treat or reward I can give to my students please share. I'd love to hand out one a week. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.


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