Dec 12, 2012

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Dec 9, 2012

NCLB and Race-Based Grading

Image Credit: Flickr/ amboo who?

An NPR headline in my Google Reader feed caught my eye this week, "Grading Kids Based on Race." What? How can that be right? What the heck is that all about? How can kids be graded based on race? What happened to civil rights? That's what the headline makes you think, but when you dig deeper and read the article, the issue gets extremely complex. What if grading based on race is not a violation of civil rights, but instead a guarantee that a student's civil rights are not violated?

To understand what I mean, you have to know something about No Child Left Behind, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001. This law required all students, regardless of ability level, race or gender, to be proficient on an approved standardized test by the year 2014. As a teacher of learning and behaviorally challenged students, the law continues to be extremely frustrating. Some students come to school from homes that provide the stability of three meals per day, new clothing when needed, and the loving support of one or two mentally stable parents. Other students come to school to get their only meal of the day from the cafeteria, sleep on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment with 8-10 other family members, and have absent or addicted parents. To expect students from both backgrounds to learn at the same rate is unreasonable. To expect students with significant learning challenges like dyslexia or dyscaclulia to learn at the same rate as their peers who do not have those challenges is unfair. Quite simply, it goes against the intent of another huge education law, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which attempts to level the playing field by protecting the rights of students with disabilities.

Where does race fit in with all of this? Well, one of the (I think) good things about NCLB is that it requires all schools to collect and share data about student achievement. Prior to 2001, we might have suspected that Hispanic, African-American, Native American and students with disabilities were not doing as well in school as their white peers, but we didn't have any concrete evidence. Now we do. Not only do we know that students of color are not becoming as proficient in reading/math as their white peers, we also know that they are being labeled as disabled much more often than their white peers (maybe because of their lack of proficiency?) When you really look at the big picture it's a bit startling. The data for NCLB is divided into subgroups: 
  • Economically disadvantaged;
  • Special education;
  • Limited English Proficient students (also known as ELL---English Language Learners); and
  • Students from major racial/ethnic groups.
These nicely divided categories make you think that they are reserved for easily categorized kids. Looking at real kids, though, you see that there isn't much that's nice and neat at all. In most cases kids who are labeled as "not proficient" by NCLB standards fit into multiple, if not all categories. The kids I currently work with are primarily African-Americans who qualify for free/reduced lunch, and have learning disabilities/behavior challenges significant enough to qualify them for special education services. They represent 3 out of the 4 subgroups.
Fact: in our current system, many of the kids who live in poverty are the same as the kids who are in special education. Fact: A disproportionate number of the kids in special education are kids of color. Fact: many kids in poverty are kids of color

The kids who aren't proficient aren't lots of different kids in separate little groups; they are one large group of kids who have a lot in common--skin color (not white) and socioeconomic status (living in poverty.) 

No Child Left Behind demands that we have high expectations for the kids who fit into those subgroups. "High expectations" is one of those catch-phrases that goes along with "Rigor and Relevance," treating all students equally, eliminating cultural stereotypes by making sure we expect the same high quality learning from all of our students. It sounds really good on paper, but in reality setting expectations too high can cause serious problems--especially when we set the exact same high expectation for every student.

Here's what I mean: 
Suppose you grew up in a house where it was expected that you learn to play piano. You practiced for 30 min. every day for 4 years between the ages of 5 and 9. Then when you were 9, the government decided that everyone must learn to play piano. You can't graduate from elementary school without being 90% proficient on a Liszt piano concerto. You totally lucked out, because you already have experience playing piano! Other kids, though, didn't even know that the piano existed. You are all the same age, and in the same grade; but you have a distinct advantage when it comes to being proficient because you already know how to play some piano. On a scale of Liszt concerto proficiency that goes from 0 to 10, you're starting at a 4 or 5, while your peers are at a 0. But you all have the exact same amount of time to get to a 10 on that proficiency scale in order to graduate. It hardly seems fair, right?

Apparently, that analogy describes what NPR called, "Grading Kids Based on Race."  Instead of asking students who are in poverty/of color/in special education/English Language Learners/and not proficient to make the exact same progress as white, middle class, non-disabled, English speaking peers some schools are differentiating.  From the NPR piece:
For example, in the District of Columbia, by the end of the 2016/17 academic year, the goal for reading is that there be 70 percent proficiency for black students and that for white students it be 94 percent proficiency. So that's obviously a 24 percentage point difference. But black students are so far behind their white peers right now in D.C. that they're being asked to make a much greater rate of growth.
There are still high expectations, but now the expectations take into account the students' present level of performance. In the piano analogy, you, who had 4 years of piano lessons, are expected to grow from a 4 to a 9 on the proficiency scale. Your peers, who started out not knowing what a piano was, are expected to go from a 0 to a 5. Everyone grows 5 points on the scale. Everyone had the same amount of instruction. Everyone was expected to make significant progress. The school just didn't expect everyone to come from the same background, have the same set of experiences, and end up at exactly the same place. It's a whole different situation. 

So grading based on race--it sounds really, really flawed. But maybe, really, it isn't. Maybe it's a way to level the playing field a little. Maybe it's a starting point that will allow students of color to begin catching up to their white peers. Maybe high--but reachable--expectations will give way to higher expectations in the future.

What do you think about the idea of grading based on race presented in the NPR article? The comment section is open for your thoughts.

Dec 4, 2012

Life in the Fast Lane: Working Mom & 3 Tweens

I can't even remember the last book I read for pleasure. Time to exercise is almost nil. My kids are eating on the go almost nightly because I don't have time to cook. My house....well, at least the laundry is kept up somewhat because we need to wear clothes!

But as busy as I am (as we are as a family) I can't really say I have complaints. Look at the beauty of it all:

My babies are all growing up!

My kids are getting BIG. Each night, my 12 year old son gives me a hug goodnight and stands on his tiptoes so that we are eye to eye. I am just over 5'9", and he is just over 5'4" in 7th grade. Each night, I stare in amazement into his eyes, remembering that not very long ago he fit in the crook of my arm.  We argue about chores, homework, and his lack of ability to remember anything unless it is attached to his body (he would forget his head if it wasn't attached, I swear!) When I can, I watch him play basketball (7 practices and 2-4 games/week) but mostly I drive him to his stuff and pick him up again. When I drop him off, he walks off towards a group of friends from junior high school that I don't know. He interacts with them in a way that is new to me. His age won't reflect it for a few more months, but he truly is a teenager now--from his pimple-dotted nose to his rolling eyes. But he is still my baby, and those nightly hugs when he looks at me, eye to eye, remind us both of what it was like when his favorite things were Blue's Clues and collecting rocks.

My middle daughter is going to be 11 this month. She is in a phase I remember well--the beginning of puberty. She is struggling to feel comfortable with her changing body and experimenting with how she looks. She wants to hide her new femininity by wearing baggy tee shirts, but experiment with it by trying new hair styles. She worries a lot (she always has) but the things she worries about have changed a little. She worries about big picture things more--like saving humanity from _____________ (fill in the blank with your favorite plague.) She started a school bakery--which means whenever we have "free" time on weekends, we are baking. She sells the products after school to her classmates and teachers, then donating the proceeds to our Parent Teacher Organization. Though she is selling sweets, she specified that she wants the funds from the bakery to be limited to the purchase of P.E. equipment. How proud am I? Very. She has an amazing heart, loves sweets, and knows how to balance out that love of sweets by exercising! She also played volleyball for the first time this year, starts basketball in a few weeks, takes tap dancing, hip hop and acting classes, got a part in a play that will be performed in January, AND started playing the trombone. When I am not driving her brother to his stuff, I am driving her to her stuff--classes, practices, rehearsals every single day. Yes, you can call me "Taxi Mom."

My youngest daughter will turn 9 just after the New Year. Much to her older sister's chagrin, she is about to pass her up, height-wise. The most frequent feedback I get about my youngest is this: "She TOWERS over EVERYONE!" Yes, she does. She is literally head and shoulders above the rest of her class, and there is only one boy taller in the grade above her. Yet, despite her height she is still just a third grader. Lately she seems to have regressed to the maturity level of a toddler. Veruca Salt comes to mind--"I want the world, I want the whole world! Don't care how...I want it now!" (Check out the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory video here.)  When my daughter doesn't get what she wants, she throws herself into a tizzy of crying, screaming, and carrying on that really takes me back in time to the toddler years. It is a classic case of tween terror: "I'm getting so big and grown up that I need to regress for a while to the comfort of being little."  She has these fits pretty regularly and I have to send her to her room, ignore her for a while to let her know that I'm not falling for the theatrics, and she can't have what she wants (chocolate at bed time, a cell phone of her own, whatever other inappropriate for an-almost-9-year-old demand that she is making at the moment.) Every 5 minutes or so, I go to her room and remind her that if she keeps crying she will make herself sick. She sniffles some snot and then wails a little louder. I walk away until another 5 minutes have passed. (Any behavior focused teachers out there will recognize this as "neutral prompting"--teaching is an awful lot like parenting!)  Eventually, she comes to the realization that I am not going to give in and she walks out of her room like nothing ever happened. She carries on with her life, and then clings to me all night long. She is wandering out in life: playing basketball on a club team twice a week, taking dance, acting and singing classes, participating in a garden club and a Girl Scout troop...but when she gets home she needs to cuddle in close. Venturing out into the world can be scary business! She really reminds me of a toddler--you know that stage where they learn to walk and can get away from Mama, but when they get too far they come running back to hug your legs, feel safe again.

They are busy. And I am still working at my new job, learning things, and getting to know the system. These are crazy times, but I love it all. Life is good!

Nov 18, 2012

What Would You Do?

Sometimes people say and do the darndest things. Those things are the reason we have shortened responses to use on Twitter, like smh (short for shaking my head.) There comes a time when you start shaking your head so much that you wonder if you are the only one shaking your head. After a while of smh, if you're like me you realize that nothing is changing. Then you wonder--what can I do to change this? 

Here's an example:
In my old job, a student transferred in from another district. Within days of her entry into my classroom, we started having a lot of conflict. Girls were arguing with each other or not speaking to each other at all; school work was interrupted; every day there was a new battle erupting. When I took the girls aside, I discovered that all of the conflict was occurring due to comments made on Facebook or in text messages sent outside of school. A lot of gossip and hearsay was being spread through social media. The first opportunity for the girls to see each other face to face happened at school, when the fireworks would start...and those fireworks distracted EVERYONE from schoolwork. Keep in mind, none of these issues were occurring before our new student enrolled.

I contacted parents and tried to arrange a sort of mediation between the girls. When I spoke to the mother of our newest student, she told me, "This isn't the first time this has happened. Other girls are always picking on my daughter! She is always the target of bullies, and it doesn't matter where we go. We've moved six times and put her in six different schools, but the same thing keeps happening! Why can't any of you teachers stop those other girls from picking on my daughter?"

That's when I was smh.

Is it just me? Or does it make more sense to think that maybe, just maybe, since the woman's daughter has experienced the same problems in six different settings, that maybe it is the daughter who is instigating the issues with other girls? It is hard for parents to hear negative things about their kids, but after six different schools report the same issues, wouldn't you start to see a pattern? And if she doesn't see a pattern, then how do I change the situation to make it better for everyone involved?

In that situation, I tried to delicately let the mom know of my suspicion that her daughter was not just a victim. I encouraged the other girls involved to print out pictures of their Facebook walls, and save their text messages so that we would have concrete evidence. I didn't want to loudly accuse, but did want to calmly let the mom know that her daughter was a participant in the situation. When I carefully presented the evidence of her daughter's involvement, the mom promptly removed her daughter from our school and moved again. That was high school number seven for a 16 year-old junior who only had enough credits to be counted as a beginning freshman due to all of the moving around. I never had the chance to teach that girl how to deal with conflict in a more appropriate way because her mom removed her from the program.

Afterwards, I kept wondering, "Am I the only one who sees the pattern? Am I the only one shaking my head?" And then I realized that even if I was the only one who saw the reason behind the problem, it didn't change the fact that there was a problem. No one was getting any work done due to conflict, and every conflict included that girl. I needed to do something, and can only hope that gathering evidence  to show the parent that her daughter was involved in some negative behaviors was the right thing to do.

I am questioning myself again now because of more situations that have come up. I am a very "glass half full" kind of person, and it is hard for me to think that anyone is going to purposefully try to do something negative. 

With kids, I constantly think about the why of their negative behavior---I never accept that they are doing something just to be "evil." They are doing it because they don't know better, or they're upset about something--they're hungry, they're tired...there is always a reason for the behavior. I try to figure out what that reason is and do my best to either make the reason for their anger/frustration go away, or teach them a better way to deal with it.

With adults, I have always held the assumption that there will be a certain level of maturity involved. I assume that someone else already taught them how to not take their frustrations out on peers. I assume they know how to communicate effectively, and how to advocate for themselves in order to make their situations better. I am rapidly learning that this is not the case. Many adults also do negative things for a reason: they are upset, hungry, tired, in pain, or worried about issues beyond their control. Many adults struggle--just as much as kids do--to appropriately communicate their concerns. 

Recently, I have encountered three adults in three separate settings who are experiencing major struggles to be effective in their roles. In one case, the adult doesn't seem to know that she is struggling--just knows that none of her colleagues like her and wonders why. In another case, a program is at risk of being shut down because of the way the adult interacts with her students and colleagues. 

How do you help adults in those situations? I am a teacher of kids. Is it even my job to try to help them? Should I try to teach adults the same lessons that I teach kids? Is it appropriate to say to a colleague, "It seems like you're really struggling right now?" or is that something better left to an administrator? 

One thing I know is that if I don't want to spend my days smh, I need to do something differently. If things need to change, I can't just wait for someone else to change them. I need to do something. It is risky to step into another adult's problems, but it will also be risky to sit by and watch a colleague continue on a destructive path. 

What do you do when colleagues communicate inappropriately? What would you do? 

Nov 4, 2012

No Fail

"Y'all are askin' me to do too much! It's just too much fam, it's too much!" He sits next to me and is shutting down. His English assignment is basically untouched in front of him. A pen sits idly next to the blank page, waiting to prove its utilitarianism.

The end of the term is less than a week away, and at this moment he is failing English. One failed class means he is behind in credits. Will not graduate in May with his class. Probably won't return next year to be humiliated as a so-called "super senior." Thinks he'll just drop out.

It's a lot of stress and pressure for both him and for me, because his mom is sick and will be saddened if he can't make it; because my school is really pushing an agenda of "F reduction." We are told not to lower our standards, but to reduce the number of failing grades. That means a lot of work, for both him and for me. We sit at a small, round table. I am tired. He is tired. And he is frustrated by the amount of work that still needs to be done. "I ain't fittin' to do this much stuff! It just ain't worth it. I'm never gonna pass. I might as well just drop out."

"If you want to drop out, there's the door. You can go ahead and walk out. But while you're walking, I want you to think about the fact that I am still going to be sitting here. I am feeling your pressure and I know that we are almost out of time, but we can do this. I am going to help you. I want to help you pass this class and graduate on time. But if you're just going to sit here and complain, and fight with me, I'm not going to do it. In the time that you've been sitting here complaining, we could've had one assignment done already!"

Does that sound harsh? Sometimes it seems like a fine line between encouraging a student and challenging them to stop feeling sorry for themselves. Stop talking about how hard it is and just try...  But they've experienced such failure already...and received so little support...that sometimes it seems like they just need a  big nudge--like a mother bird nudging her fledglings out of the nest.

He didn't walk out the door. He didn't choose to drop out. He wrote a paragraph and got one step closer to passing  English. We made a plan: I will excuse him from all the classes he is passing so that he can sit with me and work on English every day until the end of the term. We didn't just shake on the deal--we hugged on it. For the next four days, I may have to be harsh again if he starts to doubt himself. But I can tell you this: no matter how much he doubts himself, I will continue to believe.

Oct 14, 2012

The Key

Working with kids who have behavior challenges is never, ever dull. So when I had a couple of quiet days in a row, I knew that there would soon be a volcanic eruption. That eruption came early in the week and lasted several days. What follows below is a true story from my classroom. I share it (and plan to share more each week) because I want you to know that there are many young people whom our society seems to fear, or whose behavior leads them to a place of punishment (sometimes directly to prison)...But those behaviors happen for a reason. It is my job--and the job of my colleagues--to figure out why.  So when you read these stories, don't just gasp (the way my husband does) at the shocking nature of the behavior. Don't just shake your head and mutter about "kids today" the way a lot of people do. Think about what a kid must be going through, or what might be happening in their minds, that led them to act a certain way. Really, when you figure out the puzzle of why a behavior is occurring it changes the way you see a person. Empathy is a very powerful thing.

True story:
This week a girl was in study hall and she was very disruptive. She has this enormous belly laugh that made me smile when I first heard it (hard not to laugh along!) But she can roll that laugh for a full hour, non-stop. Her friends seem to enjoy getting her going, making sure that her laugh is all anyone can hear anywhere! Forget studying, thinking, talking, anything! When that laugh is roaring, there is absolutely no way anyone can focus. So she was laughing in study hall and wouldn't move away from her friends. She wouldn't quiet down. She refused adamantly and was referred to the Intervention Center to calm down. When the escort came to get her, she refused to go. Eventually, all other students in study hall were asked to vacate so that staff could try to calm her without any peers goading her on. It was the last period of the day, and when she finally calmed down her mom was called, and she was escorted off school property for the rest of the day. She was told she'd need to spend a day in the Intervention Center to problem-solve and get ready to return to study hall again at some point.

The day after her study hall disruption, she was in my room. She sat quietly in a study carrel at first, completing work that she was missing from class. Another student sat next to her in a separate carrel. (He had been referred to my class the previous day and had vandalized a wall pretty severely. He was doing a great job of earning his way back to class by processing through the incident, and completing his schoolwork.) The girl had a house key on a lanyard. She twirled it the way a lifeguard twirls their whistle...round her finger and back again, round her finger and back again. Eventually that twirling got boring, so she started whipping it around the wall of her study carrel, listening to it thump on the other side. But there was that boy on the other side, so the key kept whizzing by him as it hit the wall next to him. After a couple of near misses to his body, he did what I would have done: when the key came whipping over to his side of the wall he snatched it. The key came off the lanyard and he tossed it toward me. Now, I am totally uncoordinated and clutzy. That key may have been aimed at me, but I didn't see it coming until it hit the floor at my feet.

The key sat there for a moment and the girl said to me, "You need to give that to me."

I said, "No, I don't."

Almost immediately, she got up out of her seat. She headed toward me, and I thought she was going to get the key. She looked up at me mid-step and said, "You need to know that I do fight boys. All the time." As quick as a flash she changed direction and was leaning into the study carrel of the boy who'd been sitting next to her. There she began punching him repeatedly. He sat there, still, as she pommeled him; and I tried to maneuver in between them. Since they were both in a very small, confined space, I couldn't work my way in there. I had to grab her from behind and pull, all the while hollering for an associate who works in the room next door. (My own associate was escorting another student who'd had an earlier crisis back to class.) Help came quickly and together we separated the girl from the boy. I called my administrator on a walkie talkie to ask her what should be done next.

The consequence was that we would call the girl's mom to let her know we were sending her home. Physical violence will not be tolerated at school. Her actions led to one of the very few out-of-school suspensions doled out in my building.  My associate escorted her off school property, and she was instructed to stay off the property for a total of three days. I tried calling her mom but got her voice mail. My administrator tried calling later and was able to get through. The girl's mom was very understanding and supportive, but also let my principal know that her family has come upon really hard times. They've lost their housing voucher and are being evicted from their home. They expect to be homeless by the end of the week. At this point, they don't know where they will live or how they will get by.

And so I think about would I feel if I was a young teenager and knew that within days I'd be homeless? What if I'd finally found a way to laugh out loud and was told to be quiet? What if I felt so scared and frustrated about my life that I'd look for any way at all to let some of those feelings out--even going so far as punching someone?

For sure, the reason for the behavior does not excuse it. No matter what is going on in her life, it is not okay to punch someone who was just sitting next to her trying to avoid being hit by a key. There is no place for physical violence in my room, in our school, or in our community. 

But now I can see why it happened. Now I can begin to talk to her about less harmful ways of expressing her fear and frustration. I don't know if it will work, but I have to try--not only to help with her behavior, but to see if there is anything at all our school can do to help her family through this hard time. We start our problem-solving journey tomorrow. Keep us in your thoughts and send some positive energy to Iowa for us--especially to her. Her family needs all they can get.

Sep 30, 2012

Triumphs of the Week

An invitation I made for our PTO sponsored Read-a-Thon

Okay, so this week really there were more trials and tribulations than triumphs in my life, but seems like all I really write about are the challenges lately. I need to share a couple of small triumphs!

I don't know if I've ever written about this, but for the past three years I have been active on the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) board at my children's elementary school. Their school is very diverse--both culturally and economically--and it is often a challenge to figure out how to make all families feel welcome in our PTO. The primary purpose of PTO is to raise funds for school events, materials, and activities that aren't covered by the school budget. But when half or more of our school's families live in poverty, it is a difficult situation. I do not feel comfortable asking children to sell products--PERIOD. But I feel even more uncomfortable asking children who's families are struggling to meet basic needs to give money or sell products. In previous years, our PTO meetings have been contentious at times, with me arguing against product sales and looking for alternatives, and other parents arguing for product sales that include incentives for children. It has literally caused me to lose sleep. I have often felt like leaving the PTO board, but then realized that there would be no dissenting opinion if I did. Half of our families would have no real representation. I kept on going to meetings.

Last spring, I was elected President of the PTO. Our first meeting of the year occurred this week. We just wrapped up the major sales fundraising event of our PTO, and discussed our fundraising options for next year. For the first time ever, a majority of parents present spoke out against our current fundraising practice. Some argued against selling products entirely and suggested we go to a direct donation drive; others argued against selling products from the company that we've been partnering with for the past several years--a company whose staff is very pleasant to deal with but whose products are low-quality and overpriced. Overall, a majority of parents voiced a call for change. It was the first time ever that I was part of the majority. The first time ever where I didn't have to fight tooth and nail to get a differing opinion heard, defending myself from what seemed like a very personal rebuttal to my arguments. It felt good to know that I am not alone in my opinions about asking children to sell products.

Another PTO triumph happened this week when we hosted our first ever Read-a-Thon. This event came about due to a phone call I received over the summer. A local church wanted to give money to a school in need, and hoped that their funds would be used to purchase books. They wanted the books to go directly to children, and hoped that we could find a way to match their donation through pledges. As I mentioned above, our elementary school has a large population of families who struggle to meet basic needs. Asking them to pledge money is extremely difficult for me, so I began to look for other ways to obtain matching funds. The Walmart Foundation has an online grant proposal system that awards up to $1000 per grant request to community organizations that meet certain criteria. I applied for a grant and received $500!  In addition, I organized a Read-a-Thon so that families who wanted to donate more could do so.

The funds gained from the local Lutheran Church and their partner, Thrivent Insurance, Walmart, and the families who donated, will go towards purchasing a book for every child in school. Each child will read the book in class, complete school-wide activities related to the book, and invite their families to celebrate reading at a Family Night. At the celebration, there will be family friendly games and activities related to the book, and children will be able to take home their very own copy. It is an excellent event that promotes both literacy and community.  I am soooo excited that it will be funded this year by PTO--with absolutely no product sales involved. YES! That is a triumph! :)

Do you participate in your children's Parent-Teacher organization? How do you raise funds? 

After our PTO discussion this week, I am looking for more ideas. Anything we can do that does not involve low-quality/high-priced products and asking children to sell things is a good idea in my mind! Please share your ideas in the comments.

Sep 16, 2012

The Angry Young Man

One particular student is on my mind this week. He is in the back of my brain, nagging and pulling--like a thread that needs to be unknotted. He is an enigma to me because I have not yet seen that kernel of goodness that I can always see in every single teenager I meet. I know it's in there, but I haven't dug deep enough to find it yet.

He is angry. Oh, so very, very angry. As I try to teach the parts of speech he mutters under his breath, "Where's the real teacher. You ain't no real teacher." He tells me I'm ugly. "Stop talkin' to me. I don't want you talkin' to me." It goes on and on, day in day out.

Sometimes, though, he answers a question in class. He names a character from the book we're reading. He participates briefly. It is those moments that keep me going. I know he is in there. Somewhere. Trying to get out. There is a young man who wants to learn, who wants to care and be cared about. I know it.

Then it goes back to the muttering under his breath. Anger personified. Verbally vomiting negativity like he's been infected by a viral hatred.

You may ask, "How do you put up with that? Why would you want to work somewhere where a teenaged boy insults you day in and day out?" Some days I wonder. But most days I know...

I do what I do because children don't have a choice about what family they are born into. Children don't have a choice about how their parents treat them. I know that this boy learned his foulness from a rotten apple that did not fall far from the tree on which it grew. I know that when a young man is so skilled at issuing verbal abuse at such a young age, it can only be because he learned it at a younger age from someone else.

Is it too late to change the tide? Is it too late to teach him to be more positive? I honestly don't know. But I do know that I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try.

Sep 9, 2012

The Golden Rule

It seems so simple. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.

Yet, it seems that many of us forget this very simple concept on a daily basis.

  • How would you feel if you were riding the bus and there was an open seat next to you, but person after person took one look and decided to stand up instead of sitting next to you?

  • How would you feel if people walking on the sidewalk towards you glanced at your face, got a frightened expression, and crossed to the other side to avoid you?

  • How would you feel if your 5 year-old child was crying by the side of the road and person after person just passed her by without stopping to offer help? What if each passerby who refused to stop called the police to report you for negligence instead ?

  • How would you feel if you were walking to work and someone who passed you by in a car rolled up their windows and locked their doors in fear of you--even though you'd done nothing threatening at all? 

This week I had a lot of conversations with my students. We tried to problem-solve specific situations in school, and we also talked about things that happen in our community. The vast majority of my students this year are young, Black men. They tell me stories that echo things I've heard from my husband for years. Many people in our community do not treat Black men according to the Golden Rule--treat other people the way you would like to be treated.

All of the scenarios I described above are incidents that both my husband and my current students have shared with me recently. After hearing all of their stories, I can't help but wonder what happened to the Golden Rule. Seems to me that such a simple, universal rule could solve a lot of problems.

  • What if every teacher treated the students in their classroom as if they were her/his own children?

  • What if you treated every person you saw in the grocery store like a member of your own family? 

  • What if we really looked beyond what's outside (skin color, eye shape, hair type, body size, clothing style) and treated everyone like one of our own?

Sep 2, 2012

Behavior Challenges

Flickr Image Credit: Psychology Pictures
The Theory:
Kids are exhibiting behaviors because they are trying to communicate something. They are most often trying to gain attention from peers or teacher; or trying to avoid/escape something that is unpleasant. If we can figure out what they are trying to communicate and teach them to communicate the need for it in a more appropriate way, the behaviors will decrease and eventually (hopefully) go away.

Example from the trenches:
One of my students is constantly on his phone during English class (I teach English one period of the day and spend the rest of my day offering behavioral interventions/learning supports.) When I speak to other teachers about him, they say they are seeing the same thing in their classes. It doesn't matter how many times you redirect him, ask him, tell him to put it away--he is always on that phone.

Finally, one teacher referred him to my room for a behavioral intervention when he refused to put his phone away. He was upset about being sent out of class, but eventually told me two things: first, kids today are addicted to their phones and adults just don't understand; second, he was kicked out of his house and has no place to stay the night. He is texting people to find a place to sleep.

There was no guesswork involved here--he effectively communicated his needs to me as soon as he was away from his peers and away from the teacher. I tried to let him know that when a teacher asks him to put his phone away and he doesn't, it is perceived as disrespectful. A better way to do things might be to ask permission to use his phone. He argued, "They ain't gonna let me just use my phone!" So I told him I would email his teachers, asking them to give him a one day pass to use his phone if he asked appropriately. (One day only, because I want small steps, and because I don't know the kid well enough to know if he is playing me. I don't want to give him a free pass to use his phone for Facebook in the hallway every day!)

I did email all of his teachers with a request. I let them know that I don't think we can break him of his constant need to use his phone. We need to start small. So for ONE DAY ONLY, if he asks to use it appropriately--please let him use it. He's having some difficulties at home and hopefully he can work through them appropriately.

The next day in my English class, he had his phone out again. He had not asked appropriately to use it. I reminded him, "Remember--today you can use your phone if you ask appropriately."

He said, "Can I please use my phone to text my mama?"

"Thank you for asking appropriately. You may use your phone to text your mama, then please put it back in your pocket." He sent one text message and then put his phone in his pocket for the rest of the period.

In that situation it worked. The theory meshed with practice. We are on "Day One" of a small plan to change a problem behavior. There will be ups and downs. He will relapse and get grumpy about teachers asking him to put his phone away. But we started down the path of appropriate communication.

Things the Behavioral Approach Doesn't Do:
My student communicated two things to me that day he was referred for an intervention, and one of them is--in my mind--more significant than his addiction to his phone. He doesn't have a place to sleep. There is nothing a behavior plan can do to solve that problem. That takes good, old-fashioned human interaction, a support system, and help from outside agencies. It takes a lot of good relationships to help with those problems: relationships with kids, parents, and service providers. Those relationships take time. And when a kid doesn't have a place to sleep, it's hard to figure out where to get help (especially when you're new to the job, like I am.)

Flickr Image Credit:Psychology Pictures
So here is my dilemma: 
The theory makes everything so cut and dried. Behaviors occur to communicate a message. Decipher that message, change how the kid delivers it, end of problem behavior. But what if the message the kid is inappropriately delivering is one of human suffering? In my first weeks on the job, I have received some messages loud and clear, "I am depressed." "I have no place to live." "We can't pay our bills and the lights have been turned off." Somehow, just teaching them more appropriate ways to say those things is not enough.

Behavioral consultants visit our school and tell us how things should be done. Their suggestions are to follow protocols and read from scripts. Everything is de-personalized and sanitary; there is no human element. It is all Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's rats. But how do you tell a kid to express their concerns about life more appropriately without helping to alleviate those concerns? I am learning that this is the true challenge of my new job: a balancing act. Alleviate those who want me to only use a behavioral approach by doing as much of that as I can; but also alleviate the kids' struggles and my own sense of right/wrong by using a humanistic approach--caring and problem-solving--whenever I can.

I pray that the behavioral approach and the humanistic approach are not mutually exclusive. Because there is no doubt in my mind that to be even slightly successful with these kids--I will need both.

Aug 26, 2012

Week 1 Notes: Challenges of the New Job

This is how crazy my brain feels! Flickr Image Credit: caffeina

Honestly, I am so busy that I don't have much time to stop and think. There are so many things to do in a new job. I've been trying to prioritize, but there is just so much to learn that it's hard to know where to begin.

First and foremost, I want to build relationships with kids. But I also need to build relationships with my new co-workers.  I need to contact parents to start building relationships with them, because no teacher can do good work without the support of parents.

Running a close second in the race for my attention are things like finding supplies (which I largely have to pay for myself), writing lesson plans, figuring out how to use my new laptop and other technological stuff, and keeping up on paperwork.

On top of all that, my family needs me. My kids started school. They have new routines, homework, and extracurricular activities that are starting up again.  I am at my wits end trying to figure out how to get it all done. My brain is running non-stop, and it seems like no matter how many hours I put in towards finishing my To Do lists, nothing ever gets done. I am flying by the seat of my pants, every day, which is thrilling! Exciting! And very, very stressful.

Now that I've got one full week under my belt, I can tell you a little bit about my new responsibilities. I've discovered that I really have three distinct roles:

For one hour a day, I offer learning supports to a few kids who have struggles in specific areas of learning. They also have some behavioral challenges that stem from a wide variety of reasons-- personal/family situations, health reasons, or other psychological factors. I am their advocate when they attend classes in general education settings; I must offer them instruction in their areas of struggle to help them improve; and I must monitor their progress in reaching specific learning goals.

For one hour a day, I teach English to a small group of boys with severe behavioral challenges. I plan the lessons, and try to teach reading/grammar/vocabulary/writing while also modeling appropriate behavior, reinforcing appropriate behavior, and trying to ignore inappropriate behavior. It's a tough crew, and I am not yet comfortable in the role of a behaviorist. I had a huge snafu with curriculum: the book I ordered didn't come in time for the start of school so I had to look for something else to teach. I planned several lessons for a second book, only to find out that they'd read it last year. They requested that we read the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire, so I am madly writing lessons for that book now, and trying to get my hands on copies of the book for them to read aloud or read along with while I read aloud. I know from experience that problem behaviors are more problematic if kids don't have anything to do in class, which is why I am spending hours and hours trying to make sure I have something for them to do. Our program is so new that there is no set curriculum, no set plans...we are creating as we go. It is exciting, yes...but so, so tough.

The rest of my day is spent either in structured study hall with 1-2 of the kids from the behavior focused program OR supervising/collecting data about kids who had a severe behavioral challenge in their regularly scheduled class. If a student refuses to work repeatedly, cusses at a teacher, or does something that is really interfering with the ability of a class to function, instead of being kicked out of school or suspended, they come to my room. In my room, they must do some problem-solving. They must think about and acknowledge what was inappropriate about their behavior, make a plan to make amends and/or do things differently next time they are in a similar situation, and complete any schoolwork that they missed as a result of their behavior. While they are in my room, we are documenting their ability to problem-solve, monitoring their behavior, and trying our best to give the student the skills they need to succeed back in their classroom. If they can demonstrate that they've got things under control, then they can go back to their regular classes. If they can't, then they stay with me until they can.

It's only been a week, but I can tell you this:

  • There will never be a dull moment! 
  • The team I work with is extremely talented, dedicated, and supportive.
  • Deep inside--underneath all of the bravado, anger, and talk--there is a kernel of goodness inside each of the boys I've met so far. I see it already and just hope that they will show me the chink in their armor that will let me in. 
I don't know how to be a proper behaviorist. But I know how to care. Hopefully, they will sense that, and tolerate all of my lack of expertise, all of the unknowns and unplanned lessons. Some day, I'll get it together. And so will they. I believe.

Aug 19, 2012

Random Phone Pics

All summer I've read posts on other people's blogs with random photos from their phone. I could swear I saw a couple from Tara at Me and the Mexican and maybe more from Tracy at Latinaish...but I can't find the links to those specific posts :(   If you find them, or any others, please post them below because I want to give credit where credit is due for the idea I am about to borrow!  If you want to share some random pics from your phone on your own blog, feel free to link up in the comments.

I plugged my phone into my computer and realized that I hadn't transferred any pictures in a loooong while. Here's a photographic sampling of how we spent our summer:

Rest stop on our way home from traveling to Chicago-land.

After their eye exam, they tried on un-needed glasses that they thought were 70s styles. Vision: perfect. Fashion sense: hmmmm....

At our local 4th of July parade!

My All-Star at batting practice before a big tourney

A new Costco opened near us. I thought things there were cheap there!?! Prada bag = $1016.99

Tennis lessons! A vision in orange (what you wear is just as important as how you play, right? :)

Both daughters at swim lessons. The afro is in the sunny spot :)

Both girls conquered the diving board for the first time ever! One in, one on, and bro climbing up the ladder.

The view I had for 14 years from my old desk. This is the window sill that held my family pictures. It was hard to say goodbye, but I am thrilled about my new space!

Allergy testing for my son was no fun. But he is NOT allergic to anything...YAY!

Art Camp: proud of the panda!

You're never too big to enjoy swinging at the park!

Sisters. My fave pic of the summer!

Famous! He is on the jumbo-tron!

Aug 15, 2012

Crashing Dreams: Featured on BlogHer!

Featured on"Crashing Dreams: Parenting in Reality" is a post that first appeared here on empatheia.   I shared the story of my struggle to keep my kids' feet firm in reality. Is that the right way to parent? Or should I let them dream about being professional athletes (which is not exactly realistic.) I wrote the post because it was such a hard situation; very emotional. Parenting is so very, very difficult sometimes.

Soon after I published the piece,  it was featured on Multicultural Familia, an online magazine to which I contribute. 

Now, that post was picked up by BlogHer!  I am excited to have my post featured on such a huge, thoughtful and thought-provoking site for women. I hope that others will discuss the complexities of parenting I wrote about...I still don't have any answers and can use all the help I can get!  Visit, follow the conversation on Twitter by following @BlogHer and @BlogHerCultures,  or visit the BlogHer Facebook page to share your thoughts.

Aug 12, 2012

Newness: The Job, Teen Behaviors & Changing the Status Quo

View from the roof of my new school!

In less than a week, it is the official start of school. I'm running around like a crazy woman trying to make sure everything is ready--kids have school supplies, I have lessons planned, and we have the groceries for packing school lunches. The new job gave me a heap of paperwork to fill out for insurance, payroll and all that other stuff. I have a new email address, access to a new-to-me student information management system, and a computer that is very different from the machine I have at home. I got a tour of the building last week and found out where to get copies made. I have a mailbox in the office that actually had mail in it! The little pieces of the new job are starting to come together, but the big picture won't really form until I meet the kids. Soon!

Another rooftop view. Loved that my new principal let us go on the roof!
It has taken a while for me to really understand what my new job is all about. I worried that maybe some of my new co-workers thought I was daft because I keep asking questions and feeling confused. But the questions and confusion are slowing to a trickle--especially after a 2-day training I attended last week. Now, I get it. I understand what I am supposed to be doing and know that I will have lots of support and lots of freedom to figure out how to best do it. It's a good feeling.

This morning I had time to catch up on my Google Reader feed, and found an article that directly relates to the new job. I've written about this issue before here on emapatheia: Bad KidsSpecial Education, Suspension, Criminalization of School, Dropout Rates, and Race; Civil Rights in Education; Imagine: White Students Suspended Disproportionately More than Blacks. Here is a piece from Education Week discussing more data about Black students and suspension--this one relating to Special Education.


One in Four Black Students With Disabilities Suspended Out-of-School

Students with disabilities are suspended about twice as often as their peers, a new analysis from the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found.
Analyzing data that districts submitted to the federal Education Department's office of civil rights, researchers found that the rate of suspension for students with disabilities was about one in 13, compared with 7 percent for students without disabilities.
Most alarming, they said, was that one in four black students with disabilities was suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year. That figure is 16 percentage points higher than for white students with disabilities. (Nearly one in six African-American students without disabilities was suspended from school during the 2009-10 academic year.)
Some of these students may have an explicit need for help with their behavior outlined in their education plans, which should warrant counseling or appropriate therapy, noted Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Civil Rights Project's Center for Civil Rights Remedies.
Read more at Education Week
I read this and am proud to be a part of a program to change the status quo in my new school. Our goal is to teach kids with behavioral challenges and disabilities the skills they need to be successful in any setting. We will work hard to adjust our adult behaviors, so that suspension--both in school and out-of-school--is an absolute last resort. Our goal is to reduce the number of times students are referred to the office for disciplinary measures. Instead of punishing kids with behavior issues and treating them like they are "bad kids", our focus is on their knowledge and skills. They aren't "bad kids"--they are kids who are lacking the necessary skills to succeed in a classroom setting. As teachers, is it our job to teach the skills necessary for reading, writing and math...but it is also our job to teach the behavioral skills necessary for academic learning. We can no longer assume that every kids just knows how to study, knows what it means to be "responsible" or "respectful". Those are very vague terms. My job now is to listen to kids who have struggles, help them problem-solve, and teach them (and re-teach them) the skills they need to be successful. 

Programs like the one I will be working in are found mostly in elementary schools, but I haven't heard of many at the high school level. It is very, very exciting to be a part of something I see as ground-breaking. The focus is largely on behavior, and realizing that even though teenagers are in bigger bodies, their behaviors are sometimes not that different from little kids when you think about the why of it.  We watched a video in my training last week to talk about that point (see below.) Maybe it will look familiar to some of you with toddlers!?!  The point was to think about human behavior as having a function: usually to gain or avoid something. Instead of looking at the "bad choices" kids make, we look at their behavior as a form of communication. Instead of saying that a student is "bad" or has no self-control, or that his home life is to blame, we use their behavior as a clue: the student is lacking the skills to  communicate more effectively. That outlook--it changes everything! The kid isn't "bad" anymore, they're trying to tell us something! The way they're telling it isn't necessarily the most effective way, so we need to figure out what they're trying to tell us and teach them a better way to do it. As a society, we seem to understand this concept with kids like the toddler in the video below, but not so much with teenagers. The behavioral approach is used frequently these days with kids who have Autism, too. Why not with teenagers--the most historically misunderstood people on the planet? My new job involves trying to figure out the function of teenaged behavior and teaching more appropriate ways for teens to communicate. Does this make sense to you? I hope so. It is exciting and different and challenging and cutting edge... I am not sure how it will go, but I am looking forward to finding out!

Here's the video from my training. Can you tell what this toddler is trying to gain or avoid through his behavior? (Watch! It's pretty humorously obvious :D)

Aug 5, 2012

Dog Days are Over

It's just about official in my world: SUMMER IS OVER.

At least for me.

Today I take my daughters to spend a week with my parents so that they can attend Girl Scout Camp at the same place where my sister and I spent summers when we were kids. I hope they love it as much as I did! Girl Scout camp had a huge impact on my self-esteem, my appreciation of nature, and my ability to work cooperatively. I'm excited that my daughters will have the chance to experience the same environment.

My son will be spending his last week hanging out with friends, attending his junior high orientation, and going to basketball practices for his newest traveling team. That's right: junior high. My baby is growing up (which is so very bittersweet.)

And me? I will be brainstorming ideas, trying to envision my new routine, breathing through the anxiety of my bittersweet life change: a new job. I will attend a 2-day training where my goal is to soak up as much information as I can about my new district's protocols for working with kids who have behavioral challenges. I will be trying to contribute, but HOLY COW it's hard to contribute when you don't even know how the system works yet. So far I have felt like I have some ideas, but don't know exactly how they fit in with everything else...I am still learning. I have been teaching for 14 years, but those years have been in a very different program. In a lot of ways, I am a new teacher. I keep having to tell myself that even though I'm new, I have a lot to offer. My experience is definitely related to the new job, I just have to get familiar enough with everything and believe that it will all come together.

I'm re-learning that life lesson: the more you know, the less you know. I know a lot of stuff, but I don't know how to make a copy, where the teacher's lounge is, what the bell sounds like, or even what my new school email address will be! I don't know the names of my new students, how many of them there will be, and what my every day routine will be like. The unknowns make me a little anxious.

But at the same time, I am excited. I've been looking at some strategies to use with kids that I don't think have been used before at my new school. I am excited to see how it all works out. I'll try to fill you all in soon. For now, I'm just hanging on...reminding myself to breathe....brainstorming a whole lot of possibilities.

Jul 29, 2012

2012 Olympic Fever!

The whole family watched the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and we're tuning in daily to watch as many events as we can. Archery, Basketball, Swimming, Gymnastics...they're all so exciting to watch, but the real highlights are when my kids have the opportunity to learn about the many different nations that participate. It's such a showcase of diversity and multiculturalism! We love looking at the colors of flags and uniforms, listening to each national anthem play, and observing how the fans cheer for their teams. The touching stories that are shared in each event capture our hearts and we find ourselves rooting for athletes from around the world.  It's a fun time!

Learning about new cultures is one of my favorite parts of the Olympics, which is why I really enjoyed a post from with recipes from around the world. Amanda is participating in Eat the World 2012 Food Olympics. Check out her post here and enjoy a look at foods from around the world!
Eat the World 2012 Food Olympics
The Olympic opening ceremonies are tonight!  In honor of celebrating this great world event I decided to host a food Olympics.  Below you’ll find recipes from all over the world.  Make a few and get in the Olympic spirit!!  If you would like to contribute a recipe representing your nation of origin or simply a national dish you love please join up in the linky at the bottom of the post.

Jul 22, 2012

Bad Kids

I heard another story about that kid last week. All school year he's been nothing but trouble. He was caught red-handed in the pantry, breaking into cabinets filled with supplies for the after school program. Soon after, he was caught with fifty dollars that he'd stolen from a teacher's desk. 

Last winter I watched him play basketball, calling the boys on the opponent's team, "bitch" (and that is the least foul of his words.) I've seen him get angry and throw things: his desk, a chair, wild punches,  tantrums. He is nothing but trouble. The families in our neighborhood have tried to welcome him into our homes to help him, but we've all been burned too many times. He's stolen multiple video games and gaming systems from us, been rude, eaten our food, never given thanks. He curses and cusses in front of the really little kids. He is just bad news. 

Kids like him are in our neighborhoods and classrooms across the country. They sit with our kids and expose them to all kinds of filth and foulness. They should just get kicked out of school. Suspended. Expelled. They need to be kept away from our kids. Our kids need to be protected. They don't need to be exposed to such anger and violence. Those kids are headed straight for prison, anyway. There's nothing we can do. They're just bad kids. 

When you see him, you can just tell. He's angry. He doesn't have a future because he can't control that anger. He doesn't know the difference between right and wrong. In a lot of ways, that kid is scary. Such anger is hard to control. A loose cannon. You never know what he's going to do and that unpredictability is frightening. He could be a psycho gang-banging drug-dealing killer some day. What a bad kid.

Except...all of that is what we see on the outside.  All of that is the external circumstantial evidence. What's going on in there? Really? Who is that kid?

When you talk to him, if you are patient, and you try to crack through the hard shell to get to the soft innards, then you find out that he is hungry. Dad left. Mom doesn't have a job. He's hungry. His only meal is the free lunch offered at school every day and since he is a growing boy of 11 years, it is just not enough. The pantry he got caught breaking into is filled to the brim with food for breakfast and snack at the after school program. He just wants to eat.

The $50 he took from the teacher's desk? He was caught with it at the grocery store, trying to buy food for his little sister. She is home all day without food, too young to go to school and get the free lunch.

The video games and gaming systems he took--he's not playing with them. His one-bedroom apartment doesn't even have a TV. He's been taking them to the gaming store in the strip mall by the grocery store. He sells them there and takes the cash next door to buy food.

He is 11 years old and he is too young to get a job, but he is the sole provider of sustenance for his family. He walks around the neighborhood and sees his classmates riding their bikes, playing in their yards, hanging out and playing football. They don't have to worry about eating. They don't have a daddy who left them. They don't have a mom who is so depressed about losing her job and her husband that she can't get up off the floor of their apartment. They don't have to worry about the eviction notice that just got stuck to their front door. They don't have to worry... and it makes him angry. He is so angry he can feel the rage just rising up from his his his head. Just one person says something wrong and he will show them how it feels to hurt like he hurts. Just one thing. Go ahead, say it you mofo. Say it. 

Sometimes they say it at school. Sometimes in the middle of a football game on the corner. Sometimes they don't even say anything anyone could really consider an insult, when it comes right down to it. They just say something that reminds him about what they have that he does not. They remind him that he has to find something, some way to feed his little sister again tomorrow. They remind him that he likes his teacher and he wishes he could learn, but eating is more important right now. They remind him that if he steals at school again he might get sent away to some place for bad kids where you get to spend the night. In a way, it might be okay--probably more food than at home, and no eviction notice on the door. But who will feed his sister then?

Angry. So angry. No eleven year old should have to live like that. I'd be angry too.

There really is a kid like that in my neighborhood. Kids just like him really have been in my classroom. Parents of other kids really have said, "he needs to be kicked out," sent away, banished--to protect our kids. Somehow, though, I wish they could see the big picture, the whole picture...who that kid is both inside and out. Because when you really know him, it's hard to believe that anyone can say he's a bad kid. He's in a bad situation and making some bad choices...but he is not a bad kid. He's doing what he can to survive.

And if he's not bad, then you have to wonder about every single human being who does something bad. Are they really a bad person? or are they in bad situations making bad choices, stemming from a life filled with pain and hurt and anger? Are there any bad kids, really?

In the wake of the Aurora, Colorado shootings...this is something I have really been thinking about a lot lately. 

Is anyone really, truly bad? 


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