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.


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