Archive for the ‘Teachers in Their Own Words’ Category

Amy Rothschild, a prekindergarten and kindergarten teacher in Washington DC, knows the world of early childhood education. She knows the value of giving children a kick start in developmental and academic skills, especially kids from disadvantaged families and neighborhoods. So why is she giving Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a hard time? Arne Duncan who recently claimed that “education is the civil rights issue of our time”; who when announcing Federal grants for improving early childhood education called this “the most important single step we can take to improve the future of our young people,” never mentioning the real world of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, the real world of civil rights in 2014.
In her insightful essay, “Where the Promise of Preschool Ends,” Amy calls out Arne Duncan and all the other politicians for their “one size fits all” approach to social problems and their sweeping claims that this or that policy will solve all the problems of the poor and disenfranchised. It’s the same approach that is being used in standardized testing that dictates that all kids will learn “this way” and will answer all the questions “this way.” “Where the Promise of Preschool Ends,” originally published in Dissent, challenges this easy-out mind set and puts Arne Duncan—and all of us—on notice that solving the deep rooted racism and classism of this country, and thus improve all children’s’ lives, will take more than proclamations and wishful thinking. It’s a powerful piece, but one gently told, and worth the read.

“Words: Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty” is Lauren Norton Carson’s second contribution to “Teachers in Their Own Words.” As she shared in her first piece, Lauren has a passion for books and for helping young offenders locked up in a juvenile center turn their lives around through them. These passions come across loudly in her newest piece in which she grapples with the “verbal poverty” of her students. I was struck by several things—Lauren’s love of the written word; her professional pedagogy (belying the common stereotype that if you teach in a lockup situation you’re not a “real teacher” but a “bleeding heart”); and her sense of teacher as activist,  shown in her determination to make a difference not just in the lives of the young men she teaches now, but in the lives of their children, present or future, by sharing with her students what she has learned about reducing poverty’s “word gap.” Using facts and personal experience, Lauren teaches all of us the importance of words in shaping better lives for the children we know.

Words:Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty

 Verbal poverty, I called it in 2002 when I first encountered the disturbing gap.  Theyve grown up in verbal poverty.

“They” were students in the 50-bed juvenile jail unit where I taught literacy skills, teenage boys ages 14 to 19 years old.  Virtually all had had dismal school experiences due to their behaviors, known or unknown learning disabilities, poor attendance, fractured family lives, gang involvement, or all of the above.  I knew that.  What I didn’t know was just how verbally arid their lives had been.

“I asked them once,” Deb, the lead teacher, told me when I first started working in the jail, “how many of them had been read to as children.  One.  Then I asked how many had seen their parents read at home–anything, ever.  Four out of fifty.”

No books?  No newspapers?  Nothing?  No wonder the boys skills are deficient (most reading at a 6th grade level), no wonder they hate to read and write.  How does a child acquire words (let alone the imagination, knowledge and interior life that reading builds) without someone reading to them?  I realized that oral language had been their primary teacher. But that didn’t bode well either.

As a reading specialist, I knew that research ties children’s pre-school oral language and vocabulary knowledge with later successful, grade-level reading comprehension. And that children—based on socio-economic differences—start kindergarten with vastly differing deposits in their “word banks”:

Children with professionally working parents                         1100 words

Children with working-class parents                                         700 words

Children with non-working, welfare parents                             500 words

(The Early Catastrophe, Hart and Risley, 1995)

Research also shows that this “word gap” (as it’s currently called) strongly correlates with a student’s life-long ability to read and comprehend:

First grade: Orally tested vocabulary was a proficient predictor of a student’s reading comprehension ten years later. (“Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later,” Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997)

Third grade: Children with restricted vocabularies have declining comprehension scores in later elementary years. (The Reading Crisis:  Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, 1990)

What happens at 4th grade is an axiom every educator knows and proffers:  “In grades K—3, students learn to read.  By grade 4 and after, they read to learn.”

But if a child doesn’t have the skills to read and comprehend at grade level, his learning is hampered from 4th grade on.  His skills and knowledge stay limited.

Like 16-yr. old Hasaam who asked me (when he knew for certain no one else could hear him), “Yo, miss.  What’s out there?” He pointed to the sky outside my cell-classroom’s barred window.  “Like, past the clouds.  How come we don’t just fall off Earth and fly out there?”

Hasaam had no concept of gravity and the solar system, truly no knowledge of what was “out there.”  He read at a 4th grade level.

So if a child has parents (more often than not, just one) whose economic resources are limited; who themselves work long hours to keep the family afloat; who are under-educated, tired, stressed and without many supports, he’s going to start life with a verbal deficit that will have a sequential and long-lasting impact.

He’s more likely not to become a strong reader.  As a poor reader, he’s likely to fall behind in academic skills.  Knowing his deficiencies and feeling embarrassed, he’s likely to act out in school, which will lead to suspension, maybe expulsions, maybe incarceration. Without an education, he’s likely to possess an earning power nearer the poverty line.  And the cycle continues.

Not all struggling students commit criminal acts, I know.  And I make no excuses for the choices my students have made; they made them and are living the consequences. But I can’t help wondering, what if?  What if they’d been read to, talked to, listened to more by their parents—who themselves probably had no model for doing so? What if their parents had been taught that regular conversation (literally giving their children more words) could help them become better readers and stronger learners?

I thought my son would be a rabid reader like me, but he wasn’t.  In spite of my tireless efforts he had no interest in books.  So when his 6th grade teacher told me how well-read he was, how much broad knowledge he shared in class, I was confused. But it hit me in just a second. “No,” I answered, “He’s well-talked-to.”  I had talked to him constantly from the day he was born, and told him stories, and asked him questions, and sang him songs.  Apparently, it helped.

What if all parents could be coached to do that, too?  Talking and reading and using vocabulary could be done by parents at any income level, if they only knew to do so.

NPR recently featured a story called “Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor” that outlined the results of a 2012 Stanford University study. The study sadly revealed that the word gap seems to start even younger than age three, as previously believed: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.” (Standford News, November 25, 2013).

But the good news, the article continues to say, is that the research is finally affecting practice and the cities of Chicago and Providence are leading the charge.  The campaign to close the word gap is called 30 Million Words in Chicago, which is about the number of words three-year-olds from low-income families are ‘behind’ their middle-and-higher income peers in being exposed to.  Providence Talks, the Rhode Island initiative with the same aim, begins next month.

Both programs offer low-income parents training in the three “T’s” that develop vocabulary and early literacy: Tune-In, Talk More, and Take Turns.  They also offer technology that will make these efforts more than just words on paper—a “word-ometer” of sorts, a device that literally measures the number of words spoken between parent and child and the response time involved.

I was thrilled when I read the article.  It gave me hope that the playing field of the future might be more level and accessible to low-income children like my students. They deserve an equal chance to learn at grade level.

I can’t re-create what wasn’t done for the boys I currently teach in a different juvenile facility, but I can help increase their vocabularies.  Even for teens, increasing vocabulary is still one of the strongest ways to build knowledge and increase reading comprehension.  And they love it. Throwing words like “egregiously” and “voracious” at each other and the guards, they are empowered to understand and take part in more of the world around them.

I’m going to share the word gap research with them, too.  Make a Power-Point, video clip presentation to show them what they can do to stop the cycle, regardless of what income bracket they’re in when they become parents.  How they can talk and read their kids into becoming grade-level learners.

Because verbal poverty doesn’t have to bleed into the next generation and beyond.  They can stop it if they know how and are empowered to do so.  They can make their children rich—in literacy, knowledge, and spirit.  They can turn the cycle of academic struggle into one of academic success.

Word.

Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” is Teresa, a fourth year math teacher at a New Mexico reservation high school. Teresa has a place of honor in this series since it was an email she sent me about teaching young Native Americans that gave me the idea to ask teachers to write about their experiences as educators. In this thoughtful piece, “A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs,” Teresa raises issues about the constantly changing landscape of schools these days—new programs, new standards, new tests. She doesn’t reject change out of hand because, as she writes, change “is an everyday occurrence” for teachers. But she does question changes that are made with no consideration of student needs or the traditions of the community of which the school is a part. This is particularly important on Native American reservations where tradition is an essential yet endangered part of life. In exploring these ideas Teresa does something that doesn’t occur often enough in schools. She has a conversation with students, asking them for their views and ideas about education and how schools should be structured. It’s refreshing to see that kind of respectful dialog taking place, and it can only enhance her students’ learning.

A Reservation Teacher Considers Change, Traditions and Meeting Students’ Needs

Change.  To some, this word is scary.  To others, it is invigorating.  For teachers, it is an everyday occurrence.

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students.  To start, the student asked me “How come we don’t go home at 12:30, like in California?”  Now, I know not every high school in CA has a half-day schedule, but apparently this student attended one in the past.  This question led us into an in-depth discussion of why schools are organized the way they are.  Another student joined in on the conversation, and we discussed other options for high schools: why not offer night classes?  Why not let high school students sleep in, go to work in the morning, then come to school for a few hours in the afternoon (perhaps between lunch and dinner)?  And why on earth do high school students go to school for eight hours a day, only to go home and do two to four more hours of homework?

Let me give you some background information.  I was homeschooled all the way through 12th grade.  By the time I was high school-aged, my mom would get me started on my assignments in the morning, then I’d work independently while she kept my 5 younger siblings busy.  If I had questions about math, I would call my dad.  If I had any other questions, I would grab my mom between Fractions activities and Phonics lessons.  Rarely would my work occupy me past 12:30, at which time I would practice my piano, complete my chores for the day, and help keep my youngest sibling entertained.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I entered college and discovered that high school teachers are truly expected to fill 8 hours every day with lessons only, then give their students work to do at home.  Where has family time gone?  When will my students find time to choose personally enriching activities?  When will they have time to make some extra money?  This last question is especially pertinent with my students, high school teens living on a New Mexico reservation, who often help the family “make ends meet.”

Unfortunately, educators have endured so many changes in the past decade that they respond to new ideas with either “What’s the point?” or “Why change it now?”  Every year, teachers face new expectations, new administrators, and lately, even new standards.  But every time these changes occur, teachers sit back and say, “It’ll change again next year.”  They don’t buy-in anymore because nothing sticks around.  As a result, when truly good changes are suggested they get lost in the shuffle, or are placed on the back burner while mandatory (a.k.a. monetarily-endorsed) changes are implemented.  When are schools going to stop and think that maybe all these changes, “improvements,” aren’t as good as they are presented?  When are schools going to figure out how to weed out the unnecessary, unhelpful changes, in order to make room for reasonable, current ideas?  And when are we going to stop requiring students to spend 16 hours a day on school?

In the community where I work, there is a stronger-than-average resistance to change.  I believe this stems from Native Americans’ deeply rooted ties to history.  In this community, students and adults grasp at their traditions, while trying to sweep themselves into the future.  The Native Americans I work with search daily for the balance between the old and the new.  Even in schools, drastic changes can feel like an abandonment of the past, which is like forgetting “where we come from.”  For most Americans, our histories are so jumbled that we do not consider it in our daily decisions (personally, my family stems from about 5 different countries, and I cling to the traditions of none).  Natives’ history, on the other hand, has been so suppressed that they cling to every thread.

I’ve always felt that my schooling experience has been both an advantage and a disadvantage.  I am advantaged because I did not spend the first 18 years of my life going through “the system”; thus, I am completely open to new ideas.  However, as a teacher I am disadvantaged because I do not realize how many of these ideas have been sifted through the system already.  I may not be jaded, but I still swing a little to the other extreme: naiveté.  We teachers need to work together to find the happy medium.

At the end of my conversation with my students, we agreed that the “solution” is to phase out teachers who are stuck in the old ways, and fill schools with teachers open to change.  Unfortunately, this boils down to only hiring teachers who have been teaching 5 years or less.  Never would I suggest this actually take place because then schools would lose the wisdom and experience of our veteran teachers.  But the two generations of educators need to work together to keep schools current.  We don’t need fancy equipment and artistically-designed school buildings.  We just need to be open to reasonable, practical changes.  We need to adjust to meet our students’ needs…  Isn’t that the whole point?

 

“Teachers in Their Own Words” is a forum for teachers, not “education reformers,” to talk about schools, students and what really happens in a classroom. Despite the title of her piece, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher,” I’m happy to add Anna Feldman’s voice to the series. As you’ll see, Anna, who is a facilitator for a creative writing workshop, is very much a teacher despite the difference in nomenclature. She has all the best qualities of a real teacher: she fosters openness and trust among her learners; gives each of them the freedom to create and explore; is interested in what her students learn, not as a testable commodity but as way to explore the world and themselves. And she does this all in a very challenging environment—a Department of Youth Services detention center for girls. Just as working in a facility like that is complicated, “Confessions of a Non-Teacher” is a complicated piece. Anna’s essay raises a variety of issues—the role of teacher, the stumbling blocks to learning, the impact of outside influences on a young person’s ability to learn. Yet she does it with a good bit of humor (most teachers will chuckle at her description of giving assignment directions to her learners), honesty and humility.

Anna has worked with Voices from Inside since 2010 and is editor of Women Writing in Jail: An Anthology (Voices from Inside & Levellers Press, 2011). A Wells College graduate in creative writing and psychology, Anna is passionate about at-risk youth advocacy, the arts, and animals. Her dream job would probably combine all three. She would like to thank Pauline Bassett, her co-facilitator, for all of her help and support.

Confessions of a Non-Teacher

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

Voices from Inside, a Florence-based volunteer organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated women using the Amherst Writers and Artists Method of workshop facilitation (AWA),  has recently expanded to a Department of Youth Services facility for teenage girls. One of the first tenets of the method is that the workshop is never a class; there are no grades, no critique, no negativity. Internal editors present in every other aspect of life are not invited.

A writer, as we say in AWA, is someone who writes.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be so much easier than a class. So much more comfortable, so much more…free. That’s part of what I’ve always loved about this method when I’ve worked with incarcerated women in the past. Without the pretenses of grades, competition, or judgment, participants have often surprised me – and, more important, themselves – with their expression and their vulnerability. Women who are barely literate write hauntingly beautiful prose; women who think they’re going to hate the workshop end up being the most active.

So, when I was asked if I wanted to co-facilitate a workshop at the DYS site, I barely thought before saying yes. At-risk youth is one of my favorite populations to work with, partly because it’s humbling to watch them find their strengths and come into their own, and partly because, at 26, I feel like I get them in so many ways. While I haven’t had the same struggles many of them have had, there’s an unspoken understanding between us wherein they can see that I’m more similar to them than many of their teachers and clinicians. I look like them. I speak their language. I come to each workshop in jeans, a fun shirt, and funky jewelry; when they converse about their celebrity crushes and movies they like, I know what they’re talking about. And, in that understanding, I take that implicit trust they place in me and guard it as safely as I possibly can.

When I hand out prompts, this is usually the conversation that ensues:

Me: They call these “story starters,” but they’re just ideas. You can do anything with them. Use one of them, use all of them, use none of them. Remember, prompts are always optional.

Girl: Do we have to use these?

Me (cheerfully): No, you can use them if you want, but if you don’t like them, you can write something else.

Second girl: Can it be a poem?

Co-facilitator (cheerfully): Sure. Anything you want to write.

Third girl: What do we do with these?

Staff member (exasperatedly): You write a poem or a story about any of these lines. If you don’t want to use them, write about something else.

After about four weeks of this, it was hard not to wonder what we were doing wrong. While there was no question that most, if not all, of these girls struggled academically, they were also smart and literate—the writing they had produced thus far spoke to that. It didn’t seem likely that they would flat-out forget from week to week, either.

What was it, then? Were the prompts too complicated? Did I talk too fast? Were the girls not paying attention to us? Did they simply not care?

It wasn’t until I had a conversation with my co-facilitator about something unrelated (or so I thought at the time) that it began to dawn on me.

Another tenet of the AWA method is that when we comment on each other’s work, we focus only on the positive aspects of the writing—what struck us, what we remembered most vividly, what we particularly enjoyed and why. The women in the jail workshops tended to do well with this, but halfway through the session, the girls still had trouble. Sometimes they’d respond with an “I like it!” but wouldn’t be able to follow up if we tried to press for more details, and most didn’t say anything.

“What is that?” I asked my co-facilitator on our drive home one evening. “Why do they have so much trouble giving comments? Are they just really eager to get to their turn?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “They’re probably also not used to being asked what they think.”

That was about when the proverbial light bulb turned on above my head.

The girls’ facility is very different from the jails I’d been to in the past. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve interacted with a corrections officer at the jail; here, staff are everywhere. They sit in with us during our workshop (not writing, mind you) and bark at anyone who speaks out of turn. Where we would politely ask a girl to participate, a supervisor turns it into an order. More often than not, they respond to girls’ questions with exasperation. They keep a keen eye on the clock and herd us out the moment it’s to leave.

There’s a rule for everything. (Whether or not it’s going to be enforced on any given day is a different question, but that could be a topic for whole other entry.)

The workshop had all the potential in the world to be freeing, but the girls had no idea what to do with the freedom we were bringing them.

I don’t have any kind of plan or formula for how to address this; for the most part, I don’t have any more information than I did a few weeks ago, nor do I have the authority to make—or suggest—changes to how things are done at the facility.

What I can do, though, is be conscientious, and really, that may be the most important thing. How easily we forget that some of the most mundane things in our lives are uncharted territory (and, therefore, probably scary) for others. Just as someone would feel self-conscious and daunted walking into a party full of people they don’t know, so too would someone who has never been unconditionally complimented or told her opinions truly mattered, when all of a sudden she’s being showered with praise and asked repeatedly what she thinks by people who really want to know. Just recognizing that allows me to be present in each workshop with a perspective I hadn’t had before.

I can provide them with a space where vulnerability is safe; where being wrong is okay. (In AWA workshops, there really is no “wrong,” but if, for instance, a girl slipped and mentioned something she didn’t like about someone’s writing, we wouldn’t respond with anger or hostility. We would simply remind her why it’s important to focus on the positive and encourage her to try again.)

With the trust the girls have given me, I can encourage them out of their comfort zones, and I can come out of mine around them, too. My co-facilitator recently mentioned that I sing, which of course prompted the girls to ask me to sing for them. I was nervous, but I sang a verse of “Blackbird.” They didn’t care that I wasn’t warmed up or that my voice shook a little at the beginning. I had done something that scared me and come out of it perfectly fine on the other side. I gave them my trust and they handled it with care and grace – just as I handle theirs.

I can be myself and encourage them to do the same. I can remember what it’s like to be sixteen and know that sometimes who said what at dinner is the most important topic in the room. We’ve all been there.

And though I’m neither a teacher nor conducting a class, I can acknowledge them when they use literary devices in their writing. (“That’s personification!” I excitedly explained to a girl one week in response to how she’d described a wall.) The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t have to be dry and tedious.

I am not a teacher.

The writing workshop I co-facilitate each week is not a class.

I think we’ve all managed to learn something anyway. And I think we’re all feeling a little freer for the process.

One of the goals of “Teachers in Their Own Words” has been to give teachers a voice in the “education reform” debate. It has been a place where teachers can talk about what’s important to them as professionals. For some that has meant the larger issues of curriculum, evaluation and training; for others, the day to day challenges and delights of the classroom. Whatever the topic, each contributor has spoken as a practitioner, as someone “on the front-lines.” They are the ones who spend their days with students and so know what real, hands-on education looks like, feels like; what works and doesn’t.  Along with that variety of viewpoints and concerns the educational settings have been diverse and wide-ranging—reservation high school, release program for young offenders, community college, kindergarten, juvenile detention, independent learning, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), middle school.

Now Hillary Greene, who has written for the series in the past, has opened the 2014 conversation even further in her guest piece, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room”. The piece serves as a great introduction to a shared blog, “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers,” that she and two other teachers from other countries have begun as a way to explore the big question, “What does it mean to be a teacher?” As in everything Hillary writes, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room” isn’t afraid to challenge not just the ideas of reformers but her colleagues as well. But she does it with a gentle and practiced hand, just what you’d expect from a middle school teacher (she has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire) who recently wrote in an email to me that “it’s never the kids that are the tough part of this job…” I’m looking forward to reading “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers” as it evolves and invite you to stop into their International Teacher’s Room to hear the latest in this global conversation.

Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room

Last summer, I was sitting in an art-filled café in Exeter, New Hampshire reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education. Page after page, I dutifully read and made my margin notes about the successful performance of students in places like Finland and Singapore when a simple question dawned on me, “I wonder what it’s like to teach in other places?” I wanted to find out.

Since becoming a teacher three school years ago, I have reflected daily on the challenges of this profession. I know that my job is much different than the one I envisioned my teachers doing back when I was a K-12 student; like anything, it’s hard to imagine until actually living through it.

Then last year, I started to write about teaching. It was a way to think aloud about my experience in a way I couldn’t do at school. I wrote about the need to nurture teachers and create environments for collaboration rather than isolation (The Coffee Crisis), and another piece about how teachers’ ignorance of big-picture policy changes in education causes our autonomy in the classroom to suffer (Not Enough to “Just” Teach).

Despite the challenges of being a teacher, one aspect consistently sustains me: my relationships with students. I teach middle school, a fragile age where, above all, kids want to feel like someone “gets” them. They’re looking for unconditional acceptance as they try out versions of themselves, some combination of which will one day stick. They possess a refreshing ability to be vulnerable and open in ways that adults have often left behind.

Even in my relatively short amount of time as a teacher, I see that although this openness and availability flourishes in middle school relationships, it remains in short supply among the adults in a school. I’m not without blame; sometimes it’s easier to shut my door, work through lunch, and breathe a bit rather than seek out colleagues, collaborate, or, basically, be available. But there’s certainly something about this profession that makes us close ourselves off, both regretful of the isolation but reluctant to open up.

So this brings me back to that café in New Hampshire. I wondered if teachers in such paragons of educational achievement as Finland and Singapore have the same challenges I have experienced. I wondered if their professional relationships are different from mine. I wondered what their lives are like outside of school compared to teachers’ lives here. I wondered how others in their culture perceive their choice to join the teaching profession.

With the help of my brother who has lived abroad, I reached out to public school teachers that he knew around the world, and I found two willing (and available!) volunteers: Thom in France and Emily in Australia who like me teach 5th through 7th graders. We launched our comparative teaching blog in August, and we write every few weeks about our lives as teachers. We have written several diary entries of a “typical” day in our schools, and we’ve written on other topics including our teacher preparation programs, our choices to become teachers, assessment in schools, and more. We will write until May and continue to discover what it means to teach, whether in the US, France, or Australia.

Ironically, we’ve never met each other. Yet, through this shared experience of written reflection, I am able to visit them in their classrooms and host them in mine. Just like our students, we want someone to “get” us, and now we have each other.

Gayle Saks-Rodriguez has been a guest writer for  “Kids in the System” as part of the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series. She often talks  about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. In this current piece she writes about saying good-bye to a group of young guys (many of whom have spent their lives in and out of institutions)  when  her Life Skills class is closed due to loss of funding.  Gayle communicates so well the deep and powerful relationships that can develop between students and teachers, relationships that stay in both their hearts for a long time. You can read more of Gayles writings on her blog “My Life in the Middle Ages” where she writes about variety of topics with her usual honesty and humor.

When Young Offenders–and Their Teacher–Say Good-bye

Last month, due to a lack of funding, the juvenile lock-up where I taught a weekly “life skills” workshop was shuttered.  According to my very rough calculation, in the year that I worked there I had about 400 young men of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds pass through my group.  Of those, about half came and went frequently, often gone for a couple of months to less than a week, and then re-offended to find themselves right back where they started.

The kids I worked with in lock-up have dreams like everyone else.  They want to be rappers and record producers, athletes and small business owners.  They want to become pilots and work with horses.  They want the ability to apologize to their parents or grandparents or whoever they feel they’ve let down.  Others, in their own words, say “I don’t give a fuck.”  But, they do.

The youngest ones, the 15 and 16-yr olds are the most hopeful.  They haven’t yet been beaten down by those never ending loops of bad choices and circumstances and I’d like them to believe that they don’t have to be.  Others are so calloused and at this point rather indifferent towards their own lives, that you know they’ll never get out of the system and that soon enough, when they are old enough to be tried as adults, they will just continue on to become “career criminals.”

The bottom line is that I will most likely never see any of these boys again.  I will miss the ones who are often combative and the ones who take the confidence-boosting exercises I give them and put them in their pockets to look at later.

I will miss Emmanuel who volunteered to read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and came up with his own rather astounding analysis.  His pudgy face with his dimples and mile-wide smile is wallpapered on the inside of my brain.  At 16, he was the youngest student I taught and without question, the most articulate.  Before the program closed a staff member told me that he was left by his family who high-tailed it to Florida and left him in Massachusetts when he was 8-years-old. If anyone thinks that’s a scar that will disappear you just need to have heard him say, out loud in a group, that not one person on the outside has his back.  Not one.

I will miss the most hardened young man, Josh, the one who looked at me suspiciously when he first met me but was the first to thank me for everything I had done for him when I saw him for the last time.  During our first group together he told me that he smashed his phone on the ground when it froze in the middle of a game he was playing.  By the end of that first hour together, I made him laugh at the absurdity of the act.  I never knew, until the program had closed, that he is a heroin addict that drives him to have a needle in each arm at the same time.

I will miss the young man with the first name of a classic literary character, a boarding school student from a very affluent neighborhood.  We talked about books and movies.  His alcoholism has destroyed his life.

I will miss seeing Ricardo, a light-skinned Latino with the rather unlikely combination of braces and tattoos, sprawled on a chair all smiles and light.  I know the community he comes from, the poorest in the state, and his gang membership and all that comes with it is what has led to a long string of fairly serious charges.  I know that he has watched his friends get shot, incarcerated and killed.  I know that he is terrified of going back there.  He has told staff that he never thought he’d make it to his 18th birthday which is just a few weeks away. When an informal conversation occurred in class about superheroes and that inevitable question, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” He said, “I would want to go back to my neighborhood and be proud.  I want to bring happiness to the streets.  I want to protect my little sister.  I’d want to be a superhero.   I’d call myself ‘Glory Boy.’”

At the end of my last group I gave each boy a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” which is a lot less hokey than it sounds.  We had ended each group up until then with each kid reading five sound bytes of advice.  They understood what that final gesture meant, that I’d be with them wherever they landed, that I was dedicated to their success.  I wasn’t allowed to hug them when I said goodbye, but my handshakes were long and warm, and my tears told them that I would never, ever forget them.

“Good night you princes of Maine,
you kings of New England.”

John Irving, Cider House Rules

I’m happy to re-post Catherine Gobron’s piece from Huffington Post, “Chickens and Roads: Why Compulsory Education Isn’t Necessary.” Catherine has written for “Kids in the System” as part of the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series. As the director of North Star, a program of self-directed learning for teens, she always has a very different–and for some people, challenging–take on learning, schools and our education system. But as always, she raises issues in a way that makes you want to think about them, not run away from them.

Chickens and Roads: Why Compulsory Schooling Isn’t Necessary

I work at a teen educational program where students have full control over their own schedules and have no academic requirements. We get a lot of questions about how this could possibly work. A frequent one is, “How will kids learn to do things they don’t like if they are not made to do them?”

You would think that formal education would aim a little higher than teaching children how to endure. But the question comes up all the time.

Here’s my response:

Unpleasant tasks abound. Life is absolutely overflowing with things one might prefer not to do. The laundry, the dishes, walking the dog, vacuuming the car, mowing the lawn, writing thank you notes to your grandmother, getting your car’s oil changed, negotiating with the insurance company… There is an endless list of things we do even though we might rather not. Occasionally we put off one or another of these necessities, and suffer the consequences, whether that’s temporarily living with dirty dishes or having the car impounded over unpaid tickets. We don’t need practice doing things we don’t like, and we don’t need practice suffering consequences. Life is full of both. They can hardly be avoided.

Furthermore, in my experience I don’t see any difference between those who have gone to school and those who have not when it comes to the ability to get unpleasant tasks done. Years of monotonous lessons and uninspired assignments do not seem to increase the likelihood that someone will get their teeth cleaned regularly, for example. Years of enforced, rote tasks may increase a person’s compliance with an uninspired adult work life, but is that a worthy goal for education?

Why does the chicken cross the road? (To get to the other side, of course.) Why do we do anything? Simply to do it, or because there is something on the other side that we deem worth having or knowing or experiencing. No one has to make people (or chickens) cross roads. You can help someone achieve the goal by looking at a map with them or helping them think through their plans. There’s no need to make them cross any particular road, metaphorical or otherwise. In fact, attempting to make them is a good way to prevent them from wanting to go or from getting anything out of the journey.

Making people do things they don’t like encourages people to dislike the thing you are making them do, even when that thing is fun or valuable. If a person finds a road worth crossing, they’ll cross it. The helpers in their life can be useful by believing that they can do it and that they will do it, and saying so. Other useful support will become evident through interaction and discussion.

How are young people going to learn to do things they don’t like? By creating their own goals and having the confidence to work for them. No need to look for or create unpleasant challenges or obstacles. Those will find you. The person who is motivated by their own desires and vision will work through and around the obstacles. The practice is in the doing.

Every day at my workplace I see teens walk by games and fun on their way to class. Why would teens go to class when they could play outside or do some other enjoyable thing? Because they want to. There’s no need to make them. The kids who are not in class are doing other important things, which could be anything from making friends to developing courage to suffering consequences.

Non-compulsory learning benefits from reflection, access, support, and discussion. Force is unnecessary for learning and actually counter-productive.

When we examine our own adult lives, these points are obvious. We do the things we are motivated to do and excel at the things we enjoy. Kids, too.