Archive for the ‘Child & Family’ Category

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

 

Teaching at a Reservation School

 Teresa is a third-year high school Math teacher at a small reservation school in NM. She got in touch with me after she read my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. She told me, “Although my students are not currently incarcerated, many of them have seen their share of a juvenile cell.” (I shared with Teresa a report that I came across about this topic.) In talking about her school, I was struck by her positive attitude, her love of teaching and her concern for and loyalty to her students and their tribal life. I didn’t know much about reservation education and appreciated hearing what her experiences had been. I suspect that many people are like me, and so I asked Teresa if she would share her story with a wider audience. She was happy to but asked that I use only her first name since she wanted to respect the privacy of the tribes with which she is involved.

 

My school serves two tribes. One has about 8,000 members and the other has about 5,000.  The school consists of grades 7 through 12 and has about 350 students. It’s like a large family most days!

We are a public school under the jurisdiction of the public education department not the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  Therefore, the academic expectations and standards set for us are the same as any public high school.  It is very interesting to note that the students who come to us from BIA elementary and middle schools show a distinct lack of skill.  I have not visited enough BIA schools to know why, but I hear it is because the BIA teachers are not held to the same standards we public school teachers are.  As a result, the younger students do not progress as quickly as they need to, so they usually enter high school unprepared for the rigor and high expectations.

One of the best aspects of teaching in the school I’m in is that the students are incredibly respectful.  Despite their sheltered life on the reservation, they are taught ultimate respect for elders.  I believe this respect stems from the fact that my students live in multi-generational homes.  It is not unusual for them to live with grandparents and/or adult siblings.  In addition, most of the discipline in a family is given by an uncle (not a parent), so it is very common for my students to live with their aunt or uncle.  Many of these living variations stem from broken families, abuse (physical, emotional, or substance), and behavioral issues.

Although my students struggle with many negative situations which high school students should not have to face, they show true spirit and stick to one another against the world.  I have heard many of them call each other “sister” and “brother” whether or not they are biological siblings. For this, I am grateful to their sheltered life.  However, I am sad to learn how many of my students have never left New Mexico, or even their own reservation.  I do not think it is “fear” which holds them back. I think they are just accustomed to living with other Natives, so they feel no urge to leave.  It is like pulling teeth to convince them to leave home and go to college an hour away, to get their 4-year degrees.

I wish I could convince them to leave for a short time to get a rounded exposure to life off their reservation, and then bring new ideas back to their community!  But they usually don’t see the point.  They see their siblings still living at home. They know they can get some income from the local casino since it is owned by the tribe and tribal families get a little income from its profits. They don’t seem to want to put forth extra effort to succeed.

Of course, this picture does not accurately describe every student in my school.  There are some very bright, motivated students who pass through my classroom every day.  Most of those students have fantastic parents who push them, defend them to “authorities,” and teach them how to think.  How I wish this described every parent!  But ultimately, would that really solve the problem?  Is that the “silver bullet”?  I don’t think a one-shot solution exists.

Luckily, my school environment has greatly improved over the past 2 years.  The teachers and students have developed together a more positive attitude and this has led to escalating test scores.  As much as I hate the amount of testing our country requires, I am very pleased to see my students improving in the eyes of the State!

Life on the reservation seems very complicated to me, and I still haven’t figured it out.  It is difficult for me, a white woman, to teach my Native students with their very different backgrounds.  However, I love the challenge and I love the students so very much!  I would not trade this job unless a very strong divine force pushed me to.

 

 

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I met Amber at a tutoring program for inner city children. It was 1966, my senior year in high school, and the war on poverty was on, a war we’ve failed to win.

At nine years old Amber looked like a scarecrow, an old scarecrow at that, bird-picked, weather beaten. She was stick thin. None of her clothes fit, hand-me-downs from her sister Bunny who quickly outgrew her clothes while her younger sister didn’t seem to grow at all. Her eyes were dark circled; her hair, straw and falling out.

Saturday mornings she was one of the first kids through the church basement doors. My friends and I weren’t naïve. We knew that that gaggle of children who showed up each week wasn’t there for the mandatory hour of instruction. They put up with our drilling them on the timestables or helping them parse a paragraph. They were really there for the cookies and milk, and the tables spread with art supplies and games. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that they may have been just as eager for our attention, our reliability, and perhaps even our youthful faith in the future as for those treats.

I worked with Amber all that year. She didn’t progress much. But that didn’t seem to matter. She was always there. Besides, there was something else going on: I was being tutored in what poverty was really all about.

Walking Amber home several times I got to see where she lived—a cramped, drafty tenement—and to meet the rest of her family. Her mother, Mrs. Laurel, was as frail and battered looking as Amber. She had a nervous tic that twitched her head, a purple bruise on her cheekbone, a baby on her hip and a toddler pulling at her housecoat. Peter, a year older than Amber, dervished through the apartment while Bunny, a twelve year old with a fifteen year old’s body, refused to say hello.

There were no secrets in the Laurel family. Sitting at their kitchen table I heard how Bunny was boy-crazy, how Peter ate paste in school, and how they all loved margarine and sugar sandwiches. Amber, I was told, shared the bed of whatever brother or sister let her: she was a bed wetter. Pointing to the toddler pulling a waste basket over and the baby on her lap, Mrs. Laurel told me how “Mr. Laurel” was in and out of the house. “That’s what these two are all about,” she laughed ruefully then touched her cheekbone.

I lost track of the Laurels when I went off to college and got involved in another war—the war against the war, the Vietnam War. I didn’t think about them until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s started talking about the “deserving poor”. By then I was teaching kids in an alternative high school that very well could’ve been the children of an Amber or a Peter or a Bunny. I remember at the time wondering if the Laurels would’ve fit Reagan’s criteria for “deserving.” What would he have made of that bubble bath that tumbled out of the grocery bag Mrs. Laurel plopped down on the table one day when I was there? Or the endless packages of Lick-a-maid her kids lapped up from their grimy palms instead of lunch.

And now, years later, census figures show that the US poverty rate has hit its highest levels since President Johnson declared war on it, and that child poverty has increased from its 2010 twenty-two percent level.

This is especially bad news in these high stakes, high pressure days of “educational reform.” How will the Ambers of this world fare with so much depending on a student’s test performance especially when “education reformers” continue to refuse to acknowledge the crippling role that economic disparity plays in academic performance? Yet the stakes have gotten higher. According to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, “US Education Reform and National Security,” (a report Diane Ravitch called the latest education “jeremiad”) educational failures are indeed a threat to national security. Another burden put on young shoulders.

In 1962 Michael Harrington showed America the face of “the invisible poor.” Now that the ranks of the Ambers among us are growing will we finally be able to look squarely into those faces and help the children of poverty achieve true academic parity? Or do we—and they—have to wait another 50 years?

Originally appeared at Reclaiming Futures  

Arizona’s legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.

Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill US prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay—that is if they can.

These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.

Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.

As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.

But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?

It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for ten years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.

The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances—AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised—demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather. The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15 year old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.

It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and  in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.

It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families—fragile, fragmented, strained, mending—were desperately trying to stay a family.

Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t. If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

A repost from the Albany Times-Union blog by David Kaczynski, Director, New Yorkers For Alternatives to the Death Penality

“Nobody wants a life like mine.” I’ve occasionally said those words in sorrow and self-pity – particularly during the period between October 1995 and February 1998 when I lived through one crisis after another. After the burdens of that time were lifted, I resolved not to sweat the small stuff anymore. I had gained perspective on what really matters in life.

For 60 years, I’ve lived a privileged existence. I had two loving parents who provided for my care and education. I’ve enjoyed mental and physical health. I was sent to great schools where I formed deep and lasting friendships and encountered teachers who broadened my intellectual horizons. I took advantage of my American birthright to experiment with varying lifestyles in Montana, Iowa and Texas. Eventually, I married my soulmate: the woman I’d loved ever since high school.  Even after the Unabomber tragedy – in fact, because of it – I’ve had the opportunity to earn my living in ways that are healing and meaningful. This may not be the life I’d choose if I’d been able to plan it all in advance. I don’t imagine there are any young people dreaming about the future and thinking, “Gee, I want a life just like David Kaczynski’s.” But you better believe that I spend a lot of time marveling at my good fortune and counting my blessings.

I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine is the name of a new book written by David Chura (Beacon Press). The title is lifted from a comment by a young man incarcerated in one of New York’s secure facilities for juvenile offenders where the author taught GED courses for many years. In the context of the book, the comment sounds less self-pitying than factual – even altruistic in its hope that others not begin life with a stacked deck that might include being raised without hope or consistency by an unstable, drug-addicted single mother. If you are looking for life perspective, then this is one book you ought to read. If you are searching for clues to understand where civilization has gone astray, a trip behind these bars might be the place to begin. If you want to restore your faith in humanity, you will appreciate the way David Chura illuminates hope, connection and dignity enduring in the most unlikely of places.

The author finds the best in human beings by watching them closely, patiently and without judgment. In reading along, we realize that the guards are doing time along with the youthful inmates. In its many twists and turns, the book discovers in the prison labyrinth a metaphor of the confinements and refuges of the human spirit. In the face of every person he so carefully depicts, the author shows us a mirror.

Read this book. I imagine it will be an experience you’ll never forget.

When Americans think about the prison system, we think about the men and women locked up in them and the people who work there. But we rarely, if ever, think about inmates’ families. We should.

The Boston Globe had it right in its recent editorial on the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s putting a halt to the Bristol County sheriff’s $5 dollar a day fee on inmates for upkeep. As the Globe noted, since there were no work release programs or jobs at the jail, inmates’ families were the ones who had to pay the fee, placing on them “an even heavier burden” than they already carry. The Globe urged the Massachusetts legislature not to legalize that burden.

Visiting days were some of the hardest days to work at the county jail where I taught incarcerated high school kids. The lobby filled up with anxious mothers and grandmothers, and got a little raucous with toddlers and babies brought to see their daddies by wives and girlfriends who still found the fortitude to stand by their locked up men.

They got there early because they knew that the jail routine ate into their limited time with their loved ones. But getting there early meant an even earlier start from home, many coming cross county. Most visitors didn’t have cars, and so they took bus after bus after bus. Once signed in, they sat on cracked vinyl benches and waited, the way they waited for those buses.

Then, the slow crawl through security where papers were checked; belongings searched; where belts, boots, bobby pins, jewelry, even the occasional bra had to be removed to clear the metal detector. One glitch and the whole process ground to a halt. Except the clock. It kept ticking, robbing families of what little time they had together.

It was nobody’s fault. Things happen. Someone didn’t know they had to have a picture ID. A grandmother only spoke Spanish. And who would have thought that they needed the baby’s birth certificate?

Things like that happen. But that doesn’t explain the most egregious wrong of visiting days—the way the correctional staff treated visitors. Although the officers working the lobby were “polite” in that cardboard cutout way that people in charge can have, the suspicion and contempt with which they treated the visiting family members were as obvious as the print on an arrest warrant. It was as though those mothers and grandmothers, those wives and girlfriends were themselves criminals.

Those correctional officers, however, were only reflecting the general view that most Americans have about inmates’ families. “If you’d been a better mother.” “If you’d only raised your daughter right her son wouldn’t be here.” “Where’s the father?”  “What are you doing having that thug’s baby?”

Jail strips people of their freedom, their community, and their identity. But those family members who we accuse of neglect and complicity are the only ones who give inmates a sense (as tentative as it may be) of stability and self, of connection to a world they are cut off from.

And when inmates are finally released into a world they are expected to fit into, they return home to those same families we consider inadequate. They may not have much to offer the ex-offender, but what they do offer is a lot more than the plastic bag for clothes, the bus token, and the injunction to “stay out of jail” that most criminal justice systems provide. Imposing an upkeep fee on inmates  only adds to the responsibilities these overburdened families already carry.

The numbers are disturbing. During 2008 through 2009, 12 percent or 3,220 of the kids locked up in state or privately run juvenile detention centers reported that they had been sexually victimized by another kid or by facility staff.

Even more disturbing is that 10.3 percent stated they had had sexual contact with an adult staff member. Of that number, 1,150 kids said that sex or sexual contact was forced on them. All this according to the recently released National Survey of Youth in Custody (NSYC) report mandated by the Department of Justice as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Statistics have an odd way of getting to us.

On one hand, they’re just numbers; cut and dry; lifeless; boring to read; easy to lose track of. Yet they’re potent, almost like talismans that draw our attention to the truth beneath them.

I got to thinking.

The high school I went to had about that many kids, 3,000 plus. That was a lot of kids, especially when we packed the gymnasium for a basketball game or got herded into the auditorium for what our teachers felt would be yet another enriching speaker.

3,220 kids are boundless, shot through with life and energy, loud, and, most of the time, interesting and funny (that is if you don’t let them get on your nerves.)

But this report is talking about a different kind of kid.

3,220 locked up, locked away, locked down young people adjudicated to places they don’t want to be, in places that don’t really want them because nobody else wants them. Kids forced one way or another (perhaps just by the fact that they were young, disenfranchised, and in juvenile detention) to have sex or sexual contact mostly with adults.

Adults. The ones hired to take care of them. The ones trusted with their safety and security.

But I’m pretty sure those abused kids weren’t as shocked by their caretakers’ misconduct as the rest of us are. They’ve been letdown by adults all their lives. They’re use to being disappointed. So what else is new?

There’s been a quick and horrified response to the findings of this survey. The remarks I’ve heard and the comments I’ve read have been venomous to the extreme. The staffs of these detention centers have been described as animals, sadists, monsters, predators. “Think about it. Who else would take a job like that?” “What do you expect from a bunch of bullies and psychopaths?”

I’ve been there, and said the same things. When I first started teaching kids at a county penitentiary, I had the correctional staff pegged the same way. I had my own litany of synonyms for “lowlife.”

But it didn’t take me long to see that those correctional officers were just as much victims of a violent, degrading, inhumane system as the young kids I tried to educate and protect in what small ways I could.

COs had the power. They never forgot it. The kids I taught never forgot. And I never forgot it. But that power was really all they did have: power over the powerless in an institution that had the ultimate power to keep the keepers and the kept down.

In reality, every one of us is responsible for every one of those 3,220 kids. We Americans want our jails, our juvenile detention centers, to keep us safe. The system serves at our behest. But, as this report shows (and there have been far too many reports lately tabulating the abuses of our locked up children) the system serves none of us.

Imagine an auditorium full of those 3,220 victimized kids. What could we possibly say to them?

“Zero tolerance.” It sounds like a good idea: “Put your foot down.” “Get tough.” “We’re not taking it anymore.”

The American public, worried about the purported drug and gun wars being fought in our cities in the 1990s, grabbed onto this concept. In turn, a number of states and municipalities adopted “zero tolerance” laws.

Since then “zero tolerance” has pervaded our culture.

Draconian drug laws impose harsh sentences on nonviolent offenders, glutting prisons and draining overextended state budgets, while leaving the people with drug problems untreated. (Boston Globe)

Our hard-hitting laws about who is a sex offender create a caste of people who will be a burden for the rest of their lives on the very society these laws hoped to shield.

Certainly citizens, young and old, need to be protected from real sex offenders, but consider the case of a 17-year-old I taught at the county jail.

Earle was serving time as a sex offender. His crime? Sleeping with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Janet Marie’s mother didn’t have a problem with letting him stay over night as much as he wanted. Until one day she had a big fight with Janet Marie about keeping her room clean, and Earle became a pawn in their battle.

The mother called the cops, accused Earle of sleeping with her underage daughter, and Earle was convicted of statutory rape. Under “zero tolerance,” he wasn’t a stupid teenage boy anymore who, as Robert De Niro says to his son in the movie, Bronx Tale, let his little head get the better of his big head, but a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Recently, “zero tolerance” policies in schools, where their misuse is most obvious and egregious, have come under fire, and not soon enough.

An editorial in the New York Times points out these well intentioned regulations have become a debacle for children. Originally meant for such serious offences as drug or weapon possession in schools, overzealous school personnel and local officials have taken some bizarre stances in the name of “getting tough.”

Children have been arrested for profanity, hallway tussles, mouthing off at a teacher, things that used to get you detention and a pretty uncomfortable meeting with a parent.

To the general public these cases of misjudgment seem almost laughable. We wonder, “Whatever happened to commonsense?” Yet teachers and administrators who overreact are responding to the legislative pressure of “zero tolerance.”

Their overreactions, however, have far-reaching results on young people. It contributes to a devastating cycle that the American Civil Liberties Union calls the “school-to-prison pipeline:” Students (mostly minorities) are kicked out of school; they then end up in the only place that accepts them for what they are—the streets; and more times than not those streets lead to the dead-end world of jail.

The courts, however, are finally stepping in. In Massachusetts a Federal District judge recently ruled that LD, a Worcester eighth-grader, was wrongfully suspended for a year because he had a knife in school. (Boston Globe)

But wasn’t that a clear breach of the school’s “zero tolerance” weapons policy?

Here’s the story. One day in gym class, LD’s friend told him that another kid threatened him with a knife. LD, an honors student who never got into trouble, confiscated the knife without incident. He planned on turning it in to the front office. But before he could word got to the assistant principal. When asked if he had a knife, LD, good kid that he was, said yes and explained. He hadn’t waved the knife around tough-man style. He hadn’t threatened anybody. Still, in the eyes of the school, he violated the “zero tolerance” policy and was suspended for a year.

Luckily LD, along with two determined lawyers (one, an attorney from the Center for Law and Education in Boston,) challenged this decision and won. The court ruled that LD’s one-year suspension was so “grossly disproportionate” to his wrongdoing that his right to “due process” had been violated.

But LD wasn’t the only winner. Thousands of young people (over 10,000 in Massachusetts) who are pushed out of the school system, often as a result of just such excessive disciplinary practices, will also benefit. LD’s efforts, along with those of such advocacy groups as the American Bar Association which has called for a reduction in the removal of students from schools through the discipline process, will nudge educators towards establishing more constructive intervention policies.

With more and more schools reverting to the tried and true approach of judging each student situation case by case, perhaps other segments of our society where “zero tolerance” has rampaged through people’s lives will begin to examine the real, lasting, destructive effects this policy has had on us as a country and culture.

In the meantime, I, for one, have “zero tolerance” for “zero tolerance.”