Are big money experiments ruining our schools?

My thoughts on Robert Herbert’s October 6, 2014 essay:

The Plot Against Public Education: How millionaires and billionaires are ruining our schools.

What do the failed educational reform initiatives critiqued in this essay have in common?

  • A belief that the answers to the challenges we face were clear and simple.
  • They made promises to fix the ills of our schools.
  • That very large sums of money gave you the right to experiment.
  • Projects could proceed without much scrutiny or forethought.
  • Reformers could act with impunity and move on if things didn’t go well.
  • Our children and their education suffered.

Herbert first discusses the Small Schools Initiative.

From 2000 to 2009, well-intentioned Bill Gates underwrote the “notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.”

Two billion dollars and a host of disrupted schools and damaged students later, Gates concluded, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”

Gates’ next idea was to define what makes an exemplary teacher and then set that as the standard for all schools. He dismissed the plan when he discovered, “Unfortunately,” he said, “it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”

Next he critiques the Charter School Movement:

Herbert says, “Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.”

They didn’t. Academic success -test scores- in charter schools was on a par or worse than the public schools they replaced and the racial disparities they promised to reduce were instead heightened. He concludes, “Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes.”

Herbert’s essay is scathing and unfortunately on point. Frustrated non-educators often think they have the magic solution to fixing schools. Nowhere is this more evident than the rapid growth of charter schools, which turned out to be loose cannons with little financial or academic accountability, rather than the meccas of exemplary practice and inclusiveness as touted. If there were simple answers to reducing dropout rates and consensus on what and how we should teach so all kids achieve at a high level, no matter their circumstances, and if we had an easy to apply formula for what makes “a good teacher,” and surefire ways to create efficient schools with respectful, caring cultures, we’d have glommed on to these solutions long ago. End of discussion.

But teaching and learning isn’t that prescriptive and schools are the most challenging of institutions to run and reform. They are people motivators and life changers., and everyone has a stake in their success. They are accountable for students’ success and this is dependent on the quality of life afforded the families and children we welcome into our classrooms, and the excellent leadership and tireless work of each adult in a child’s life. The reason why we don’t always have the answers is that the needs of our children and the context of the society they live in are not static; so nor are the strategies, resources, and skills critical to meet these needs.

I say all this as both a pragmatist and an eternal optimist when it comes to the tremendous power and inherent goodness of public schools. Great things are already happening and we surely can improve, but not by the temptation of a notion, the stroke of a brush, or the clinking of coins.

Part Three: Say no to zero-tolerance, and yes to conflict resolution

If zero-tolerance is:

  • Ineffective (one-size fits all and does not teach better behavior)
  • Counterproductive (escalates the school suspension to drop out to prison pipeline)
  • Sometimes even foolish (suspending a first grader for hitting another student)

And since misbehavior and conflicts are:

  • An inevitable part of everyday life in schools, homes, and communities
  • No longer handled with automatic student suspensions and expulsions 

What can we do instead?

  • Teach positive social behavior at all developmental levels
  • Teach basic conflict resolution skills K-12
  • Provide students with constructive options to resolve conflicts before they turn into a crisis
  • Treat a crisis as an opportunity to learn

There is so much we can do if we intentionally weave these approaches into everyday school life. The school culture would be one of prevention based on care and respect, taking responsibility, learning appropriate behavior, and of intervention based on restoring damaged relationships.

What kind of problem behavior are we talking about?
We are concerned with all types of violence (physical force used to violate, damage, or abuse another, and abusive or unjust use of power)on the continuum from subtle/emotional to obvious/physical.

The Violence Continuum- where conflicts escalate from subtle to obvious:

SUBTLE__name-calling__excluding__teasing__embarrassing__taunting__hitting__stealing__ spreading rumors__ bullying__harassing__stalking__threatening with harm__ganging up on__punching__assaulting sexually__targeting for hate crimes__stabbing__shooting__killing__OBVIOUS

What kind of solutions are there?
Conflict resolution prevention and intervention strategies needed to prevent and address violence also fall on a continuum from pro-action/prevention to intervention/resolution.

The Conflict Resolution Continuum where school-wide practices range from prevention to intervention to crisis management:

PREVENTION__ nurturing a positive school climate of caring, respectful relationships where every student is my student__identifying common values and social norms__providing bullying-prevention training, policies, and procedures__compiling student generated behavior guidelines/rules/codes of conduct__teaching, practicing, modeling, applying principles of restorative justice and positive social and conflict resolution skills__using informal conflict resolution(What are you doing? What can you do instead?)__involving families to work with us as a team__developing individual problem-solving plans__counseling/adult mentoring__providing formal peer and adult mediation__assigning in-school suspension__suspending from school__using formal restorative justice programs__expelling from school____arresting__incarcerating__ CRISIS

When a situation escalates in seriousness, conflict mediation and restorative justice can break the cycle of punishment:

inappropriate behavior+punishment+more inappropriate behavior+harsher punishment=

destroyed relationships + damaged lives

Mediation allows each student in a conflict to peacefully work out a solution they can both live with. The impartial mediator-peer or adult-provides a safe and respectful setting where they can express their concerns and feelings, gain insight into how their behavior affects others, and talk to each other in a respectful way to come up with an agreement. Mediation helps students consider the perspectives of others and can prevent the escalation of a conflict. It helps restore broken relationships and to build new ones. Through the mediation process students learn that conflicts are normal, to take responsibility for their part in the conflict, to work together to solve the problem, and that they can peacefully settle conflicts with positive words and actions.

Restorative justice is an opportunity to change negative behavior by focusing on the harm done to the victim-person or community. Its goal is not to punish but to develop empathy and mend relationships. The offender is expected to make things right and to not repeat the behavior in the future. Rather than receiving external punishment handed out by an adult authority, the offender takes ownership of his actions and is actively involved with repairing the damage done. It is an educational approach that aims to teach responsibility, change attitudes, and replace destructive behavior with constructive choices. Formal restorative justice programs are appropriate for secondary students and we also practice restorative justice with young children when we ask them how they can fix the mess they made, including emotional hurt they may have caused others.

Through mediation and restorative justice processes, students learn how their actions are personal choices and that their choices have consequences on people and communities. They learn the invaluable quality of empathy and compassion and how to restore harmony.

Even with strong prevention efforts conflicts and violence of many forms and intensities will still arise. Mediation and restorative justice are not the answer for all offenses. Serious behavior that threatens someone’s physical safety and emotional well-being is still dealt with consistently, swiftly, and assertively. Yet we can address all those other negative behaviors on the middle and lower ends of the violence continuum in more constructive ways that teach, model, and expect better behavior.

 

Part Two: If not zero-tolerance, then what?

If we don’t suspend them, what do we do? We constructively work to break the vicious cycle of violence.

It is a challenge to teach children the skills they need to stop choosing negative behavior when many of them do not have the emotional security required to make healthy choices. Instead of nurturing, trusting, and consistent relationships with loving adults, they have a hyper-vigilant emotional foundation that comes from a variety of factors, including a life of neglect, abuse, family conflicts, poverty, substance abuse, and unsafe neighborhoods. A vicious cycle revolves around the insecurity of their personal situation, which makes them more distrustful and susceptible to the culture of violence, which then leads to harmful behaviors that only perpetuate the lack of emotional security.

In this environment, many young people develop a matter-of-fact view of violence and death. They might not think what they are doing is wrong or understand what they should do instead; it conflicts with what they know is true in their real life. To protect themselves they respond the best they can to the harsh lessons they learn early in life. Without the social bonds and trust that come from a safe and caring family and with many of their basic needs not met, children fight to survive in unhealthy violent ways. The resulting coping mechanisms can persist into adulthood.

Dr. James Garbarino, in Lost Boys, describes the background of men on death row this way:

“Each of these men had been subjected to extreme child maltreatment, yet none received mental health treatment once that victimization was substantiated by the state child protective services agency. I could not help but think that if any one of these young men had been taken hostage by a terrorist group and tortured for years, there would have been no question about their need for and entitlement to mental health services upon their release. Yet we did not provide the same services to these ‘hostages’ once they were released from their tormentors. And now we intended to execute them” (Garbarino 1999)

One size does not fit all when we consider that young people’s anti-social, self-harming behaviors -gang membership, alcohol and other drug use, vandalism, theft, early sexual behavior, physical violence-is an understandable, though not desired, reaction to a life of neglect and abuse. Targeted early intervention with mental health professionals is essential when a child’s anti-social behavior is a reaction to coping with a personal life of pervasive violence. This is where the school, more than ever, needs to be a safe haven where the negative forces of a child’s life outside the school do not carry over into the educational environment.

Why are some children resilient against these negative forces?

Research shows that two-thirds of students living in dire conditions rise above and succeed in spite of their circumstances. What does this two-thirds have that the other one-third is missing? We can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of a high-risk childhood by providing assets that build the network of support and the personal efficacy that are characteristic of survivors of toxic environments. These assets benefit all children and are critical for the most vulnerable. They include:

  • ·        Caring relationships.
  • ·        High expectations.
  • ·        Meaningful participation.
  • ·        Autonomy and sense of self.
  • ·        Sense of meaning and purpose.

(California Healthy Kids Survey 1999)

A study on the relationship between student and teacher safety and the nature of the school and home community in the Chicago Public Schools found this is true. (Steinberg et al. 2011) Controlling for academic achievement and type of neighborhood (crime and poverty levels), the schools with the highest suspension rates were less safe than those with low suspension rates. Researchers discovered that the neighborhood in which the school was located was not as influential as the students’ home neighborhood. The primary difference between schools that felt safe and those that did not was the quality of the relationships between school staff and students and parents. It depended on what happened inside the four walls of the school. The study concluded, “disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships actually feel safer than advantaged schools with low-quality relationships.”

In addition, the report noted that a relationship exists between student low academic achievement and increased problems with school safety and order. Schools with a population of low-achieving students experience higher rates of violence. This finding supports growing research that recommends schools focus on raising the literacy rates of young children, adolescents, and adults to reduce violence in schools and in the community. (Jalloh 2009) Research on aggressive behavior, high school drop-out rates, crime, incarceration and recidivism, unemployment, and poverty show a positive correlation between these negative outcomes and poor literacy skills, especially among Latino and African-American men. The literacy-violence connection has been widely documented and the results show this aggression begins in the primary grades when children first experience frustration when trying to learn to read.

To succeed at academics, students need cognitive confidence (ability to read fluently with comprehension), text confidence (stamina to read increasingly difficult material), and social and emotional confidence (positive attitude and enjoyment of reading) (Jalloh 2009, 3) Students who have many negative risk factors in their lives need an intentional school support system and targeted early intervention efforts to teach literacy, math, and technology skills. Without this support these children become disengaged underachievers who stop trying, turn to violence to get what they need, leave school before they graduate, and live a life of poverty and crime. This reality reinforces the need for school-wide, intentional efforts to improve the interactions and relationships among staff, children, and families, and make the connection to academic success.

Teachers know we can intervene early and change this pattern. The Chicago Public Schools study gives credence to the belief that the way we relate to our students is the critical factor in reducing school violence and improving academic performance. A secure climate is necessary for children to take risks and learn. It is in our power to create a secure, caring climate that addresses the academic and social-emotional needs of our students and builds resilience against negative circumstances, regardless of their neighborhood of origin. And when there is a problem, we need to handle it thoughtfully and appropriately within the context of the student and the circumstances. One-size fits all rigid discipline  policies do not work.

In Part Three we’ll see how there are better options that teach, in a lasting way, self-discipline, taking responsibility for one’s choices, restitution, and that result in better decision making in the future.

Part Three: Instead of zero-tolerance, use early intervention, mediation and restorative justice.

Part Two: Does school feel welcoming to parents?

So, Trevor is in trouble at school. It’s time to contact his parents.

You want to get the parents to work with you to find a solution, so keep in mind that you are talking about an emotional issue–the welfare of their child. This conversation relies on your communication skills and ability to empathize. Hopefully you have had some of the positive contacts with Trevor’s parents, like those mentioned in Part One, before this problem arose and you have to make the call home. This foundation of positive experiences serves you well when you have to contact parents about unpleasant situations and field their calls and visits when they are unhappy. This helps you go into the situation with the frame of mind and self-confidence that something good will come of your joint efforts.

As the teacher (the professional in the relationship), you can do a lot to make these kinds of phone calls and meetings successful. You have the power to set a positive, respectful climate conducive to problem-solving. Being prepared boosts self-confidence and your chances for success, so take time to prepare for the call or meeting. You are more relaxed and communicate more effectively if you know what you want to say and how to say it in a straightforward, kind way. You are also better situated to actively listen to the parent.

When there is a problem or concern:

  • Wait until you calm down before you call.
  • Choose your words carefully; use non-labeling words that describe the situation instead of disparage the child, especially if you are sending something to the parents in writing, including email.
  • Review what you want to say.
  • Keep in mind that if the problem happened at school, the school has the primary responsibility to solve it, not the parent; you are looking for insight and help.

Initiating the Call or Meeting:

  • Have a paper and pen ready to take notes.
  • Take a minute to put yourself in the parent’s place.
  • Be friendly, polite, and professional and begin the call on a congenial note.
  • Address parents by their correct name (check the records first).
  • Be aware of cultural differences.
  • Share your genuine concern for the child and your wish to work toward a solution.
  • Convey that you want to help through your choice of words and tone of voice.
  • Be honest and tactful. Avoid blaming or making accusations that put the parent on the defensive.
  • Establish a calm, professional climate.

Discussing the Issue:

  • Calmly explain the situation and/or have the child explain it.
  • Let the parent talk and listen carefully to what he or she says in words and between the lines.
  • Jot down ideas during the conversation.
  • Put a realistic, yet encouraging, spin on being able to solve the problem.
  • React calmly to parents if they are upset; keep in control of your own emotions and responses.
  • Invite them to come in to talk if they would like.
  • In person look at body language, facial expressions, and signs of agitation and relaxation.
  • Assure them that you know it is not easy for them to hear their child has a problem.
  • Ask them if they have any thoughts about what happened.
  • Listen to them and stay understanding of their perspective.
  • Confidently share your professional assessment of the issue. Educate the parent to the possibilities, and make suggestions.
  • Remain professional and positive.

Finding a Solution:

  • Share school expectations, services, and policies.
  • Ask about approaches that work at home.
  • Discuss the approach you will use.
  • In a tactful way, discourage suggestions for punishment and other non-productive ideas.
  • Set a time to check back with each other to see how the plan is working.
  • Ask them if they have any more questions.
  • Thank them for their support of the plan and for working with you.
  • Remain professional and positive

Concluding the Contact:

  • Have a three-way meeting with the child to explain how you and his parents are working together to help him make better choices.
  • Send a letter home that summarizes the problem and the solution, and that thanks them for their help (run it by a colleague or principal first).
  • Sign and date it, and keep a copy for yourself.
  • Implement the plan and do what you can to help the child be successful.
  • Provide progress reports to the child and parents.
  • Contact the parents at the agreed upon time to assess how the plan worked, and make changes if needed.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Remain professional and positive.

You need parents and they need you, and your students need both of you. If you work confidently from a place of professional expertise, openness, and empathy, with the belief that parents love their children and ultimately want to do what is best for them, you will make parents feel welcome and valued and you will discover the power of a strong parent/teacher partnership.

Part One: Does school feel welcoming to *parents?

Trevor is in trouble at school.

You are Trevor’s teacher. What is going through your mind when you place the call to Trevor’s parent?
You are Trevor’s parent. What is going through your mind when you get the call from Trevor’s teacher?
You are Trevor. What is going through your mind when your teacher tells you she’ll be calling your parents and when you hear the phone ring?

What did the experience look like from the perspective of each participant? How would perspectives impact each person’s choice of behavior as they deal with the problem? One of the common feelings is fear. Maybe the teacher doesn’t like delivering bad news, especially when she doesn’t know the parent and isn’t sure how he will react. Maybe the call upsets the parent who is also having problems with the child at home and he is worried that you think he is a bad parent.  Maybe…Trevor is scared about being punished both at school and at home,. He knows the home punishment will be physical.

Fear and insecurity are major impediments to developing a relationship. We do not know what the parent’s earlier experience with school has been and how they view schools as an institution and teachers in general. But we can imagine what it may be like for parents to get dressed for a meeting at school, to go into the building, check in at the office, walk down the hall, wait until it is time to go in, walk into the classroom, sit down across from the teacher, and then listen to what she has to say about their child. Many things could be going through the parent’s mind- and your mind- to make you both distrustful and on edge.  This fear and insecurity can manifest in defensiveness with a poor choice of words, harsh language, aggressive body language and facial expressions, raised voices, and, in the extreme, threats of violence, and it interferes with meeting the goal: to help the child take responsibility for his actions and do better in the future.

The Good Before the Bad

Since teachers are responsible for keeping parents informed about their children’s progress, successes, and transgressions, they need excellent communication skills. Trevor’s situation would be more comfortable and productive if the teacher had already experienced a few positive interactions with the parent. Casual and newsy communications help the teacher and the parent become familiar with each other. The interactions reduce those understandable fears and develop a level of trust that lets them work as a team for the child.  The trick is to use the positional power that comes with being the teacher through a lens of empathy and compassion.

The goal then is to do things that set up a foundation of trust that creates a working partnership between teacher and parents, which ultimately benefits the child. Here are some ways to do this.

  • For younger students, make home visits or send them postcards before school starts.
  • Send home a welcome letter that expresses your hopes and expectations for your year together and that invites parents to participate.
  • Use a system of student agenda books or folders sent home daily that includes homework assignments, notices, personal notes, and a place for parents and teachers to communicate with each other.
  • Write or have the children write a class newsletter or Friday note to take home.
  • Design homework assignments that involve parents in a fun, meaningful way.
  • Host a mini open house for your classroom or grade level a couple of times during the year.
  • Use parents as classroom volunteers to help with projects, read with students, chaperone field trips, share their knowledge, talents, and jobs.
  • Invite parents to visit the classroom for small performances such as dramatic presentations of a story or an author’s tea.
  • Welcome parents to parent/teacher conferences by putting chairs and a desk outside the classroom where they can wait.
  • Include some books and school projects for them to look at while they are waiting, and maybe a bowl of hard candy for a dry, nervous mouth. (This works for you, too!)
  • And one of my favorites…the good news contact: make random phone calls and send notes home that celebrate the child’s successes or to just show appreciation for who they are.

Parents are concerned about their children, and so are we; they have a profound responsibility, and so do we; they know a lot about what makes their child tick, and so do we; they want a bright future for their child, and so do we. It is just plain natural that we should work together as a team.

Next

Part Two: Preparing for a successful parent call or meeting.

*Parents is a generic term for those who have custodial responsibility for the child.

 

Back to School: Do you have highly sensitive and introverted students in your classroom?

The odds are great that you do.

And odds are you have a few students in your classroom who are both highly sensitive and introverted.

We know this because experts who study personality types agree that:

Given these odds, it’s to everyone’s benefit that as we prepare for a new school year, we think how we can meet the needs of our highly sensitive and introverted students, so they can feel safe, secure, and have their gifts appreciated.

Let’s start with some ways to recognize these students. They…

  • Deliberate internally (inside their head) before coming to a conclusion.
  • Are slower to raise their hand to answer questions and offer ideas.
  • Take more time to answer when called on.
  • Better show their insight and creativity in solitary activities such as writing, art activities, and individual assignments and projects.
  • Enjoy talking to or playing with one or two people at a time and not a large group.
  • Thrive with quiet alone time.
  • Dislike presenting in front of a group.
  • Might look like they aren’t paying attention or are day-dreaming.
  • Have a strong sense of fairness, and right and wrong, and a want to help others.

Introverted or Shy?

As you read the list, you may find yourself thinking, this sounds like my shy students. It’s important to understand that introversion and sensitivity are not the same as shyness. Shyness is fear and anxiety in social situations. Introverts might seem or are treated as shy because they are quiet while they listen to others, process internally, and then reflect on ideas and possibilities. It’s not surprising that introversion in a typical noisy, busy classroom, where answering questions quickly and moving on is part of the daily pressure to keep instruction on pace, is often misunderstood as shyness or even slowness. But introverts and extroverts are simply wired differently and therefore react differently to stimuli. The brain of an introvert would feel pleasantly stimulated by solitary activities, while the brain of the extrovert would be pleasantly stimulated by a higher level of sensory input. And both personalities need the chance to merely feel and act like themselves without feeling they are lacking.

Are today’s schools biased in favor of extroverts? Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, believes schools are biased against introverts who are usually more quiet, introspective, and sensitive, and, as a result, overpowered by those more extroverted students who love to talk, work in teams, brainstorm, and to think out loud. She wishes teachers could see inside the mind of the sensitive child, the rich world where the creativity, wisdom, empathy, and compassion lie. There are ways you can do this.

Suggestions to respect and accommodate all students –introverted and extroverted – in the classroom.

  • At the beginning of each year, plan activities to get to know your students as unique people, and use this information to develop a feel for where they are on the introvert/extrovert and highly sensitive continuum.
  • Teach and model an acceptance of the diverse learning and communication styles in your classroom.
  • Create areas and times of the day for students to work quietly and by themselves. (Quiet reading and writing time is a welcome break for those who are easily over stimulated.)
  • Cooperative learning isn’t the best approach for every student and for every lesson. Provide a balance of large group, small group, partner, and independent work so both introverted and extroverted students have a learning environment conducive to their thinking and learning style. Build these into your classroom structure so your students come to expect and feel more comfortable in each setting. They can surprise you with their insight if given the right setting to share it with you.
  • Allow students to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways, and adopt a broad definition of classroom participation that goes beyond participation in discussions. One-to-one conferences with the teacher are particularly revealing.
  • Slow down the instructional pace by giving more wait time for students to think before answering and resist the urge to call on the first child to raise his or her hand. Be patient and wait until more students raise their hands.
  • Avoid putting introverted students on the spot to answer questions or read in front of the group.  Let the learning setting create the confidence and opportunity they need.
  • Use a variety of student response strategies, such as think, pair, share where the first step allows time to reflect quietly on their own to gather their thoughts, where step two allows them to try out their ideas with another person, and step three gives them a chance to share with the larger group the ideas they have thoughtfully considered beforehand.
  • Use power writing as a way for students to process before they must answer. (Take three minutes to write all you know about… or, Take five minutes to respond to this quote…)
  • Hold regular class meetings where each person is given the opportunity to speak, one child at a time has the floor during discussions, and the emphasis is on thoughtful solutions to problems and respect for the ideas and perspectives of others.

And work to understand yourself better. Figure out where you are on the introvert/extrovert and sensitivity scale. Then consider how this personality style affects your teaching. What adjustments could you make so all children have a chance to thrive and shine in your classroom?

 

 

 

Hazing: A sugarcoated name for bullying and assault

A Case of Rights vs Rites

We owe it to our students to call it what it is.

Hazing is violent behavior we’d never excuse under its real name: bullying and assault.

Hazing is tacitly permitted and spans the violence continuum from taunting, extortion, and humiliation, to forced substance abuse, and physical and sexual assault. Like all bullying, hazing is an abuse of power and it negatively affects both girls and boys. The problem continues to exist because students are afraid to report it, it flies under the radar of adult scrutiny, or adults are aware of it and do nothing. Looking the other way and this veil of secrecy provide the perfect mix for uncontrolled, destructive behavior under the guise of tradition and good fun.

The traditions and myths surrounding hazing allow it to enjoy a protected place in our culture, not just in our colleges, but also in our public and private elementary and secondary schools. Status as a cultural norm, which considers negative initiation rites benign and even character building, is an imposing barrier. The norm is strengthened even more by student peer pressure and the need for acceptance into the group. The effect is students routinely give up their rights and quietly suffer humiliation and put themselves in emotional and physical danger in exchange for the chance to be included. They don’t see a way out of going along with the initiation rites if they want to be able to take part in the group activity they enjoy. We need to develop and present a new mindset and set up policies that give students a way out.

Who is in charge of eliminating hazing?

Clearly we are, just as we are responsible for maintaining academic standards and establishing a safe school climate. The adult staff is accountable to do no harm and to allow no harm be done to their students. Coaches and advisors for sports teams, music groups, social activities, and clubs have a specific responsibility to keep safe the students under their care by prohibiting and reporting hazing that occurs on or off school property and during or outside of school hours. If a college fraternity chapter can be suspended from campus for life for hazing abuses and members charged with assault, coaches and other adults who allow our young students to be abused and those students who abuse others should face comparable consequences.

The reality is most students want us to protect them from hazing. They don’t want to be victims and many don’t want to be put in the role of victimizer. They want adults to intervene, hazers disciplined, the police called, school leaders who are educated about the underground of initiation rites, and hazing replaced with positive experiences.

Adult culpability for what happens to their students is a wake up call to all elementary and secondary school staff. The Ohio State Education Department takes this responsibility seriously. Their anti-hazing code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. They have placed hazing into the realm of a crime where it belongs.

But students fear nothing will change, and some adults justify hazing, because it is difficult to break down well-established traditions. Yet we have repeatedly proven we can change school climate and school culture. Think of what used to be ingrained in the culture and policies of our schools: students segregated by race, separate schools and classrooms for students with disabilities, different courses and graduation and post graduation expectations for boys and girls, rigid academic tracking from a young age, the use of corporal punishment for discipline. From experience, we know that the most effective way to change the status quo is to get the cooperation of those involved and to take a clear and firm position together.

In the unique case of hazing, school policies, staff, students, and families need to be clear and firm that no emotional or physical violence, couched as a harmless initiation rite for acceptance into a group, regardless of tradition, will be allowed, ignored, or excused. Any anti-bullying policy that does not specifically address hazing is incomplete.

Instead we will:

  • Create a written code of conduct for extra-curricular groups that specifically prohibits any form of hazing. (See Evergreen Colorado HS anti-hazing sample policy below.)
  • Bring parents together to review the code and to enlist their support for its success.
  • Consistently publicize and enforce the anti-hazing policy.
  • Create a confidential hotline so hesitant students and parents can report hazing to the authorities.
  • And as our new mindset, offer positive, respectful adult leadership and collaborative activities to welcome new students into a group.

Sample policy

Evergreen Colorado High School Anti-Hazing Policies

Evergreen High School prohibits recognized groups, organizations, athletic teams or those that attend events or activities sponsored, organized or supported in any way by those organizations, from hazing members, prospective members, or other persons seeking to obtain benefits or services from any of these organizations.

Hazing is any action or activity, with or without consent from a person, whether conducted on or off Evergreen High School property, which is designated to or has the reasonably foreseeable effect of humiliation, denigrating, offending, physically or mentally abusing or exposing to danger a person, as a condition, directly or indirectly, of the person’s consideration for, continuation in, admission to, membership in, participation in activities of, receipt of benefits or services from, an organization or group.

Part 1: An end to zero-tolerance policies and the “school-to-prison pipeline”

A Return to Common Sense and Reason

The US Department of Education recently condemned zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Time and experience have proven zero-tolerance policies-where all degrees of discipline issues are treated in a rigid, cause-effect way-are ineffective at reducing violence and teaching our students a better way to live and treat others. With this shift in public policy, we are now ready to build a more humane and hopeful approach to school discipline and violence prevention, one where reasonable and consistent discipline policies and practices build relationships and a positive school climate, not destroy them.

Where did the idea of using zero-tolerance in our schools come from?

The zero-tolerance policies enacted in the 1990s were a well-intentioned response to a growing concern about the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol, and firearms on school campuses. The Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 implemented a nationwide law mandating a one-year expulsion for students who were proven to have brought a firearm or other weapon to school. Over time, some states and school districts expanded zero-tolerance policies to include a range of behaviors including illegal drugs, insubordination, and bullying and they became the disciplinary approach of choice from kindergarten to high school.

Unfortunately after all these years, researchers have found that such punitive threats do little to deter violent behavior and often exacerbate a problematic situation. Automatic rigid penalties such as suspensions and expulsions:

  • Prevent schools from considering context and individual circumstances.
  • Damage relationships and chip away at the climate of the school.
  • Are disproportionate to race and socio-economic status, and students with special educational needs. 
  • Encourage adults to give up on “problem” students.
  • Do nothing to encourage interventions that could help change students’ behavior, save them from dropping out of school, and keep them from continuing to act violently and winding up in jail.
  • Can look foolishly misguided as in the case of the suspension of a kindergarten child for bringing a weapon to school (a dinner knife), or a first grader for sexually harassing a classmate (kissing her during recess).

By ignoring context and circumstances, zero-tolerance policies had a disproportional and negative impact on African-American and Latino students and were often a path to more trouble and imprisonment. The policies disregarded the reality that a student’s life experiences and the type of community he lives in profoundly affect his understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior. At times home and neighborhood give a context for behavior that would be out of line in a school and, in the same way, school approved behaviors might seem foreign and impractical given the home environment.

Children face an internal conflict in trying to live successfully in these two very different worlds. This results in the alienation of students raised in toxic environments and who find themselves in a school culture that contradicts their own norms. They get in trouble more easily and more often for using the survival skills they have adopted in response to a culture of violence where emotional and physical force is the everyday means of dealing with conflict. Their behavior is as much about self-preservation as it would be for a soldier in a war zone.

It bears reinforcing that when we consider circumstances it does not mean we accept inappropriate behavior: Violent and disruptive behavior are still serious and must be stopped. Standards for behavior are kept high, all misbehavior is consistently addressed, and the safety of students and staff remains the top priority. Yet we are mindful that every inappropriate behavior is not of the same seriousness and does not deserve the same response.

One-Size Discipline Does Not Fit All

The more alienated the student, the greater the feeling of powerlessness and the greater the effort needed to reach out to help him develop that critical missing connection to the school and to those in it. So, we can be more effective by being more thoughtful. In place of zero-tolerance policies we can use our broad understanding of violence as a continuum of behaviors- emotional and physical, subtle to obvious – to address violence in all its forms and to understand its patterns. Then we can intervene early. And when we do intervene we can be compassionate and fair in our expectations, and work with students to replace their learned violent behaviors with socially acceptable alternatives, each according to need. It’s both logical and natural to treat individuals in the way that is most effective for them, to meet them where they are in their development, to help them grow in self-discipline and self-control, and to learn constructive ways to get their needs met. We take this approach to skill building for academics, learning an instrument, in sports, etc, so why not for behavior? We consider context and understand each circumstance and that the child is still learning.

Inconsistent responses to acts of violence (a behavior is okay for one group of students but not for another, or the behavior is not always addressed) and “ zero tolerance” policies that react rigidly to categories of behavior cause students and families to regard school rules and staff with skepticism. They see school and the administrators and teachers as unresponsive and even discriminatory. They lose faith in the educational system, or see their preconceived opinions about the school reinforced. These missteps undermine our efforts to build the trust with children and their families needed to change inappropriate behavior.

And to what end? A comprehensive policy research report on the effect of zero tolerance policies and practices found “an almost complete lack of evidence that zero tolerance is among the strategies capable of accomplishing that objective (reducing violent and illegal behavior). Researcher Russell Skiba concluded, “One can only hope for the development and application of more effective, less intrusive alternatives for preserving the safety of our nation’s schools.”

A Better Way

School education lawyer Dean Pickett understood the concept of context when he called for a more reasonable approach, which involves “zero tolerance for behavior but not zero thinking.” The addition of thinking and using our judgment allows administrators and other school adults to consider context and circumstances, and intent and history of the student to decide the most fair and effective response.

These fair responses offered through caring, concerned relationships are what we owe our students and how we can best effect change in their attitudes and behavior. This is what I would want if I found myself in trouble.

 

 

 

A Must See/Must Share Cyberbullying Video!

Cyberbullying – What does it look like and what can we do about it?

Students, teachers, parents, counselors, social media users…everyone needs to see this engaging and spot-on video posted by Upworthy.com from DeleteCyberbullying.eu

It will help us and our kids

prevent, avoid, and deal with

cyberbullying.

You might also want to see some of my related posts:

Slam Books and Social Media

Cyber-bating Teachers: A sign of broken relationships

3,500 views this year! Who would have guessed?

Is anyone listening?

Writing is a solitary pursuit and publishing your writing is a leap of faith. Without a direct connection with an audience it is easy to wonder…Do people care about school climate? Do I have something important to say about school violence? Do I offer new insights that help us improve the school experience for students? Do my posts inspire others to reevaluate and take action?

Thanks to this WordPress annual report of my blog activity for 2013, I know the answer is yes. Schoolclimate.com had 3,500 views this year. I had no idea so many people visited my site, especially since I am not the most prolific blogger and seem to average one post a month.

Blogger or Essayist?

Blogger probably isn’t the right word for what I do. I think I am more of an essayist. I don’t maintain my blog site regularly. I am inspired to write when I feel I have something important to say. It doesn’t have to be important with a capital I; it could just be a different perspective on an old topic or a new idea I had about something to try. Things that are thought-provoking, enlightening, and disturbing spur my posts. When I do write it is from my deep commitment to keep the conversation going and to generate positive change.

While I enjoyed writing each post, I am especially pleased that my most popular post was New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone. Eliminating sarcasm is a foundation for a school climate that teaches respectful communication and nurtures positive relationships among students and between teachers and students. The topic of sarcasm clearly resonated with readers and that tells us people do care about making our schools the emotionally and physically safe havens we owe our children.

So thanks and happy new year to my regular followers and to all the Internet searchers who found me. You made this a good year for schoolclimate.com. Energized by the stats, I will continue to write about topics that inspire me and I hope, in turn, interest and inspire you. In fact, I already have one brewing to start the new year!

Here is the WordPress.com 2013 annual statistics report for my blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Take back your power. No more “please.”

I used to say please. I don’t anymore.

I have red hair.

I wear glasses.

I have freckles.

Please don’t call me names.

I am short.

I stutter.

I have learning problems.

Please don’t make fun of me.

I don’t speak English well.

I have dark skin.

I am quiet around others.

Please don’t laugh when others taunt me.

I wear wrinkled clothes.

I get free lunch.

I like reading more than sports.

Please don’t try to embarrass me.

I am gay.

I live with my father.

I have few friends.

Please don’t gang up on me.

I used to be your friend.

I like the same boy that you do.

I don’t want to drink or smoke with you.

Please don’t write mean things about me.

I shouldn’t have to say please.

I am a person, like you are. I have feelings, like you do. I have rights, like we all have. You are not better than me.

I shouldn’t have to say anything.

But until it stops, I won’t say please.

HBO explores the Brandon McInerney-Larry King murder

The Renewed Interest

Lately, there has been a spike in the number of hits on my posts about the 2008 murder of Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney. At first puzzled why there was this renewed interest, I learned about HBO’s recently aired documentary, “Valentine Road.” I then sat down to watch it – with some trepidation. I hoped HBO had done a professional job of presenting the facts and raising the many core issues of the case. They did. It was an accurate and non-sensationalized exploration of the circumstances of Larry’s murder and the legal and social aftermath. Through videos, interviews with those involved – family members, friends, teachers, lawyers – and using court and police records, we see the polarization in the community over who was to blame and the agony of how to impose punishment.

The Story

The two boys: Fifteen year-old Larry was openly gay and cross dressed, Brandon was straight. Larry was multi-racial, Brandon was white. Larry was small with a slight build, Brandon was tall and athletic. Larry lived in a group facility for abused children. Brandon lived with his father and grandfather while his mother was in rehab for her drug addiction.

The basic facts of the incident were straightforward and undisputed: On February 12, 2008, fourteen year old Brandon McInerney brought a loaded gun to E. O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, CA, got up from his seat in the computer lab, stood behind his classmate, Larry King, who was sitting at a computer, and shot him twice- point-blank-in the back of his head.  As Larry fell to the floor, Brandon dropped the gun and fled the school. Larry died two days later and Brandon was charged with first- and -second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and a hate crime. The district attorney was trying him as an adult and a conviction of first-degree murder carried up to a life sentence with no parole.

The Court Case

The case finally came to trial three years later and after nine weeks it ended with a hung jury. The members of the jury had no doubt Brandon had premeditated and carried out Larry’s murder. Their issues were over the fairness of trying a just-turned 14-year-old as an adult and the perceived circumstances that “drove” Brandon to take such a violent and permanent solution to a problem.

The Mitigating Factors

The mitigating factors proposed by the attorneys revolved around Larry’s increased use of make-up and dressing in girls clothes, the unappreciated open crush he had on Brandon and their unpleasant interactions, the growing tensions between the two, the lack of teacher and administrative interventions in the obviously escalating conflict, accusations of bullying and harassment by both parties, and Brandon’s state of mind when he shot Larry. Other factors on the jury’s mind were: the family backgrounds of both boys, which included foster and institutional care, physical and emotional abuse, family violence and parental drug use; the easy availability of guns; and the role of a local hate group.

After the mistrial trial, Brandon was again charged as an adult for first degree murder. To avoid another exhausting, contentious trial, Brandon pleaded guilty to second degree murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. At the sentencing, conflicting Save Brandon and Justice for Larry buttons were pinned to the sea of onlookers.

The Legacy

What do you think? Would there have been a hung jury and so much public support for the killer if the circumstances were reversed and Brandon was the boy who was bi-racial and the boy who was gay/transgendered and dressed like a girl? Was Larry’s murder a hate crime? Should a 14-year-old who commits an adult level crime such as lying in wait to kill someone, be tried as a juvenile? How much weight should mitigating factors such as family life and bullying have in assessing blame and assigning consequences?

Watch “Valentine Road” on HBO GO, (Valentine Road Trailer), read my schoolclimate.com blog posts as I followed the case, read what others have written, look at the thought-provoking Valentine Road Discussion Guide, and most importantly, think about what we can do to avoid such a the tragedy in the future.

What’s your no bullying plan?

It’s a new school year, a clean slate.

You want to create a safe, encouraging, positive climate for learning. You want to develop a relationship of mutual respect among your students and between you and your students. You want your room to be a place that students enjoy coming to, where they cooperate, collaborate, and work hard.

Don’t miss the opportunity to establish, from day one of the new school year, that your classroom is a safe haven – a bully-free zone. Students need the adults in the school to enthusiastically and seriously lead this effort by word and deed. The message you want to send to your students is clear and firm…

  • We all have a right to be treated with respect and care.
  • We do not allow members of our school community to use power over others to hurt them in any way, emotionally or physically.
  • We do not condone bullying by standing by doing nothing or laughing and encouraging the bully.
  • We tell an adult if someone is bothering us or if we see bullying happening to someone else.

The best way to convey your commitment to a healthy classroom climate is to get your students talking about what respect, disrespect, and bullying look like. They already have the answers in their heads and hearts; they know what is okay and what isn’t, even if they might not always seem like they do.

It’s a simple process that needn’t take long. Ask your students to work with you to set the guidelines for acceptable classroom behavior. Through a meaningful group dialog about how to treat each other, they can decide what they want their classroom to feel like and then commit to making it happen.

So instead of starting the new school year with a pre-made list of class rules, actively engage your students in this critical discussion. Their ideas about what respect looks like can easily be made into brief statements of positive classroom behaviors and attitudes that show the goodness they have inside them.

Now your students are an integral part of your no bullying plan! You have a common purpose!

They have described the positive classroom climate you want for them and that they deserve.

New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone

Worth reposting as you get ready to start a new school year…

Witty humor or caustic mockery? Good-natured ribbing or anger with a smile?

Sarcasm. Widely used and widely misunderstood. Some people defend it while others condemn it. Is the line between sarcasm and innocent humor really that fine?  Not if you look at what makes sarcasm unique.

We know it when we hear it.

Read these statements first with sarcasm and then as if you honestly mean them.

  • (Student says she’ll bring the book in tomorrow.) Right, that’s going to happen!
  • (Teacher was talking to a student.) It’s going to be a great year with you in my class.
  • (There are papers scattered under a desk.) I love the way you always put your papers away so neatly.
  • (Student couldn’t answer a question.) Keep this up and you’ll be a big success when you grow up.
  • (Class has been doing poorly on tests.) I’m sure everyone is going to study hard tonight.
  • (Student has a disciplinary note to give his parents.) I know you’ll have your parents sign that letter like you always do.
  • (Teacher is looking at a messy paper.) Thank you. Your essay is  so neat and legible.
  • (Teacher is frustrated with the noise level.) I’m so glad I get to start each day with all of you. I must have a guardian angel.

Hear the difference? That core of insincerity and meanness? The little dig?

Sarcasm is saying the opposite of what we mean; there is an intentional contradiction between the literal meaning of the words and the social and emotional intent. It is a putdown couched in humor meant to embarrass or hurt, motivated by negative emotions – frustration, disgust, disdain, futility, anger, even hate – communicated through the context, the words chosen, and the inflection used.

Why is sarcasm one of the deadly sins of relationships?

Because it comes out of left field like a stomach punch, with enough of a grain of truth to breed insecurity. It puts us off-balance, even adults, and is particularly hurtful when aimed at children who expect adults to speak the truth. Sarcasm is verbal aggression with a smile, a sideways way to express criticism, which is actually more hurtful than the honest criticism it replaces. It is intentionally dishonest and kids need honesty to feel secure. It damages relationships instead of  strengthening them.

Power differential + sarcasm = bullying + not funny

Teacher-to-student bullying, the same as student-on-student bullying, but with more emphasis on the power differential, is defined as  “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress.”

The lack of understanding of the difference between humor and sarcasm and the venting it provides, and the false belief that it produces results, perpetuate the use of sarcasm for classroom management, student reprimands, and motivation. Yet, fear of embarrassment or ridicule is not a healthy motivator. Younger children and those with learning disabilities or Asperger’s syndrome will just be confused. With older students, sarcasm might get a laugh from the other children and short-term compliance from the target. But at what cost? A child’s feelings of self-worth, sense of security, trust in adults, and ability to concentrate and learn? A backlash of resentment and retaliation towards the teacher? Modeling the very disrespectful, unkind behavior that we complain about?

Good-natured humor, unlike sarcasm, is not mean or targeted at a specific person or group. It is a shared enjoyment of a comical or ironic situation, cleverness, or wordplay, motivated by our basic need to have fun. Laughing together helps us connect with each other and strengthens our bond. It is healthy, even necessary, especially in classrooms where students are our captive audience.

How do we create a no sarcasm zone?

We know it when we hear it, so we can do something about sarcasm if we:

  • Evaluate and change our own behavior.
  • Make sure we are honest and kind, with pure motives.
  • Teach and model better ways of being.
  • Treat students and their families with genuine compassion and respect.

Albuquerque City Schools offers this advice.

Replace the old way…Teacher communicating with sarcasm: “My, my, my. Aren’t you a smart class. It looks like by age 12 you’ve all finally learned to find your seat and sit down after the bell. And to think it only took you half of the morning to do it. I don’t know if there is another class in the entire school as smart or quick as you guys.”

With a new way…Teacher communicating honestly without sarcasm: “One of the expectations of this class is to be seated and ready to go to work when the bell rings. I appreciate those of you who were quietly seated when the bell rang today.”

Exactly. Straightforward, helpful communication, with no victims. 

Bullying happens during the summer, too.

School’s out! Let the fun begin!

Not so fast.

Sure, summer vacation brings with it the promise of nice weather, more freedom to choose what to do, and participation in fun activities. And if your child was a target of bullying at school, she might be relieved to be out of that hostile environment for a few months.

Yet the sad reality is she isn’t safe from bullying when school is out. During the summer, young children and teens are often supervised less closely and for longer periods of time in new surroundings with unfamiliar children and adults. The expectations for behavior may not be clear and there are no established relationships to make the group a positive community. This mix of factors provides ample opportunity for bullies to choose targets and make their summer miserable.

Where does summer bullying happen?

  • At day camps
  • Sleep away camps
  • Community recreational and enrichment programs
  • Playgrounds
  • Neighborhoods
  • Shopping centers
  • Swimming pools
  • Sports programs
  • Childcare centers
  • Buses
  • And on the Internet

What can parents do?

There are some things parents can do to reduce the chance their children might be the target of mean, hurtful, abusive behavior.

  1. Only consider summer activities where the children are well-supervised by trained, caring adults and they value and create a respectful environment.
  2. Would an anime workshop be a better choice than soccer camp? Be considerate of your children’s likes and dislikes. Offer options and ask them what they would like to do. Avoid putting them into a situation where they have little interest and may perform poorly. This can set them up as a target for bullying from the more skilled children.  It is empowering to be with others who share their interests.
  3. If possible arrange for your children to attend summer programs with some of  their friends.
  4. Find out what the program or camp’s bullying prevention policy is and how they actively ensure a bullying-free experience for their campers. (See Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)
  5. Talk to the program director. Ask questions such as: What do you do to intentionally model and build a culture of acceptance and empathy; who can a child go to if there is a problem; may a child call home when he wants to;  and how are incidents handled and how are parents involved.
  6. If your child was victimized at school, talk to whomever will be working with him and explain the situation. Ask what they can do to help your child have a successful summer experience.
  7. Cyber-bullying is a problem during the school year and even more so when children have with hours of free time, often unsupervised. Add to this how social networking sites are unregulated and any damage done by a text or picture is immediate. Set ground rules for Internet use, discuss proper and safe use of social networking, and check in to see what they are doing.
  8. Talk to your children regularly about their day-to-day experiences in their summer program and be on the lookout for symptoms they are being bullied, such as the child has stomach aches or complains of not feeling well, or tells you he just doesn’t want to go to the program or camp anymore.
  9. Listen to your child and find out what is going on. Report any concerns you have to the camp counselors and program directors. Remember there is a difference between tattling and reporting a problem where someone is being hurt.

But, there is another place where children are bullied, one you might not have considered.

You might not have considered the possibility that your child is being bullied at home by a brother or sister. We are increasingly aware of the damage done by sibling bullying, especially since the recent publication of a report in the  Journal of Pediatrics on The Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

If there is no parent available, who is watching your children during the summer?  Have you appointed an older child to be in charge of his siblings? How does he treat his charges?

Home should be a safe haven, where we are unconditionally loved and cared for. But it isn’t a safe haven if parents condone or passively allow their children to boss, wield power over, verbally abuse, and physically hurt each other. This kind of sibling violence in our homes is as harmful to a child’s well-being and feeling of security as the bullying that occurs on the school bus or in the cafeteria. In fact, some think it is more harmful.

Sibling bullying is not the same as everyday squabbles or disagreements that arise. A level of conflict is expected within families. It is natural and provides a chance to learn how to consider the needs of others and compromise to reach a solution. But sibling bullying is very different. It is when one – or more than one – sibling is always the aggressor and another is always the victim, and the abuse is repeated and deliberate. Such violence in what is supposed to be a loving relationship leaves the child confused, feeling powerless and unworthy, even unlovable, and models an unhealthy view of what a loving relationship of mutual respect and concern looks like. And most striking is the puzzling reality that what would never be accepted between peers in a school is accepted as a normal part of life when it happens at home between siblings.

Why is this the case? In the  Journal of Pediatrics report, Corinna Jenkins Tucker, the lead author of the paper and an associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire, sums up the problem: “Historically, sibling aggression has been unrecognized, or often minimized or dismissed, and in some cases people believe it’s benign or even good for learning about conflict in other relationships.”

Preventing and Intervening

Bullying is never healthy. There are many things parents can do to prevent bullying behavior between their children and to intervene if it already exists.  The first hurdle, is for parents to admit sibling bullying is not okay, and to then take an honest look at the relationships and behavioral patterns among their children. To set the expectations and a cooperative tone, bring everyone together for a thoughtful, respectful conversation about what is and is not acceptable in their house. Ask the children to name okay and not okay behavior. Write down their ideas and make an agreement to follow these guidelines. Follow through and be consistent in your expectations.

A child who is bullying a sibling needs to be held accountable, just as she would be if she bullied someone in school. A parent must tell her to stop the violent behavior, immediately, and tell the victim that being bullied is not her fault. At this time it is also wise to talk to the child you have placed in charge of her siblings about how she feels about the responsibility she was given, and re-examine and, if possible, adjust the arrangement you have made for child care.

With an open dialogue, and clear expectations and sensitivity to all the parties, you have a good chance of removing home from the list of places where children get bullied during the summer.

Check out:

Summer Bullying Prevention Tips For Your Family

Parents: Don’t ignore sibling bullying, study warns

Bullying Prevention: Camps Take a Stand (Sample Parent Letter)

Association of Sibling Aggression With Child and Adolescent Mental Health

Part Two: From Bystander to Ally – learning how to speak out

Speaking out takes practice.

The only way to develop more allies is to educate students and adults about the roles they play in bullying. Participating in bullying role plays and discussing it with each other sensitizes everyone to the perspectives of all the players. This fosters empathy and compassion for the victim, builds a feeling of efficacy – I can do something to make this better – and creates a support group of peers who want to do the right thing. It teaches decision-making, the effect of our choices, builds character, and might even be the catalyst for a child’s self-realization that he is bullying others. Students come away with the powerful understanding that their choices affect how they and their classmates are treated.

For this understanding to translate into a change of attitudes and behavior, students must hear and believe these five messages from adults:

  • You are not responsible for the actions of the bully.
  • You do not have to live with it.
  • We want you to report bullying.
  • We promise, if you are being bullied, we will never leave you to handle it on your own.
  • Reporting a serious problem is not tattling.

To show you mean it, make posters of these five messages to post around the school.

Strategies that empower

With these messages clearly delivered and received, we can teach students to take a stand to not join in bullying using strategies that convey confidence, show resistance, and assess situations. Role plays offer practice for:

  • How to avoid being a victim.
  • How to assess danger and act wisely.
  • Ways to stand up to a bully.
  • The exact things to say to the bully.

Doing the right thing takes personal courage and the ability to assess the situation. Acting as an ally or defender does not mean trying to break up a fight or getting into an altercation with a bully, and if you are the victim, standing up to a bully at that moment is not always the best choice. There is no set approach to stopping bullies in their tracks; specific circumstances and those involved determine the nature of each interaction. Bullies are often physically and mentally strong, act in groups, and have a sense of entitlement that is resistant to correction. Standing up to them does not always work and the target or ally can get hurt in the process. Sometimes the best thing is to get away and seek help immediately. To encourage reporting, some schools have successfully set up bullying hotlines to give students a secure way to report problems.

Victims should only stand up to a bully and an ally or group of allies should only intervene face-to-face when it feels safe to do so. Then they can firmly tell the perpetrator:

  • Stop it!
  • Don’t call her that.
  • That isn’t funny.
  • What you are saying (doing) is mean.
  • I’m getting an adult.

Allies in cyberspace

The roles students play in cyberbullying are similar to face-to-face bullying, but cyberbullying requires additional cautions when you consider how public it is. Social media makes it easy to do, bullies can share photographs and cheerleaders can make anonymous comments, and the size of the potential audience is immense. The cyberbully feels protected and powerful because she does not have to face her victim, while the impact on the victim is immediate, widespread, and devastating.

First, young people need strategies to avoid being a victim of or encouraging cyber-bullying:

  • Choose social media sites and friends wisely.
  • Think about and be careful choosing what to post.
  • Do not post, text, or email anything you don’t want the whole world, including your parents, to see.
  • Do not take part in or cheer on cyberbullying.
  • Use privacy settings and do not share passwords.
  • Do not respond to cyberbullying.

Second, they need to know what to do if either they or someone they know is a victim of cyberbullying. A cyber ally:

  • Tells a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult right away.
  • Keeps evidence of cyberbullying.
  • Blocks the offender.
  • Reports it to school.

Positive action

There is safety in numbers, especially for young people who are greatly influenced by peers. The goal is to create an active majority of allies, adults and students, that knows what bullying looks like and the role they can choose to play. When people refuse to take part or to look the other way, and instead report incidents of bullying to adults who can help, the ally peer group grows and the school climate changes to one of positive action where bullying behavior is no longer tolerated.

Part One: From Bystander to Ally – the roles we play in bullying

Bullying involves more than just the bully and the victim.

My last post was on the Pepsi Max test drive commercial and how thinking that mistreating another person is funny and not speaking up to denounce what offends us encourage bullying behavior. PepsiCo, the YouTube audience, bloggers, commentators, and the business groups and ad agency reviewers who praised the commercial all played a role in perpetuating the myth that bullying, if done “in fun,” is okay.

This happens in school, too, when bystanders, both students and adults, choose to ignore or encourage this type of violence, and often think it is funny. But bullying isn’t funny. It is abuse committed repeatedly against a victim that escalates over time, where the perpetrator appears to enjoy the power to intimidate and hurt. It shows a lack of empathy, compassion, and respect for others. It is predator behavior and we are charged morally and legally to prevent it from happening, and to take swift action when it does.

What role do we choose?

Once we accept that bullying is a type of violence and is a problem in our schools, where do we start? Bullying prevention efforts begin by developing an understanding of what violence is, the forms it takes, and why it is hurtful. Then, to change attitudes and behavior, students and teachers need a breakdown of the specific ways we participate in bullying:

  • Victim (target of the bullying)
  • Perpetrator and co-perpetrator (the bullies)
  • Ally (defender of the target)
  • Bystander (is aware it is happening)
  • Audience (congregates and watches)
  • Cheerleader (actively encourages the violence)

Each of these roles is a choice we make as an individual and each has an impact on the continuation of bullying. The perpetrator, cheerleader, and ally choose to take a lead role and openly encourage or discourage the bullying. They make a decision to do something. The bystander and audience take what appears to be, but isn’t, a passive role. They make a conscious choice to not do anything. Taking no action one way or the other is not a neutral position. Inaction is a decision to allow the bullying to continue.

What do these roles look like in face-to-face bullying?

The perpetrator and co-perpetrators decide on a target, someone they perceive as weaker and more vulnerable than they are. They make a decision to tease, demean, threaten, dominate, and hurt the victim, and then they corner and attack.

Cheerleaders actively encourage the attack by verbally egging on the bully, suggesting things to do to the victim, laughing and cheering, and verbally abusing the victim. The perpetrator and cheerleaders feed off of each other and escalate the violence. Cheerleaders can easily cross the line and become co-perpetrators.

A bystander is aware of or actually witnesses the bullying, and the audience stands by and watches the bullying happen. In both cases they do nothing to intervene and help the victim. Their choice allows the violence to continue and, by their silence, they become accomplices.

An ally or defender is a bystander or member of the audience who makes a decision to do something to stop the bullying. It could even be a cheerleader or co-conspirator who has a change of heart and realizes it is wrong. The ally steps in and advocates for the victim by telling the bully to stop, helping the victim get away from the situation, and telling an adult what happened.

Adult and student allies who take positive action to support or defend the victim, and victims who speak up for themselves are the answer to reducing bullying in our schools. Once we know the important role we can play, we can become an ally.

Next: Part Two of From Bystander to Ally is about learning how to speak out.

Pepsi commercial models bullying

You might have seen this. Millions have.

A man shows up to a car dealership and eyes a hot sports car. The salesman engages him in conversation and offers to put him behind the wheel to try it out. The buyer, a middle-aged, timid mini-van driver, says the Camaro would be too much car for him. He didn’t know if he could handle it. The salesman reassures him it is safe so, after he signs all the necessary papers, they go for a test drive.

Then all hell breaks loose. He drives like a maniac, speeding recklessly and doing stunts that would give anyone a heart attack. The panicked salesman looks afraid for his life. He tells the driver to slow down, to stop the car before he wrecks it, that he’s going to kill him, and when they finally screech into the car lot, the traumatized salesman bolts from the car to call the police.

But, wait the driver tells him. It’s not what you think it is. It’s a prank. We were just having some fun.

The joke is on him.

The “test driver” is actually Jeff Gordon, a professional NASCAR/Stock car driver, in disguise. Pepsi sent Jeff to a Chevy dealership to get him behind the wheel of a Camaro, to “scare the bejesus out of the salesman riding shotgun.” http://www.sportsgrid.com/nascar/jeff-gordon-pepsi/)

The Pepsi Max commercial immediately went viral on YouTube with 31 million views in one week and, as of March 22, it became the 14th most viewed ad of all time. The Internet is abuzz. (http://www.unrulymedia.com/article/22-03-2013/new-test-drive-ad-puts-fizz-back-pepsi)

The accolades pour in:

  • It’s genius.
  • The funniest video in years!
  • The car salesman’s reaction is hilarious.
  • That guy definitely got poned. (according to Internetslang.come poned is an acronym for “Powerfully owned, dominated”)

A controversy surfaces:

  • The ad world and many YouTube viewers say it’s all a fake.
  • That it was staged with actors and done with multiple takes.
  • A stunt driver stood in for Gordon.
  • Maybe Pepsi shouldn’t fake out consumers like that.

Some mixed feelings are voiced:

  • While it is definitely mean, it is funny.
  • This is cruel but also enjoyable and funny.
  • A sort of mean but incredibly funny prank by Pepsi and Jeff Gordon
  • It was funny as can be, but my heart still went out to the poor guy.

The real message is missed.

The upsetting issue is the negative message the prank sends: If something is funny, it excuses cruel, dominating, demeaning bullying behavior.

My first reactions to the video, like the woman whose heart went out to the poor guy, were shock and empathy for the salesman. I felt so bad for him, not only because he was scared, but also because his suffering was a joke played on him and shared with the world. Staged or not, what it showed, under the guise of humor, was outright mean and callous. This is the opposite of what we are trying to teach our children about how to treat each other; that they should go beyond the traditional Golden Rule to the Golden Rule of Empathy that teaches us to treat others as they want to be treated, with the understanding that everyone has basic unalienable rights that must be respected.

It all hinges on empathy.

The foundation of non-violence and respect for others is our ability to put ourselves in their shoes, to see things from their perspective, to feel this empathy for them, and then to act with compassion. Empathy allows us to evaluate what we see happening, make informed decisions, and choose our actions wisely. It leads to respectful and compassionate conduct toward others, something this Pepsi commercial, entertaining or not, does not model.

Bullying take s a village of bystanders.

I wish more people had spoken up about how cruel a practical joke the commercial was and were less concerned about whether  it was real or a fake, or if it was a good marketing tool to sell more Pepsi Max. The popularity of this ad illustrates the role of bystander in bullying, the audience that lets the bullying continue.

Say No to Armed Guards in Schools

A confusion of issues and solutions

We are back to school after the terrible tragedy of December 14th and the long holiday vacation. It was a juxtaposition of realities for families and school staff. And then the tragedy was high jacked by the gun industry, propelling us into a national discussion about arming school personnel to protect students and staff from a future violent rampage.

It is natural for caring people to want to do something, to take concrete action to prevent any more deaths of innocent school children and adults. We feel helpless otherwise. Every school district and building is likely reviewing its crisis prevention and emergency response plans, wondering how it would have handled the situation, making improvements, and holding practice drills. We are skittish.

But the discussion has gone askew. Putting guns in schools for protection is a dangerous diversion from the issues, a misguided over reaction that makes schools less safe. It is heartening to see the growing push back against this proposed solution.

Violence in Perspective

What we really need to do is to put what happened at Sandy Hook in perspective. Mass murder, or any murder, is still extremely rare at a school. It is horrible, but rare. And what happened at Sandy Hook is even more rare, as it does not fit the typical profile for the kind of deadly violence of a Columbine, Jonesboro, or West Paducah . This time the killer was not a disenfranchised, troubled, bullied male student from that school, hell-bent on notoriety or revenge. The Sandy Hook killer was an outsider, a troubled adult with a not yet revealed motive for choosing this elementary school to act out his mental breakdown.

But, yes! There is violence in schools and it spans the violence continuum from subtle to overt, from emotional to physical. The profile of school violence looks like this:

Common, every day – taunting, teasing, excluding, bullying, shoving, threatening, harassing, hazing…among students.

Rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by a student in that school.

Extremely rare: Incidents of killing of students and staff by an outside intruder.

The real issues

It is clear that deadly gun violence by a student or an outsider are a distant second and third behind the typical more subtle violence our students have to deal with in schools daily, and that they are very different issues. What happened at Sandy Hook is not a school issue; it is a cultural, societal, and legal issue.

Suggesting that the routine use of armed guards or armed staff at all schools is the answer to school violence is irrational. It intentionally clouds the broader issues of a culture that uses violence to settle problems and to dominate others, the control of access to assault and other weapons, and the insufficient availability of mental health services for those in need and their families. These are the issues Sandy Hooks begs us to face head on if we truly want to keep our children and ourselves safe from random mass-shootings, because they can and do happen anywhere – at the mall, on our streets, in a movie theater, in a fast food restaurant, at an office building, and in our homes. The answer is not to station armed guards where ever people gather.

We can do some concrete things to make our schools safe

  • Have a written school safety plan that includes prevention and crisis response that meets our specific needs. From what we know, the principal and staff had done this due diligence to protect the members of their school. They developed a thorough crisis prevention/intervention plan that included controlled, limited access to the school, a plan for lock down and sheltering in place in an emergency, and a plan for sheltering off site in the event of an evacuation; and they practiced the drill with their students and staff. Add to this the valor of the adults and cooperation of the children, and they can rest assured they had taken school safety seriously. An armed guard or a principal with a gun would likely not have stopped someone with a semi-automatic weapon that planned to break into a school to shoot people.
  • Review and address the safety needs of our particular school. Many schools, usually secondary schools, in high-risk areas or with a high incidence of verbal and physical threats, poor administrative leadership, assaults, gang activity, non-compliance with the staff and school code of conduct, etc. have responded to their specific needs with security measures such as campus guards, controlled entry, and metal detectors, no backpacks, and swift and consistent response to violent threats or acts. These precautions are proper in these situations, but not for all schools.
  • Continue to intentionally make our school a violence-free zone for every student and adult. Assess and address the kinds of subtle, hurtful violence students face every day. Be observant, listen to students, and report and deal with problems as they arise. We aren’t helpless. This is what we can do to make schools safer and more secure for our children.

For information on the violence continuum and how to use it to identify the needs in your school, please see my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

Helping our children cope with this tragedy

Rocked to the core

Today’s mass killing of innocent young children and adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School has rocked us to our core. On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, unthinkable act by a disturbed individual. It shatters our belief of school as a safe haven– a place where we can just be that we count on as being safe. I was an elementary principal and can only imagine the horror of the scene.

As we adults grieve and process what happened and seek information and motive, we need to keep in mind that our own children still count on us to protect and care for them emotionally and psychologically. This means acting as responsible adults who make their needs the priority.

Not all children will hear about the shooting, nor do they need to, especially young children, and we should avoid burdening them unnecessarily. If they are older, directly affected, or do ask questions, we can respond in a way that reduces anxiety and builds their sense of security. While devastating, we need to remember that school shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and that less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. This statistic does not make what happened easier to accept, but it does put it in perspective as we and our children cope.

What do we say?

If your children do ask questions about the tragedy or are exposed to media coverage, we can mitigate the negative effect…

  • First, sit down together.
  • Turn off the TV, computers, and cell phones.
  • Then reassure them, and yourselves, that they are safe, that school shootings are extremely rare.
  • Listen to their concerns.
  • Answer questions rationally and calmly, according to the child’s developmental level.
  • Give only the information asked for; grizzly details are harmful and produce more anxiety.
  • Keep the TV off while your children are around.
  • Create normalcy by doing your usual routines.
  • Love and be there for them.

And then we can search our souls for what we can and need to do to help our country heal and become a less violent place.

My child is being bullied

My child doesn’t want to go to school. The reason? She’s being bullied.

No child should have to suffer being bullied or need to change schools to feel safe. In the span of two weeks, in two separate medical offices, I had a conversation with a doctor and a nurse about bullying in schools. The doctor expressed concern for her own daughter and dismay at how her receptionist had to move her daughter to a new school to avoid being bullied.  The nurse’s situation was not new to me, as we had talked about her first-grade daughter being bullied by other girls while it was happening, and how she finally went to the principal for help.

It was when I recently asked her how things were going that she welled up and told me things had turned around and were going well, thanks to a principal who took her concerns seriously and acted immediately. She was so grateful for the principal’s actions and couldn’t say enough about how much she respected and appreciated her. She wished all schools were blessed with a principal of her professionalism and compassion. I had to agree.

But what struck me was her anxiety over reporting the incidents in the first place, and the fear of being labeled a problem mother who is always complaining, and the repercussions of getting a group of her daughter’s classmates in trouble. Even with her child refusing to do homework and read each night as she usually did, and not wanting to go to school, she wasn’t sure how to handle it. It was with her heart broken over the pain her daughter was enduring that she went to the principal and exposed the bullying.

She knows she did the right and necessary thing, but it was not easy. The message that bullying is not tolerated and should be reported had not reached her and likely not reached the other parents. It took courage and some outrage to walk through that school door and march into the principal’s office. It took facing up to her peers – the other children’s parents – and righting a terrible wrong. And she feared reprisal and making her daughter’s life even more difficult.

She shouldn’t have had to feel this way. Effective school climate efforts are intentional and boldly advertised: We don’t do that here. We are better people than that. We know how to treat others with empathy and respect. This message changes school culture to where the protection of our students’ physical, psychological, and emotional safety becomes the norm. It is critical, and in most states a legal requirement, to have a school policy on bullying and harassment, but effecting change in the school culture to make violence taboo takes a concerted and visible effort by the school leadership. A policy is not a piece of paper; it is a living thing. Teachers, students, staff, parents, and administrators all need education about the many forms of school violence and accept that none of it is okay. They need to know there is a difference between “telling on” someone and reporting an abuse, and that the administration will listen to their concerns and bring the problem to resolution. The bottom line is they need to believe the school will and has an obligation to make the bullying stop.

Schools need to get out this message: Please speak up. We will listen and make it right. We promise.

My nurse’s daughter is now happy at school, back to reading for enjoyment and tackling her schoolwork. Her mother is a hero; she will look back with pride and satisfaction to the time when she stepped up and used her personal power to protect her child. We now need to change the way we do things so that we welcome all parents when they come to us with a concern and that we thank them for helping us keep our promise that our school is a safe haven for their children.

Bullying happens in all schools at all grade levels. This incident was in a first grade in a very small parochial school. For more information on what bullying looks like and what you can do, check out my other posts and my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

Create a no competition zone

Competition…

  • For the teacher’s attention
  • grades
  • prizes
  • approval
  • To be first in line
  • most popular
  • richest
  • prettiest
  • coolest

…undermines the positive learning climate we need in our classrooms. We now realize the damage competition does if left unchecked and recent anti-bullying and safe school climate efforts require that we actively work to make school an emotionally, socially, and physically safe place for every child.

This is especially important when we look at the unique nature of a school. Children go to school to learn things they don’t know or cannot yet do. Progressing from not knowing to knowing is an incremental process that requires risk taking and tenacity, and makes students vulnerable. The classroom is not like an athletic field, where the players already have the requisite knowledge and skills to compete. Students are still in the process of learning and classroom competition does not build character or a strong work ethic. What does build good character is challenge and encouragement,  realistic goals, and working hard to reach them – and all the while treating others with respect and compassion.

School, then, is inherently stressful.

Everything we do in our classroom, intentionally or without knowing, affects the stress level. Healthy classrooms thrive on cooperation, collaboration, and mutual support, which reduce this stress. In this climate, under the patient guidance of the teacher and community of respectful peers, students feel safe and can keep trying until they master the material or skill.

But the stress of the organized competition we sometimes use to motivate children and of the competition that happens when children vie for social status compound each other. Being compared to others and put on the spot to perform breed insecurity and can interfere with a student’s academic learning. We have learned that competition in the classroom leads to diminished, not increased, personal and group effort. Why? Because it substitutes extrinsic motivation for development of  self-discipline and an internal desire to try hard and to do well. Students work only as hard and as long as it takes to reach the artificial goal, or, when they see they cannot win, they give up or act out.  The competition establishes a pecking order, and students do not learn how to cooperate and help each other learn.  Instead they become competitors and the climate of the classroom becomes more stressful and less conducive to learning.

This competition is harmful to school climate and our students because it…

  • Puts children in a heightened emotional state of flight, fight or freeze.
  • Causes fear and embarrassment.
  • Labels students as good or bad at something.
  • Leads to winners and losers.
  • Defines an in and an out crowd.
  • Creates a power imbalance.
  • Leads to emotional and physical bullying.
  • Fosters fear of failure and a tendency to give up.
  • Is a constant reminder of self-defeating beliefs children may already have.
  • Increases performance anxiety in highly driven students and those expected by themselves or others to be perfect.

Competition and rewards also reinforce existing social hierarchies where the more socially and academically adept get the bulk of the positive feedback, rewards, and sense of accomplishment. So, instead of a secure climate where all children feel safe and can learn, we get a climate that encourages…

  • Cheating to win or come out on top
  • Meanness to build social status
  • Callous attitudes toward the success of our peers
  • Reliance on extrinsic motivation
  • Praise junkies who expect rewards for their efforts – verbal or tangible

And it damages instead of builds the critical personal connections, sense of  community, and caring relationships students and teachers need.

What can teachers do to minimize competition?

  1. Create a classroom climate of respect and empathy where we always treat each other in a caring way.
  2. Refrain from comparing students or pitting them against one another, and from offering artificial rewards.

For example, teachers sometimes use competitive games, such as a spelling bee or Jeopardy-type activity, to teach or to review material for a test. We view competitive games as something students like, a break from the routine that adds a little excitement.  But these games often fail to teach much, and, even worse, they are emotionally and socially counterproductive. While competition does get students’ adrenaline pumping, it also heightens emotions and causes discord that make it hard to calm down after the competition is over. And it is difficult to justify a spelling bee for instructional purposes when there are more effective and considerate ways to teach spelling than to make students spell words out loud in front of their classmates.

It is true that some children might enjoy spelling bees (usually the best spellers), but more find them just one more opportunity to fail…with an audience. And if not necessary, why use a teaching strategy that causes anxiety and taints the atmosphere?

Consider how you felt as a child and how you feel as an adult.
  • Did you enjoy spelling bees?
  • Would you like to participate in a spelling bee at a faculty meeting?
  • How about math flash cards or a game of American history “Around the World” at a staff-development workshop?

What an eye-opener. If we think of it from this perspective, we might feel differently about competitive games that pit one child or a group of students against one another. The brain can’t learn if it is in an anxious, fearful state. And we don’t want to make our students feel uncomfortable.

Keeping these understandings of human nature in mind may motivate us to stop using spelling bees, races to read the most books, and rewards for test scores or good behavior that result in pride for some and feelings of failure and embarrassment for others. Unless, that is, the competitive activity…

  • Is optional for self-selected students (no peer or teacher pressure),
  • Is a fun activity for the participants,
  • Does not waste instructional time,
  • Teaches students to play fair and be gracious winners and losers.

Otherwise, let’s make schools a healthy, competition-free zone.

Back to School Tip: We get what we give and expect

Take a minute to think…

How do you feel when your students walk into your classroom? What do you see when you look at them? What is going through your mind?  What do you expect to happen?

The answers reveal your core beliefs and attitudes about children and being a teacher, and you might not even be aware you feel this way.

How we consciously and unconsciously treat our students is not lost on them, and we wind up getting what we expect. The lens we look through determines how they respond to us and how we experience our time with them. Nowhere is an optimistic, generous attitude more important than in what goes on between a parent and a child, and a teacher and a student. And we are responsible for what happens under our watch.

If we approach teaching with the attitude that students are a problem because they:

  • don’t listen
  • are disrespectful
  • refuse to take responsibility
  • have no manners
  • don’t want to learn
  • can’t be trusted
  • need to be managed

…we interpret all that happens in this light. We expect them to not listen, to take advantage if given some freedom, to show no interest in what we are teaching, and to need strict discipline. They can tell how we feel, and their attitude toward us and school reflects the messages we send:

We are adversaries struggling for control.

But if we believe students are precious human beings that are:

  • inherently good
  • impressionable
  • sensitive and vulnerable
  • interested in learning new things
  • responsive to encouragement
  • capable of learning better behavior
  • at our mercy

…we treat them with compassion and concern. We expect good things from them, believe in our power to influence, see all the positives, the growth, the breakthroughs, and, the sometimes ever so slight, continuous progress. They can tell we like and enjoy them and their attitude reflects this:

We are collaborators sharing power.

These essential understandings are simple but not simplistic. We know that how we treat others and how they treat us determine our relationships with them. We also know that sometimes when we are in the midst of all the demands and stresses of teaching and life, we forget that the basics of a positive working relationship are mutual care and concern, and that we get what we model and expect.

We want good things to happen in our classroom and, if we show and expect, we will get back:

  • Cooperation
  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Enthusiasm
  • Trust
  • And teamwork

Back to School Tip: I hated that! (So don’t do it!)

When I Was a Kid

Think back to your own childhood experiences as a student, preferably the age level you teach. Picture yourself as that child and what you liked and what bothered you, and why you felt this way. If I were doing this exercise I might think of my 6th grade classroom where I liked being allowed to work on projects with a small group out in the hall because it gave me freedom and a chance to talk and be creative. I also might recall how I did not like it when this same teacher punished the entire class with a surprise test when only a few kids were fooling around.

What kind of things did you recall? Did the associated feelings come back? Did certain teachers stand out as memorable while you wish you had never had some of them? Take this insight and apply it to the way you interact with your students. If you shared these findings with others and listened to their perspectives, you would likely discover universal experiences most did like (free-time, coloring, being read to, encouragement from the teacher) and most didn’t like (copying notes from the board, yelling, being put on the spot, sarcasm). You can use this insight as you make decisions about your own classroom.

First Rule of Thumb: “I didn’t like it when I was in school, so I won’t do it to my students.” Make it your mantra, the foundation for creating a classroom climate that is purposefully inviting for students.

Yet there is a twist.

You would also likely find differences in what others liked and didn’t like. While you might have loved recess because you were a good athlete and popular, another might have hated it because the some kids teased and excluded her at recess. Look at the implications of these differences. While you couldn’t wait to get outside, she got a pit in her stomach just thinking about it.

The primitive fight or flight part of the brain was at work and feelings like this likely interfered with her ability to participate fully and learn. Fear overrides the part of the brain where reasoning and processing happen. If I am afraid of spiders and you are afraid of snakes, we each click into panic mode when confronted with the source of our fear. In the presence of something scary, that is all we can think of. Our fears should be acknowledged and each of us treated accordingly.

Since we do not have the same history and might not share the same perceptions and feelings, we should, in kind, avoid assuming things about children. We have to observe,  ask questions, and listen to truly know someone.

Second Rule of Thumb: “Children do not all have the same likes and dislikes and personalities.” Make it your practice to know your students and what they are about, have empathy, and treat them accordingly.

Find more on this topic and other useful ideas in my book, Teaching is a Privilege: 12 Essential Understandings for Beginning Teachers. (And you don’t have to be a new teacher to enjoy it!)

We have to fight to protect children’s rights

The unfortunate reality is we need legal protections to stop discrimination of targeted groups.

Bullies target those they see as different, feel superior to, and feel power over, and every child has a right to be safe and to learn and prosper emotionally, psychologically, and socially. But history shows that we need to fight hard for human rights. Recent legislation by almost all states that compels schools to protect students from bullying acknowledges the power of legal remedies to bring about change. This is especially true in the case of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students who are bullied more than any other group and are not yet protected by civil rights legislation.

In my book, Story Power: Breathing Life Into History,  I included a timeline of women’s rights to illustrate their journey. Progress was painfully slow until laws were finally enacted that gave women equal rights in all areas of their lives. If you ever doubted the value of legislation that protects targeted groups from discrimination, read through this timeline.

My Timeline of the History of Women’s Rights in America

Put yourself on the timeline and see where you fit in the legal evolution of women’s rights.

(This timeline is not all inclusive. There are many other milestones in women’s history.)

1776            Declaration of  Independence claims all men are created equal.

1789            US Constitution ratified and goes into effect.

1848            1st Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.

1861            The American Civil War begins – fight for women’s rights put on hold.

1865            Civil War ends; Reconstruction begins.

1866            Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage.

1868             14th Amendment to the US Constitution gives all male citizens the right to vote.

1870             15th Amendment to the US Constitution says the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. (Sex not included)

1878             The Woman Suffrage Amendment is first introduced in the US Congress: “Equality of  rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

1893             New Zealand first country to give women right to vote.

1903             National Women’s Trade Union established for better working conditions.

1917             Russia gives women right to vote.

1919             My father is born.

1920            19th Amendment gives US women right to vote; National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) becomes the League of Women Voters.

1921            My mother is born.

1923            The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) first proposed to Congress.

1940-45      WWII Propaganda campaign to get women to work in typically male jobs.

1951             I’m born.

1956            Number of women in the work force up from 8.5 million in 1947 to almost 13 million.

1959             American Medical Association sanctions birth control for the first time.

1960            FDA approves “the pill.”

1963            President’s “Commission on Status of Women” finds women discriminated against in almost all aspects of US life.

1964            Title VII Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment by race or gender.

1970             Congress approves the Equal Rights Amendment, first step toward adoption.

1972             ERA sent to states for ratification.

Title IX becomes law: no one can be discriminated against based on their sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

1973             Rowe v. Wade – women’s right to choose abortion – upheld by US Supreme Court.

1977             My first child is born.

1976             Nebraska adopts the first law making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

1979             My second child is born.

1986            Supreme Court rules sexual harassment on the job is sex discrimination.

1992             American Association of University Women release their report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.”

1993             Violence Against Women Act passes: acknowledges domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.

2001            American Association of University Women releases “Beyond the ‘Gender Wars’: A conversation about girls, boys, and education.”

2009            Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act passed.

2012             Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to include coverage for birth control without a co-pay.

GOP and Democratic platforms differ on contraception and abortion.

ERA not yet ratified by a three-fourths majority of US states.

Back to School Tip: Create and apply the rules together

Obedience or Rights and Responsibilities?

As we set up our classrooms and start the new school year, we need rules that motivate students from within. Encouraging high personal standards in our students takes more than positing a chart of the classroom rules. It requires a positive approach to discipline that:

  • teaches responsibility (intrinsic motivation) over time
  • rather than merely expects obedience (extrinsic motivation).

Children are more likely to follow guidelines for behavior (rules) that they had a role in developing, understand, and view as fair. The school, classroom, and home are the most natural and logical places to give children an active role in defining what it means to be a contributing member of a well-functioning community. This includes defining and living according to the rights and responsibilities shared by all members of the group. They learn rules are not arbitrary and mean, but helpful guidelines for getting along with each other.

Classroom management based on personal responsibility is more effective than traditional authoritarian control. The obedience model sends the message that students must follow the rules that adults impose without question regardless of the students’ ideas of right and wrong, special needs or circumstances, instincts and experiences. The message from adults is, You must behave in a certain way because I have the power and I tell you to do it. The obedience model says, Here is the list of what you can and cannot do. The responsibility model tells children, I believe you know what is right and wrong and can do better. I will help you respect others and take responsibility for your choices.

The Obedience Model

Obedience develops behavior motivated by an external locus of control instead of an internal conscience. If a student’s primary goal is to avoid being caught and getting in trouble, this can motivate him to hide or lie about his behavior.  If caught, he may blame it on someone else or try to get even with the enforcer. This creates an adversarial and disrespectful environment that damages the single most important factor for a safe and effective school climate: positive relationships among members.

Obedience may tempt teachers and parents with:

  • The power of an absolute authority.
  • A sense that they have the power and control over their children.
  • A predetermined comprehensive list of rules and matching punishments.
  • Some hope of keeping children “in line.”
  • And the most alluring of all–compliance.

But a focus on obedience also leads to children who:

  • Lack emotional maturity and self-discipline.
  • Cannot own up to their choices and fix the messes they make.
  • Are not able to think critically or problem solve and make decisions.
  • Feel powerless and frustrated.
  • Withdraw or “act out.”
  • Blame others for their behavior.
  • Engage in power struggles.
  • And the last thing we want to promote: act in aggressive ways – covertly and overtly.

The Rights and Responsibility Model

Compare this to another message that is communicated to students: We respect you as an individual with basic needs and hopes, and we believe you have or can develop the skills to make constructive choices. We understand the context of your life and will hold you to a high standard while we guide you to being successful.

Such a climate, based on rights and responsibilities, offers teachers:

  • Healthy relationships with students.
  • Satisfying interactions and more time to teach.
  • Less frustration and more success with handling misbehavior.
  • A redefinition of their role from warden to mentor.
  • A sharing of power.
  • Steady progress toward accomplishing meaningful goals.
  • The chance to take discipline off the top of their list of concerns.

And it leads to students and eventually to citizens who:

  • Are motivated from within.
  • Have a sense of right and wrong.
  • Are critical and creative problem-solvers who make healthy choices.
  • Work toward the good of the community.
  • Are not afraid to take the emotional and intellectual risks needed to learn.
  • Recognize and respect the rights of others.
  • Act ethically.
  • Stand up for what they believe is right.
  • Take responsibility and fix any messes they make.

The rights and responsibilities approach asks students to develop the rules together. They discuss how they should behave in the classroom and school in order for everyone to get along, feel safe, and have an opportunity to learn. They can describe what the perfect classroom would be like and use that as the basis of a code of conduct. Students then come together to see the rationale behind behavior guidelines and understand the cause and effect of their actions.

When a child breaks a rule or code of conduct, we keep the focus on building the child’s self-control and remember that we are there to teach. We want them to develop an internal guidance system, and not to behave well just because we are watching. We can ask them to apply the New Golden Rule of Empathy – Do unto others as they would like you to do unto  them – when they find themselves in a challenging situation. And rather than imposing punishment, we use a verbal or written behavior plan that teaches problem solving and builds character by asking these questions:

  1. What behavior got you here?
  2. Why was that behavior a problem?
  3. What could you choose to do instead next time?
  4. How will you make amends for your behavior now?

With this type of positive discipline, children learn that:

  • Adults do care about them and want them to do well.
  • Everyone shares the same basic human rights.
  • Rules define how they should behave in a learning community.
  • What they say and do is who they are.
  • They have the personal power and responsibility to make good choices.
  • If they cause of problem, they have to fix it.

Ban assault rifles in our society; teach non-violence in our homes and schools.

It has been a while since I’ve posted a new blog. Everyday life happens, and sometimes what you think will be a simple, straightforward topic turns into a research project. (Look for a future post on the unhealthy art of sarcasm.)

But nothing gets everyone’s attention like a mass shooting of innocent people going about their everyday lives. The people of Colorado and the rest of the world are trying to wrap their heads around the mental and physical effort that went into a systematically, finely-calculated plan to kill people as they watched a movie.

On the “violence continuum” this is off the chart, an extraordinary, disturbing act by one individual. It shatters our sense of the safe haven– places where we can just be that we count on as being secure. Incidents of mass gun violence re-energize heated arguments about access to guns, a critical constitutional issue over which Americans constantly wrestle, often to little avail. But below is link that gives everyone a chance to come together and take positive action. No matter where we stand on Second Amendment rights, we should all be able to agree there is no place in our society for machines designed for no other purpose than to massacre. And while we work jointly to ban these assault weapons, we can work on fixing our culture of violence.

Fixing our culture of violence-one that is pervasive, not extraordinary – especially as we try to teach our children to choose peaceful ways of living, is lost in the blurring immediacy of a deadly tragedy. We call the incident senseless, but is it any more senseless than a child being taunted for the way she looks, or being excluded from the group because she is poor or has special learning needs, or being harassed and assaulted for being gay? From one end of the violence continuum to the other, it is all senseless, and physically and emotionally scarring. This everyday violence is where we need to focus. We have remarkable control over our homes and schools. We create the climate and culture that define what is right and wrong. We can make sure these are safe havens where adults model and children practice peaceful, respectful, and compassionate ways to treat each other.

Sure, make a commitment to ban assault rifles in our society, but also make a commitment to consistently model, teach, and expect non-violence in our schools and homes.

“President Obama and Governor Romney: Issue a joint call asking Congress to reinstate the expired federal assault weapons ban now.”

and also

“Stop Bullying!”

Hitting students? Legally? Really?

Many schools across America control their students through fear and physical violence. And they do it legally. Whether your child can be paddled in public school as a form of punishment depends on where you live.

Most states ban the use of corporal punishment in U.S. juvenile correction facilities and in the prison system.  Yet nineteen states still allow the use of corporal punishment by school adults against students who misbehave, break a rule, have a bad attitude, perform poorly in schoolwork, or do something that annoys them. It is even harder to understand the thinking behind this when we discover that ten of these nineteen states that allow students to be disciplined physically, paradoxically prohibit corporal punishment in their penal systems! How can this be so? They do this with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1977,  ruled that the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights only protects convicted criminals from cruel and unusual punishment, not students confined to a classroom. (State-by-state analysis of the legality of corporal punishment in the US)

Not unlike prisoners, students are a confined audience at the mercy of those in power. They are vulnerable to whatever their classmates and adults dish at them. Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the frequency and harm of bullying and harassment, especially of certain groups of students. In recent years, many states and school districts have enacted laws and implemented policies that prohibit such abuse. We acknowledge that we owe our students a school climate that is safe and nurturing.

Much of a teacher’s influence on her students comes from modeling, often unintentionally, and we ask teachers and principals to intentionally model what they expect from their students. In addition to the moral and ethical questions of adults hurting children, paddling is not compatible with the understanding of how children learn. Corporal punishment does not model positive social skills, is not a deterrent, does not teach better behavior, and it does not improve academic performance. Paddling teaches our children that adults have the authority, power, and right to abuse them, emotionally and physically, when they are frustrated, angry, or believe we ought not spare the rod. It erodes students’ respect for adults and their belief in non-violent ways to solve problems, and fans disenfranchisement and rebellion. And disturbing is the knowledge that it is administered disproportionately toward the most vulnerable of our children. The US Office of Civil Rights reports that students with disabilities and African American children are paddled at twice the rate of the general school population. The poor, disabled, and racial and ethnic minorities are the overwhelming targets of this sanctioned school violence.

School violence of any kind sickens the climate and has a negative effect on students’ attitudes toward themselves and others, and their academic success. When adults inflict the violence it is an even more egregious abuse of physical and positional power.  So how can we justify sitting by while adults discipline students by hitting them?

We can’t.

As we outlaw bullying in schools, we have a chance to extend these protections even further, to all children on a national level.  The hope lies in our vigilance and support of the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act,” HR 3027 introduced in Congress on Sept 22, 2011 by NY Rep Carolyn McCarthy.

Learn more about the topic and how you can help eliminate corporal punishment in America’s schools.

Huffington Post blog post “Corporal Punishment in American Schools — Teaching Through Terror?”

Public schools are for every child.

I cherish the concept of a free and public education for all children.

It intends, at least on paper, to provide each child with an opportunity to become a successful, self-sufficient adult and citizen. Theoretically, an educational system open to all is a way to ensure that life circumstances – who you are, where you were born, the educational level of your parents, and your social and economic standing – do not determine your future chances for a fulfilling life. This is the heart of a meritocracy, a system in which advancement in society is based on individual ability or achievement, not on wealth or birthright. The premise is a simple one: the choices you make, especially how hard you work in school, decide your future.

So on paper a meritocracy in the form of a public school sounds ideal. Most Americans believe we have such a system, and that it serves everyone equally and well. But considering the realities of American society, this was and still is naïve. The premise is fundamentally flawed because the playing field was not and is not level, and the opportunities were not and are not equal or equitable.

Throughout our history, different levels of government and powerful people were able to control who went to a certain school, who went to school at all, and even to make it illegal to teach slave children how to read and write. Classmates were selected and rejected by gender, race, ethnicity, mental ability, and behavior. With groups separated into somewhat homogenous groups, the need to learn tolerance and acceptance of those we saw as different or of a lesser status or ability was minimized. This segregation maintained a status quo of separate classes – the privileged and under-privileged, the powerful and powerless – and undermined the concept that schools and society were meritocracies.

Public education policies and laws did evolve over time as people spoke out forcefully about human rights issues and wrongs were corrected. Yet the system is still not perfect: education funded according to the tax base of each district results in widely disparate per pupil expenditures that favor the well-to-do and economically healthy areas, and bias and discrimination against certain groups influence the assessment of individual potential, academic expectations, opportunities available, discipline used, and hopes for the future.

But people and governments may no longer intentionally segregate schools or classrooms by race or social status and children with special learning and behavioral needs now have the right to a placement in the least restrictive learning environment. Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And they all have our promise that they will be treated respectfully by the adults and students in their school.

There are competing cultural forces at work that again challenge the basic premise of schools as a meritocracy, where all are welcome and offered the same opportunities. The influence of religion in politics and on social issues and public policy has grown at the same time the federal government, individual states, and local school boards and communities have made a moral and legal commitment to build public schools that are safe havens. In these schools, discrimination and violence of any kind, including exclusion, bullying, and harassment, are not tolerated by anyone, against anyone, or for any reason.

This raises the question of the role of religious beliefs in an institution that by law and mandate must welcome, teach, and protect every child who comes to the schoolhouse door. May students deny basic human rights to those who do not share or reflect their religious beliefs, especially in the case of sexual identity? Are students whose religion teaches that homosexuality is immoral excused from showing respect and tolerance toward their gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual peers? Can they discriminate against, refuse to work with, or bully students they do not approve of?

I believe the answer is no, they may not, the same way a student may not let his personal or his parents’ beliefs about race, ethnicity, political leanings, etc. affect how he treats his classmates. The code of conduct for proper behavior applies to everyone.

The strength of the public school system of the 21st century is that it more clearly guarantees that every child can expect the school to protect his rights regardless of perceived or real differences, or religious or social beliefs held by others. This is how we keep the public separate from the private, the secular separate from the sectarian, and public schools open and welcoming to the everyone.

The New Golden Rule of Empathy – all we need?

The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

A familiar, simple ethic. But is it enough?

This basic tenet of reciprocity– mutual care and concern –has been embraced by civilizations and religions for thousands of years. The many wordings all share a common vision of how human beings should treat each other. The message is this: If I do not like something, I will not do it to someone else.

We teach the Golden Rule everywhere – in our homes, in our faiths, and in our schools – and it is a good place to start, but, no, it isn’t enough. For children (and all of us!) to internalize the deeper meaning of the concept, we have to go beyond this egocentric view to a promise of:

mutual care and concern at multiple levels…

that of the individual,

of one’s culture,

and of all of humanity.

With this change in perspective, we see how the Golden Rule is one of empathy, based on mutual concern and care that applies to individual preferences, cultural expectations, and basic human rights.

This broadened understanding means we can put ourselves in another’s place, see life through their eyes, and have a better idea of what is right for them. With a concept of reciprocity we go beyond parroting an axiom to true appreciation for the most fundamental and virtuous of character traits: empathy. And empathy leads to respectful and compassionate conduct toward others.

This New Golden Rule of Empathy gives us these peace-building principles to live by:

  • I would not like you to ignore my personal wishes and feelings, so I will honor your personal wishes and feelings and expect you to honor mine.
  • My culture may have different beliefs and customs from yours, so I will respect your culture and expect you to respect mine.
  • Regardless of my individual perspectives and preferences or the norms of my culture, all people have basic human rights, and I will honor these rights and expect others to do so for me.

The Result?

Quite a learning environment

Quite a home life

Quite a community

Quite a world

Another violent school tragedy

Third student dies from Ohio school shooting

In Chardin, Ohio the morning-after talk is all too familiar…

  • Out of nowhere the killer just gunned them down.
  • The students were sitting ducks.
  • We never saw this coming.
  •  He was a quiet kid. He never bothered anybody. He had friends.
  • No he was an outcast, bullied, troubled, into Goth.
  • The community is reeling, what can we do to help.
  • We don’t have a motive yet, but we’ll keep looking.
  • Hug your children, talk with them, tell them you love them.

Our hearts go out to the families, the students and teachers, and the entire Chardin community.

Columbine shook us out of our reverie and made us realize that such violence could happen anywhere, and yes, it could even happen in our town. Even so, it hasn’t gotten any easier to hear that innocent children were shot in their school. We want  a motive, an explanation, something we can point to that will explain away how T. J. Lane got to the point of slaughtering his classmates as they sat talking in the cafeteria.

Killings in a school attract widespread media attention. Yet the reality is that serious, physical, violent crime in schools has decreased over the past decade. School shootings and other fatal acts are still very rare, and less than 2% of youth murders occur in school. When we only consider this school murder statistic, we get the distorted view that violence is very rare, involves a weapon, and is deadly.

So what about the other 179 days of the school year? Does this mean they violence-free? It all depends on your definition of violence.

Every day in every school, students are emotionally and physically victimized by other students and adults. With a broad view of violence, the statistics for taunting, bullying, harassment, gang activity, cyber-bullying, hazing, and hate crimes (especially toward students who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender), and discussions with students about what goes on in classrooms, on the bus, in the cafeteria and bathrooms, present a clearer view of reality. This is the violence they live with daily, that interferes with their learning and keeps them home from school out of fear. So to understand and prevent tragedies like this in the future and to create a healthy school climate, we need to look at behavior along the entire violence continuum, from subtle to obvious.

Violence that begins on the subtle end of the continuum escalates if we don’t intervene early and preemptively.  Something valuable can come from this tragic loss of life if it reminds us that our children deal with violence every day and that we spend our best efforts  in prevention by teaching students how to be good people of high character, and in early intervention by getting help for those who are struggling.

For more information, read my blogs about the McInerney murder trial, my web page about the violence continuum, and to learn why and how we can prevent violence every day of the school year, read my book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate.

Cyber-Baiting Teachers: A sign of broken relationships.

It’s never a good sign when teachers and students are at odds.

Students have found a new target to abuse. The social media that they use to hurt each other is now aimed at their teachers, creating a new reality in the classroom: Everything any teacher says or does has the potential to be recorded and made public, and when baited into losing their composure, teachers are just a YouTube or Facebook posting away from ruining their careers.

Cyber-baiting is when students intentionally provoke a teacher so she loses control and acts unprofessional. They record the outburst and then give it a permanent, public home on YouTube. This behavior is a form of bullying, bullying is a form of violence, and violence is: Intentional physical force, emotional torment, or abuse of power, designed to intimidate, dominate, or inflict pain on another person.

Cell phones with cameras, tablets, laptops, text messaging, and social websites give students this  emotionally distant, underhanded, and very public way to hurt others. Schools are finally becoming aware that in-person and online bullying are a part of school life for most students and that they are expected to, in many states by law, make sure this doesn’t happen on their watch.

The Norton Online Family Report – November 2011

The issue of students cyber-baiting teachers has gotten a great deal of attention since the Norton security firm’s Online Family Report was released in November. They found:

One in five of the 2379 teachers of students aged 8-17 from the 24 countries they surveyed have personally experienced or know a teacher who has been the victim of cyber-baiting.

Teachers were once able to close their doors, and then teach and manage the classroom however they wanted. Now everything they do and say can easily be made public. We all know that some teachers are unreasonable and verbally, even physically, abusive toward students. Schools must protect students from teacher bullying just as they must protect students from being bullied by classmates. More scrutiny of what goes on in classrooms and follow-up on student complaints of teacher bullying means bad teachers can no longer hide behind closed doors.

But this is different. When students provoke and intentionally embarrass a teacher in public, it tells us that there are seriously broken relationships between students and teachers. Students would not likely do this to a teacher they liked and respected, one who cared about and respected them.

YouTube videos showing students intentionally taunting their teachers until they lose control of themselves and of the class are painful to watch. Anyone who feels empathy and compassion finds it hard to witness another person–adult or child, stranger or someone they know–being victimized and humiliated. It is particularly disturbing to see students and their teachers acting this way toward each other.

We know the problem is not the communication technology itself, but how people use it. Young people are still experimenting and developing their moral and ethical code of right and wrong, and they do not always consider the possible effects of their behavior before they act. Immaturity and poor judgment are often the root of behavior problems.

But, unfortunately, there are also some students who are so disenfranchised from school or desperate for peer recognition that they seem to enjoy causing trouble and hurting others. And there are some teachers who don’t realize how dis-spirited and negative they have become toward students. These demoralized teachers and disenfranchised students fight for power and control of the classroom.

Why do students cyber-bait teachers? Their motives are sincere or suspect::

  • To stop a teacher’s inappropriate behavior.
  • Because they are frustrated and want to prove that their complaints about a teacher are true.
  • To get a bad teacher fired.
  • To make fun of a teacher they don’t like.
  • As payback for disciplining them or another student.
  • To intentionally entrap weak teachers just for the fun of it.
  • Or do they publish it on the Internet just to cause a stir and earn street cred?

But no matter the problem or motivation, they need to know that it is never all right to post a video of someone without his permission or to do it to hurt them. Broadcasting videos of teachers acting badly–either because they were intentionally baited or because it is their typical behavior–is an extreme action for a student to take, and a red flag that there is a serious problem in that classroom. The problem is the breakdown of mutual respect and care, which is the core of a positive classroom climate and critical to a teacher’s smooth management of a classroom and of a child’s academic and social success.

What do students need to make better choices?

Communication technology is a powerful tool, readily available and tempting. To make good choices, students need a positive, respectful, secure classroom climate, caring adult support and guidance, problem-solving skills, policies for the use of the Internet, cell phones, and tablets in school. They also must understand and learn to believe that hurting another person emotionally or physically is not okay. This takes a strong sense of empathy and compassion, an understanding of cause and effect, and for them to self-monitor what they say and do, both in person and on social media. These positive social and thinking skills and attitudes are taught and reinforced at every grade level.

Technology is here and ever-changing. The constants are clear expectations for behavior and trustworthy adults students can talk to if they have a problem. This includes someone they can tell if there is a problem with a teacher who is harming them or other students, and they need a promise that their concerns will be taken seriously and investigated.

New Hampshire, what were you thinking?

New Hampshire, what did you do?

You have managed to shock the education world with this new law.

The state legislature passed a new law, effective January 1, 2012, which requires public school districts to write and implement a policy to allow  parents to object to any lesson taught to their children, for any reason. In addition, the school must offer the child an alternative lesson that is acceptable to the parents and the district. The intent and undefined scope of the law is astounding; it makes everything a teacher does, in any content area, subject to second-guessing and outright opposition. And if parents opt to exercise their new rights to object in any numbers, the law is also logistically unworkable. Even one objection by a parent can consume a chunk of a teacher’s precious instructional and preparation time.

Why did this issue come up now?

The curriculum is more standardized and scrutinized than ever before.

It comes at a time when a teacher’s curriculum has likely passed many levels of  scrutiny, revision, and approval, and is expected of all children within the state. Gone are the days when teachers decided what to teach by the textbooks found on the classroom shelves, or on what interested them or their students. States now expect every teacher, in every classroom, to use the state-defined learning standards to drive their curriculum and to assess student progress. Deciding what is taught and when it is taught is an involved, time intensive process.  These state standards serve as the overarching expectations for all students, and are typically well-thought out and logical. School districts then use the standards and performance indicators to develop a spiraling K-12 curriculum, with learning objectives, materials, and assessments that teach the approved content, attitudes, and skills at each grade level until graduation.

The result is a standard curriculum in grade level classrooms within a building, in all schools in a district, and from district to district throughout the state, one that builds on what was taught and hopefully mastered the previous year. How the standards are actually taught  in the classroom is not dictated by the state. This is where teachers are able to apply their professional knowledge and teaching  skills to create daily lesson plans that include specific concepts and learner objectives, teaching materials, instructional methods, and learning activities. They are answerable to the state education department and the public for the progress their students make toward mastering the standards.

The logistics are a nightmare!

Did you consider how this would actually work in the real world?

If a lesson must be substituted for one a parent feels is objectionable for some reason, who writes the lesson and who determines whether the content of any substitute lesson is appropriate for teaching in a public school?  Who screens the lesson for bias or proselytizing? Who makes sure the content is factual and enables the student to meet the learning standards set for him by the state and district? And what  happens if parents want to insert lessons or materials that condone or demonize a particular religion, that preach intolerance of certain groups, or that misrepresent the facts? How will this testy situation be handled?

Was this legislation even necessary in the first place?

What a can of contentious  worms your unnecessary law opens up within a school community!

Public school parents already have the prerogative to object to something  happening in the school or classroom. But this law sends the message that parents may now determine what their child is taught specifically, down to approving individual lessons and materials. Wise principals and teachers have always listened to parents’  concerns, and accommodated their requests when possible. But they were not obligated to change the curriculum to fit a parent’s views. As long as what they were teaching was age appropriate and followed the district and state curriculum, the school was on solid ground to respectfully decline the request. The message that the school will provide alternative lessons to meet a parent’s beliefs, biases, religion, etc is unworkable and an unwise broadening of control by factions within a community.

Did you think this through on a conceptual level before you approved it?

You seem to have forgotten why a free, democratic society depends on a public educational system.

Schools are a powerful force for the common good yet, that  educator Horace Mann called the “great equalizer” of the condition of humankind. We live in a society of many cultures and subcultures that are rich with differences and that share common goals. Students represent the diversity seen in society. Public education in a democracy is predicated on a philosophy of  tolerance and understanding of differing opinions and cultures. All children are welcome regardless of their and their parents’ beliefs, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status and educational level, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and special learning needs. The more students are exposed to, learn about, understand, and respect that which is different from them, the more harmonious a society we create. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

So not only is this law a logistical quagmire, it is a fundamental misreading of the purpose of public education in this country. It undermines the concept of school as a place where teachers and students share ideas freely in a climate of respect, where children learn to judge new ideas against what they already know, and to evaluate the ideas on their merits. We build solidarity based on empathy and compassion.  It is the place where students practice the pro-social skills needed to make good personal decisions and to treat others well. What is taught is fit for a pluralist society where public schools do the job of preparing our children to be citizens of good character, who are analytical and creative thinkers and problem solvers.

New Hampshire, it is telling that the legislator who introduced the bill was surprised by the furor it caused across the country. His surprise reveals a profound lack of understanding of what public education means in a diverse, democratic society, how curriculum is developed, and the way schools operate on a daily basis.

My Violence Continuum book is now available!

My latest book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, was released a few weeks ago and is the featured title on the publisher’s home page.

It is now available online at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Rowman and Littlefield Education

This year be a champion!

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution I can get behind:

“Be a social-emotional champion for children.”

In an Edutopia op ed piece, Rutgers’  professor Maurice Elias asks us to go beyond merely promoting children’s social and emotional development, to being active champions who speak out against injustice. Elias, and my new book on school violence, ask that we pay consistent attention to the  “subtle and not so subtle instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying” that span the violence continuum and erode the trust students and parents have in us and in the educational system.

The goal of safe school climate initiatives is to create a climate (feeling) and eventually a culture (practices) where students’ civil and human rights are protected, everyday, by everyone, and in all situations. In this nurturing environment, emotional and physical safety are the driving forces behind everything we do in our schools and classrooms. This commitment to preserve the dignity of all students, to advocate for them when they have no voice, in turn provides children with the safe haven we owe them.

And most importantly, as Elias points out, once we start acting as a vocal, consistent champion for our students, there is no turning back. We will never again be able to ignore injustices and turn away as our students suffer. The obligation to speak out will be part of our personal and professional belief system and our commitment to doing what is right.

With this new resolution – a sincere promise we make to ourselves on behalf of our children – all students will prosper academically, socially, psychologically, and emotionally.

So this year promise to be a champion for social-emotional development. Resolve to speak out when you see attitudes, behavior, practices, and policies that are harmful and hurtful to our children.


* For more information visit the George Lucas Educational Foundation at Edutopia, “a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race…not just the vision for this new world of learning but the real-world information and community connections to make it a reality.”

“Justice for Larry” – “Save Brandon”

No trial, no jury, no witnesses. Just a sentencing hearing.

In earlier posts I discussed the issues and controversies surrounding the shooting death of 14 year-old Larry King by classmate Brandon McInerney, and the subsequent trial and hung jury. Larry was openly gay and it bothered Brandon, especially when Larry teased him. It bothered Brandon so much that he brought a gun to their middle school and calmly shot Larry in the back of the head twice, as he sat unaware in the computer lab. It was clearly the premeditated murder of one student because he was gay and dressed in feminine clothing, by another student accused of acting on an intolerance of homosexuality. It was an extremely violent and fatal way to settle differences.

No one wanted the anguish of living through another trial and facing the possibility of a second jury unable to reach a verdict. Brandon was, once again, going to be charged with first-degree murder as an adult, the issue that caused the divide in the first jury. By accepting a guilty plea of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and use of a firearm, McInerney was sentenced yesterday to 21 years in prison instead of the life in prison sentence carried by a conviction of first-degree (premeditated) murder. Brandon is ineligible for parole and will be 38 when released.

Those at the sentencing hearing represented the multiple perspectives and human rights questions that plagued the trial. A handful of jurors from the mistrial wore “Save Brandon” bracelets and scarves while across the aisle Larry’s friends and family wore “Justice for Larry” buttons.

Yet, everyone can take away some essential understandings from the tragedy:

  • Yes, school really is a tough place for gay students, and they may need extra adult support.
  • No one-gay or straight-likes being teased or harassed, and they shouldn’t have to put up with it.
  • Parents, teachers, and administrators need to be on the lookout for tensions brewing between students. They need to intervene early and decisively before the situation escalates. They are the adults and they should know what to do.
  • Students, K-12, need to be intentionally taught and expected to show respect for others, regardless of whether they approve of or like the person’s beliefs, color, ethnicity, religion, learning needs, appearance, or sexuality.

We don’t need anymore Larrys and Brandons. And as you can see from the list, it is the adults that set the school climate and define what can and cannot happen in their school.

Hazing-an excuse to abuse

Do no harm and allow no harm be done.

Before the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University, I had started to write a post about the widespread hazing that is occurring in middle and high schools, especially in athletics. An article about a 14 year-old high school freshman beaten with a belt by six teammates while one coach observed and the other videotaped the assault, reminded me to finish my blog about the protected and privileged world of the athlete, and the tolerance for abuse shown by students and coaches.

What is hazing and how is it different from bullying?

Hazing is violence inflicted on students because they want to belong to particular group they consider of higher status. Tradition, peer pressure, and the desire for acceptance into the elite group, motivate students to put aside their self-respect and quietly suffer humiliation and physical danger. In contrast, bullying is random violence directed at someone who belongs to a group perceived as lower status or power, or at someone who appears defenseless.

How common is hazing?

Using a random sample of high school students throughout the country, a comprehensive 2000 study by Alfred University asked students to complete a confidential questionnaire on their experiences with hazing. 48 percent of high school students admitted being hazed by school groups. The highest percentage of hazing was in sports teams, gangs, and other social groups, but, surprisingly, it existed in almost all school groups.  They defined three types of hazing behavior: humiliation, substance abuse, and dangerous hazing. In this climate of condoned aggression and physical violence sanctioned as a tradition, it is no wonder that children are abused.

What does hazing look like?

Here is a small sampling of the kind of hazing violence reported in the U.S. Students were:

  • Spat on, hogtied, held in a locker and slammed into a wall.
  • Dragged across a muddy field then made to stand against a wall while soccer teammates kicked balls at them.
  • Beaten by ten athletes until bruised.
  • Roughed up, paddled, and then forced to box each other until they bled.
  • Restrained with duct tape.
  • Beaten and covered with mud, paint, feces and garbage; five girls ended up in the hospital.
  • Sexually assaulted with foreign objects.

Students are also subjected to: forced consumption of alcohol, tattooing, piercing, head-shaving, branding, sleep deprivation, physical punishment (paddling and “red-bellying”), and kidnapping.

In the real world these behaviors would be crimes and, with a new understanding of violence, they are starting to be treated as such.

Why do we allow it to happen?

We have developed a culture of status for certain groups and of looking the other way when they misbehave. Athletes have this special status, especially in the high-profile male sports like football, soccer, wrestling, and basketball. Sports teams provide entertainment, build school pride, and bring prestige to the school. It is not uncommon for schools and society to give them special dispensation for their violent behavior and when they break rules.

The attitudes of teachers, administrators, and parents who believe participation in sports is always a character-building experience perpetuate the treatment of the athlete as a privileged class. But being idolized, feared, admired, and envied for athletic skills and brute force do not build character. They breed idolatry and a sense of entitlement that lead to abuses of power and status.

How do coaches contribute to this culture?

Complicating the issue are coaches who condone hazing, and think breaking down an athlete’s self-esteem by verbally belittling him or handing out physical punishment is an effective way to motivate him to try harder. In this way, coaches openly model aggressive, bullying behavior.  Now as states and districts enact measures to reduce bullying by athletes, coaches who bully are under more scrutiny for their own violent behavior. They are being told to tone down their drastic discipline techniques and to no longer look the other way when one of their athletes bullies another student.

The Ohio State Education Department recognized the role schools play in the continuation of the tradition of hazing. Their efforts to stop hazing at the elementary school through the college level include an inclusive definition and strong condemnation of hazing and the adults who allow it. The code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. Adult culpability for what happens to their students is wake up call to all school and college staff.

Can we change tradition?

The students in the Alfred study were perceptive when they said it would be hard to stop hazing because it would take a breakdown of tradition, and that changing a culture is difficult. But we have repeatedly proven we can change the climate and culture of a school. We know that one of the most effective ways to do this is to take the stand that no violence, including teacher bullying of students or student bullying of each other,  is ignored or tolerated.

When it comes to hazing, schools have a direct supervisory role over the groups they sponsor and the obligation to keep participants free from emotional trauma and physical harm. We can reduce hazing abuses by educating students, families, and school staff, especially school coaches and extracurricular activity supervisors, and by enacting anti-hazing policies. Safe school climate efforts should send a strong anti-hazing message and make sure there is consistent follow through when it is reported, including appropriate school and criminal consequences. Coaches should also model non-violent character-building behavior to motivate their athletes, instead of perpetuating disrespect and aggression. And we should listen to our students when they say they want us to intervene to protect them, and that they would prefer positive initiation activities to build comradery and a feeling of belonging.

We can change the tradition of hazing.

We can do it by being clear about what is and is not tolerated, and then by holding everyone accountable.

McInerney murder retrial avoided

 Calif. teen pleads guilty to 2nd-degree murder in killing of gay classmate, faces 21-year term

Last summer the jury was unable to agree on a conviction of first degree murder or  involuntary manslaughter in the case of Brandon McInerney’s killing of classmate Larry King. Both were Oxnard, CA middle school students at the time of the shooting and of contention was the decision to try Brandon as an adult. Brandon was ready to be retried, again as an adult, when today the Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney announced Brandon had agreed to a plea bargain that will avoid the ordeal of a second trial. I could hear the collective sigh of relief from the people of Ventura County.

If there is any good to come from this tragedy it is that minds are more open to the realities of school life, that harassment of gay students is all too common, and that school staff and students are better prepared to intervene to stop the emotional violence of teasing, taunting, and name-calling before it escalates into overt physical violence.

For more information on this case, read my 8/28/10, 8/30/10 , 9/2/10, and 10/11/10 posts and search the McInerney murder case.

New release date for The Violence Continuum

My new book, The Violence Continuum: Creating a Safe School Climate, is now set for a December (not November) release.

I’ve seen the cover and love the way it illustrates the concept that violence is behavior that hurts others and also an abuse of power, and that it can be subtle or obvious, physical or emotional. What our children face in school is skewed toward the subtle end to the mid-point of the continuum, and the damage is serious whatever form it takes.

True grit: personal and social responsibility

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

In my recent three-part blog I focused on the “good ideas” this article presented for building moral and performance character and the missteps the two profiled schools made trying to put the good ideas into practice. The lack of understanding of child development and motivation so captured my attention, I never really addressed the meaning of the title.

The secret to success is failure.

How can opposites like success and failure be co-dependent? The author is channeling the message of the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, and the still familiar 19th century axiom, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Human development, including academic learning, is by nature a succession of trial and error. The reality is that success in life depends on our ability to cope with and triumph over adversity. Life is full of adversity and grit is the foundation of resilience.

So why do some children…

  • Willingly put forth the effort to learn, while others balk at tough challenges and hard work?
  • Believe they can do whatever they are asked to do, while others lack confidence in their chances of success?
  • Take risks and rally from setbacks, while others become discouraged and give up?

The answer lies in how much grit they have developed from their life experiences, a combination of moral and performance character  strengths that include:

  • A sense of personal and social responsibility
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Tenacity
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-reliance
  • Efficacy and
  • Intrinsic motivation

These character strengths develop in the normal course of daily life as we set goals and overcome obstacles, unless…

  • Children are given everything they need, and they are protected from the character-building challenges of life.
  • We allow mediocre effort and accept mediocre outcomes.
  • Children are so emotionally, socially, or physically impoverished that the obstacles they face are monumental, and the supports that would help them prevail are absent.

In each of these three situations, schools can and should teach grit by:

  • Creating a healthy, non-violent school climate that feels safe, where students can take the risks needed to learn without fear of ridicule or shame.
  • Committing to a dignity-preserving discipline approach where students know clearly what we expect of them, and are consistently held responsible for their choices, and for fixing any problems they cause.
  • Intentionally teaching the qualities of grit through the curriculum, and high expectations and nurturing guidance.
  • Considering the context of students’ lives, their assets and stresses, and building from where they are in their moral development.
  • Providing experiences that foster students’ sense of efficacy – their belief that through their personal resources, hard work and tenacity, and the support of caring adults, they can prevail.
  • Modeling grit and other character strengths in everything we do.

Personal and Social Responsibility

This determination and sense of responsibility helps us reach our life goals, goals that hopefully benefit us personally and foster the common good. Because grit without a moral foundation is dangerous. Our grit needs to be driven by a pro-social belief system that respects the inherent human rights of all people, acknowledges the interdependence of members of a community, and motivates us to make constructive contributions to our school, our family, and society.

Part Three: Building on the good idea

Part three of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

So how do we build on the good idea?

  • The KIPP school was on the right track when they asked teachers to embed concepts and the language of character strengths into lessons in all disciplines, to encourage self-awareness and personal skills, and to replace inappropriate learned behavior with positive thinking and constructive action. They then took a wrong turn and defeated their efforts by instituting a character report card.
  • The Riverdale school headmaster had “a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” and wisely chose to forgo a formal evaluation of each student’s character development. He also had concerns that “nice guy values” such as respect, tolerance, and honesty were too general and abstract to teach. He chose to personally lead a publicity campaign that stressed the moral and behavioral traits linked to success in life. Vocal, visible, passionate leadership is a critical part of a safe school climate plan that builds character.

But awareness isn’t enough to help all students develop into thinking, compassionate, self-directed, morally responsible members of our school, family, and civic communities. Between the rigidness of a character report card and the randomness of an awareness effort lies the intentional commitment to teach, model, and expect pro-social skills, character traits, attitudes, and behavior. This approach acknowledges that character development is a process, not merely a product, and that violence prevention and character education are the same thing. They are a way of being, not a program to implement. Without an artificial label or the constraint of a report card, learning to be non-violent people of good character…never goes out of style, is never is too time-consuming, and is never optional.

This is true because it is:

  • a belief system.
  • the heart of a holistic education.
  • the driving force behind the climate and culture of the school.
  • embedded in everything that happens from instruction to classroom management to formal discipline policies.
  • clearly visible in positive actions and healthy relationships.

How do we make sure schools are violence-free safe havens where students achieve academically and develop a social conscience?

By being proactive. The way to teach moral and performance character that creates a safe school climate is to focus our efforts on prevention, and then intervene early if a child is not making good progress. We treat it as a K-12 goal, get everyone involved – including parents – and take it seriously. These prevention and early intervention stages, followed by late intervention and post-incident responses when necessary, can do the most good for the most children.

Prevention centers around a psychology of success that creates respectful adult-student, student-student, and adult-adult relationships. It is founded on the premise that you can actively teach students to have and show empathy and compassion, to show consideration and tolerance of others, to be trustworthy and guided by integrity, and all those other nice guy qualities. A focus on prevention provides a school experience rich with challenges and supports that build the positive personal assets needed for a successful adulthood.

What does prevention look like?

  • A community where protecting each child’s dignity and basic human rights is a top priority.
  • An exciting, nurturing environment that provides personally motivating learning experiences and expects students to work hard.
  • A positive discipline approach that develops an intrinsic motivation to make good choices, by having students identify and take responsibility for their mistakes, and fix the messes they make.
  • A climate where students and adults are not allowed to be mean, use putdowns, bully, threaten, discriminate or show intolerance.
  • Efforts tailored to meet the unique needs of the school, grade level, individuals, and groups.
  • Children who are consistently and actively taught positive social skills and held to high, developmentally appropriate expectations for behavior.
  • Children skilled in the language of cooperation and conflict resolution, who have the self-control necessary to express themselves peacefully, and know how to get their needs met without resorting to hurtful behavior.
  • Effective teaching strategies that stress collaboration in place of competition such as working with a partner and cooperative learning, and being grouped with those you would not normally choose.
  • Regular class meetings that teach and offer practice for pro-social and language skills development including listening to and considering other people’s the perspectives, offering possible solutions to problems, and recognizing and expressing appreciation for the efforts of others.
  • A curriculum that stresses high-level thinking skills such as consideration of  historical and cultural context, cause and effect, points of view, personal choice and decision-making, and applies this thinking to real life situations.
  • A school staff of adults that believe in, consistently model, and expect non-violent, constructive behavior.

The pro-social skills learned in prevention efforts lead students to ethical behavior and rewarding relationships. This is the opposite of a psychology of failure that stresses comparison and competition, uses public shaming and punishments as consequences, that emphasizes extrinsic rewards, and damages relationships.

What does early intervention look like?

With effective violence prevention efforts in place, the next part of the safe school climate plan addresses those children who are, for some reason, not internalizing and applying the prevention messages to their lives. The staff of a safe school does not ignore negative behavior, nor does it give up on helping these children no matter how challenging.

  • A team approach that includes teachers, specialists, and their parents or guardians that creates a strong student support system.
  • Trusted adults that students can talk to and who check in on them regularly.
  • Anger-management and conflict resolution training.
  • In school and out of school mentoring and counseling services.
  • Support groups designed to teach coping skills.
  • Positive social norms efforts that can sway children who have one foot on the side of trouble to step back and join the majority of their well-behaved peers.
  • Students’ concerns are taken seriously and addressed.
  • Students, including those who are the source of misbehavior, feel safe and not alone.

So we build on the good ideas by…

  • Intentionally embedding them in all aspects of school life.
  • Believing that it is possible to teach positive social skills and strength of character.
  • Realizing it is as important to do this as it is to teach academics.
  • Keeping the promise we make to students, their families, and society, that schools are safe havens where all children are treated well and taught to treat others the same way.

Part Two: Subverting the good idea

Part two of my response to “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The Fatal Mistake: KIPP decided to institute their first ever “character report card.” 

Imagine…

A report card for a child’s character.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being, qualities that are still undeveloped and evolving.

A report card that assigns a numerical value to a child’s character, the personal qualities that define the very essence of who he is as a human being, qualities that are still undeveloped and evolving, and records this CPA (character point average) in the child’s permanent record.

How it works:

The KIPP Character Report Card requires that twice a year all teachers grade each of their students, using a scale of one to five, on 24 statements that represent the desired character strengths the school is encouraging. Some of the thinking behind the decision was how useful a character CPA would be to colleges and work places as they try to select the best candidates, and that parents would like to know how their child’s CPA stacks up against the rest of the class.

The fundamental problem:

They made becoming a good person a competitive sport instead of a personal journey.

A report card approach to building character ignores what research and experience tell us: extrinsic (external) rewards develop a shallow and brief commitment to a desired behavior.  When external generic praise, grades, prizes, stickers, competitions, charts, etc.  are used to reward behavior, students tend to work only enough to reach the reward, and then stop. They are externally motivated to care – temporarily – and with the artificial reward removed, there is no reason to continue to strive to improve.

External rewards, such as a quantitative report card, fail to nurture development of the intrinsic (internal) system of motivation, beliefs, and attitudes needed to sustain personal effort. And personal effort and commitment are what proponents claim are the keys to performance and moral character, and what their students are lacking.

The practical flaws:

  • Grading students on 24 statements is too laborious, time-consuming, and cumbersome a system to be sustained.
  • The evaluation itself is subjective and open to teacher interpretation, resulting in inconsistent ratings assigned by individual teachers.
  • The school would need to create a detailed rubric for each of the 24 statements that describes what level one behavior looks like, what level two behavior looks like, and so on, and then share with, carefully explain, and teach these values and behaviors to the students, and their parents.
  • Quantifying character traits could reward compliant go-along, get-along behavior, be used to punish a student a teacher does not like, and could easily discourage the lively classroom discourse necessary for students to become critical, conceptual, divergent thinkers who express opinions and challenge ideas.
  • As with a GPA, teachers would need to support their rankings with empirical evidence and documented anecdotes. This is a very personal, sensitive, and emotional kind of evaluation. You do not assign a number to a student’s character on a whim or a gut feeling, and get away with it. You will be challenged and rightly so.

How this practice hurts, not helps, students:

  • Assigning a number to describe a child’s character development is counterproductive and misguided. It makes human development a competition, complete with a number that labels the child, in the same way students and parents often use academic grades.
  • It is human nature to focus on the  negative. Receiving less than a rating of 5 would plant self-doubt and insecurity, even if the teacher tells the student that a 4 is a good rating.
  • For the most challenged students who are trying to develop new character strengths, the low scores on their character report card may confirm the negative feelings they already have about themselves. The system tears the child down, when it should recognize improvement, encourage her to keep trying, and to believe through continued hard work she can be successful.
  • And at the same time, when a child receives all fives, it is easy for her to become complacent, even overly self-satisfied, and consider her work done. And we know no one is ever done evolving as a person.
  • A program that rewards a child’s positive behavior observed in one circumstance can also fail to notice negative behaviors happening in other circumstances. Teachers do not know what students are like in all situations, especially when it comes to under the radar relational and covert aggression, such as rumor spreading, discrimination, exclusion, and cyber-bullying. One of the worst things we can do is reward sneaky or deceitful behavior, and an evaluation system based on isolated observations can do just that. Imagine the hypocrisy of a student with a 4.8 CPA on “Social Intelligence – Demonstrates respect for feelings of others,”  who writes unkind things about others on Facebook.

Imagine yourself in this situation.

There is a much more compassionate and effective way to help students develop moral and performance character.

To be continued…

Part One: Co-opting a good idea

Review of  “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The author of this article mentions, often with little or no insight or analysis, some of the most critical issues in education today including the nature and nurturing of character development (the basis of violence prevention), competition and collaboration, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, including reward systems and report cards.

To summarize the “plot” of the article, the author explored the efforts of two atypical New York City schools – the private and prestigious Riverdale Country School for the affluent, and the free KIPP charter school with enrollment open to all NYC students (by lottery). Both focus on preparing students for college and turning out people who are successful in life. Not liking the results they were seeing, they each identified the need to look more closely at character development, and ways to teach those essential character traits typical of a high functioning, autonomous adult.

Using Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his 800-page book (tome) on character strengths and virtues, the headmaster and superintendent of the respective schools looked at the practical benefits of teaching both:

  •  “Moral character” – high quality values such as  honesty, integrity, compassion, and fairness, and
  •  “Performance character,” –  high quality behavior such as persistence, team work, self-control, and something researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”

The Good Idea:

The KIPP School ultimately chose the seven of  Duckworth’s 24 identified character strengths that were the most predictive of  “life satisfaction and high achievement.”

  • zest
  • grit
  • self-control
  • social intelligence
  • gratitude
  • optimism
  • curiosity

While life satisfaction and high achievement are not synonymous with living a life of high moral character, the list is useful, especially if social intelligence encompasses positive moral traits and pro-social beliefs and skills.

KIPP then took these seven strengths and converted them into 24 statements, such as the student:

  • Is eager to explore new things.
  • Believes that effort will improve his or her future.
  • Allows others to speak without interruption.
  • Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked.

The intent was to use these statements as goals for behavior, and to gauge a child’s progress toward high moral and behavioral character. As we read over the list, they sound like the qualities we’d like to see in everyone.

But then they took a wrong turn.

To be continued…

McInerney Murder Trial #2

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office has decided to retry Brandon McInerney for the 2008 murder of his classmate, Larry King.  Both Larry and Brandon were middle school students at the time of the incident.

The jury in the nine-week trial that ended in September 2011 could not come to an agreement about Brandon McInerney’s guilt. While there was no question that Brandon brought a gun to school and then carried out his plan to shoot Larry King, the jurors had a difficult time convicting him of  the first degree murder charge – with a special circumstance of lying in wait and a hate crime enhancement – and accepting the mandatory 50-year minimum sentence the charges carried.*

The District Attorney is again applying the lying in wait charge, which means Brandon will be tried as an adult in his second trial this November. His attorney and family, a few jurors from his first trial, and some community members are pressing for a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a charge which would allow him to be tried in juvenile court with the possibility of getting out of prison in 14 years.

Many factors complicate what would seem like a straightforward case: Larry King was openly gay and may have shown Brandon unwanted attention; Brandon expressed a dislike for gays and had an interest in White supremacy; the school administrators knew of and failed to act to prevent further escalation of the tension between the two boys; and the question of whether a cold-blooded, premeditated murder committed by a 14-year-old is the act of an adult or of a child.

With some compromising between the District Attorney’s Office and the McInerney’s, a plea deal may be reached making a second trial unnecessary. But regardless of what happens, each of us still has to address the issues of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in our schools, and implement thoughtful, yet definitive, violence prevention and early intervention strategies and policies.

*For background on the case and perspectives on the first trial, check out my earlier posts.

Slam books and Social media

Violence: intentional physical force, emotional torment, and abuse of power, whose purpose is to intimidate, dominate, or inflict pain on another person.

Old Media – Slam books

A slam book is sheets of loose leaf paper stapled together with a construction paper cover. The name of a student is written at the top of each sheet.  I was first exposed to slam books in sixth grade. I didn’t know who made it – the homemade book  just showed up one day surrounded by an air of  secrecy.  I watched as it was quietly passed around, each girl who wanted to participate anonymously writing whatever she wanted about the different girls. You can imagine some of the adjectives used and the hurt feelings and damaged relationships they caused. My teacher got wind of it and confiscated the book. He warned that slam books were outlawed in our school and that this was the last he wanted to see of it. I give the teachers and administrators of my elementary school a lot of credit for taking such a tough stand against this form of social violence. Even back then they realized how mean and destructive a slam book was.

New Media – Facebook, cell phones, Twitter, IM and text messages

Unlike the slam books of my childhood, digital social media was not created for the purpose of hurting others. But electronic media have become a widespread outlet for meanness and cruelty. Young people are using the Internet to embarrass, demean, stalk, spread rumors, and bully others. The statistics are convincing, the language shocking, and the pressure to take part in digital abuse sizable. And absent clear guidelines for acceptable online behavior and clear avenues to get help, many young people become perpetrators and victims of this violent, bullying behavior.

AP and MTV partnered to conduct an online Digital Abuse Study between August 18 and 31, 2011. Findings were based on interviews with 1,355 young people between the ages of 14 and 24. The study found that 76% of 14-24 year-olds feel that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age.

The types of online abuse they experience include:

  • Sexting of nude photos and sexually explicit messages
  • Digital dating abuse where one partner uses electronic media to exercise control over the other
  • Spreading rumors and intentional untruths
  • Forwarding messages intended as private
  • Discrimination and hurtful slurs directed toward peers especially those who are overweight, LGBT, African-American, women, Muslim, and immigrants. (Visit the study for the words commonly used online.)

Noteworthy Findings:

  • 71% of respondents said people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person.
  • A majority of the study participants exposed to digital abuse found it deeply unsettling.
  • Those who have sexted are four times as likely to have considered suicide than those who have not sexted (20% vs. 5%).

Desensitization

The most disconcerting aspect of this phenomenon is the attitude held by 46% of those surveyed that it is okay to use discriminatory language if you make it clear you are just kidding, and the attitude held by 54% that it is okay to use such language with friends because they know that you don’t mean it. Thinking name calling, teasing, and demeaning others is okay because it’s supposedly done in fun is one of the most prevalent and wrong-headed justifications young people have for intentionally hurting one another. They are assaults against your vulnerabilities intended to throw you off balance and diminish your sense of personal power.

The Good News

But there is also some good news. Projects like MTV’s “A Thin Line” campaign and schools’ cyber-bullying prevention efforts that empower young people and stop the spread of digital abuse seem to be having an impact. Sexting to strangers is down, awareness of the ramifications of online indiscretions has increased, 51% of those who saw someone being mean online would intervene (up from 47% in 2009), and young people are using a variety of strategies to stop cyber-bullying, including going to adults for help.

 

Time to add another “protected class”?

Lady Gaga wants to speak with the President about students’ civil rights.

One week ago today, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, committed suicide. Jamey was harassed in school and through social media for being gay. In one online video he tells us, “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I’d never escape it.” For strength Jamey embraced the message of Lady Gaga’s song,  “Born this Way. ” It became his personal anthem and she became his idol. His death hit her hard and she’s now calling for a movement to make gay bullying a crime.

Do we really need a new law?

Legislation seems to be the only way to curtail – we never completely stop – discrimination and acts of hate. For schools, federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination and harassment against certain groups in programs or activities that receive funds from the US Department of Education. The law makes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, sex, disability, and age against the law in every state, in every educational institution.

These groups are members of a protected class of Americans. It’s clear who is missing from this list. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, 90% of whom report being bullied in school, have not yet been identified as needing legal protection. Yet research continues to confirm that gay-bashing of students is a widespread and common occurence.

What have we done so far? 

In October 2010, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This expanded the 1964 Hate Crimes Act to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.

But is bullying in our schools a crime? Not unless it escalates into physical violence and threats of bodily harm that break the law. This leaves schools free to treat  acts such as taunting, name-calling, rumor spreading, stalking, and cyber-bullying, which lie toward the middle of the violence continuum, however they see fit.

Publicity about suicides has increased our understanding that school staff are responsible for keeping the climate of their schools free from hostility and harassment. Schools are now advised, and in some cases required by state law, to treat such incidents seriously and to respond quickly and definitively.

But as history teaches us, without the authority of a federal law that identifies those who are LGBT as a protected class, the way students are treated will be hit or miss, helpful or harmful, and too often left to cause emotional and psychological damage.

If Lady Gaga and the rest of us continue to bring attention to the issue, we might just pass a new civil rights law that protects gay students.

5 Essentials = 10 times the student learning

Like

I like the work coming out of  the *Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (CCSR). They use both long- and short-term action research approaches in the study of important educational issues such as dropout rates, social promotion, and school safety. These studies are intended to help educators all over the world make informed decisions on policies and practices that directly affect their students.  

Like

I also like their work because they take school climate seriously, not just because of the current attention on bullying-prevention, but because their research shows that school climate is one of five critical factors affecting student achievement, and that relationships are the foundation for how secure and capable students feel.

How safe do you feel?

In their May 2011 report, “Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools: The Roles of Community Context and School Social Organization,” the CCSR looked at the factors affecting how safe students and adults feel in their schools. As we might expect, students from high-crime, high-poverty (disadvantaged) areas tended to feel less safe.

But the most revealing and promising finding was that students and adults felt safer in disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships than they felt in advantaged schools with low-quality relationships. The power of positive, caring relationships among students, families, the community, and school staff trumped the expected negative social effects of crime and poverty! This finding has a dramatic impact on where we choose to focus our efforts to improve student achievement.

Critical Factors

The CCSR has now released its Five Essentials School Reports.  Based on 15 years of research data, they identified five factors that matter most for student learning. The climate of the school and the relationship between the school and its families and community again rise to prominence.

The Five Essentials:

  • Ambitious instruction (classes are challenging and engaging)
  • Learning climate (the school is safe, demanding and supportive)
  • Instructional leadership (the principal works with teachers to promote professional growth and school success)
  • Professional capacity (teachers collaborate to promote professional growth and school success)
  • Family and community ties (the entire staff involves families and communities to advance student learning)

The finding that schools that are strong on three or more of these essentials were 10 times more likely to improve student learning than schools weak in three or more of the essentials should grab our attention and help us focus our efforts. Once again it’s all about relationships and good teaching:

Caring teachers + Engaging instruction = Motivated students + Safe school climate

*The National Research Council recommends the CCSR as a model for better linking research, policy making, and practice.

“Students say best teachers relate to them, make them think.” Is this news?

As I was online looking through the local news about the record-breaking flooding in Binghamton, NY where I used to live, this unrelated headline from September 4, 2011 caught my eye.

Broome-area students say best teachers relate to them, make them think

‘It’s nice when you can talk to a teacher, when it’s interactive’

It seems with the first day of school approaching, a Binghamton Press reporter interviewed area high school students to get their perspective on what makes a good teacher.

They found that students agree with the American Psychological Association teaching module report, “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Supply Essential Support for Learning” and this quote from Sara Rimm-Kaufman, author of the APA module:

“Teachers who foster positive relationships with their students create classroom environments more conducive to learning and meet students’ developmental, emotional and academic needs.”

The APA module noted a positive student-teacher relationship shared these characteristics:

  • Teachers show their pleasure, that they enjoy their students.
  • Teachers interact in a responsive and respectful manner.
  • Teachers offer help by answering students’ questions in a timely manner and offering support that matches the children’s needs in achieving academic and social objectives.
  • Teachers help students reflect on their thinking and learning skills.
  • Teachers know and demonstrate knowledge about individual students’ backgrounds, interests, emotional strengths and academic levels.

Pair these positive relationship-based traits with exceptional instructional skills and knowledge of the content, and we have all we could ask for from a teacher.

Good teaching + Caring Relationships = Better Behaving Students + Higher Academic Achievement

I trust this is not news to most parents and educators. Specific personal and professional competencies are necessary for success in any field – sales, health care, construction, counseling, research, law enforcement, administration, running a restaurant. And beyond these field-specific skills and knowledge, success is a product of a strong work ethic and a commitment to continuous improvement, and depends on an ability to relate with your clients and co-workers. In teaching, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the relationship between teacher and student is the critical factor for success, the foundation for everything that happens in the classroom.

People commonly talk about the culture and climate of their workplace – the norms that drive behavior, the way they are treated, and how it feels to work there. Why? Because how we feel in a certain situation and with certain people matters a great deal to us. We feel more secure and work harder for those who respect and care for us and who have earned our respect.

When we apply this premise to students in a school, its meaning is magnified by the expectation of society and families for students to respect authority, and by the potential for abuse when you have such an age and power differential.  But it is also magnified by the beliefs and practices of the individual adults who work with our children. In no endeavor, other than parenting, is the relationship between the provider and recipient as critical and delicate as it is between teacher and student.

So to answer my question, no it isn’t news that students do better with teachers who relate to, respect, and challenge them, but it does bear repeating until every adult who interacts with children internalizes the message and molds their behavior accordingly.

Does being gay mean being bullied?

Odds are it does. Students are more likely to be bullied if they are seen as different in a negative way. It could be their race or ethnicity, size or weight, lack of social skills or athletic ability, or their special education needs – just about any characteristic that sets a student apart makes them a target for those who bully.

But the group most widely targeted for emotional and physical violence are students who are, or who are perceived as being, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT). When a federally protected group such as this is bullied it becomes the more serious charge of harassment, hate driven behavior that infringes on the group’s civil rights.

Consider this grim statistic:

90% of the 7,261 middle and high school lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender students surveyed reported experiencing harassment at school in the past year. (Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network Survey 2009)

Do you know what school life is really like for your LGBT students?  How aware are staff and parents of the issues surrounding the harassment of LGBT students? Could this statistic, and the many others that support the prevalence of harassment, apply to the way your students are treated on the buses, in your halls, gyms, cafeterias, bathrooms, locker rooms, and classrooms?

Why not ask the adults and students in your school community? Surveys designed to measure the state of the climate of the school, especially those online, can be completed anonymously. A good place to start looking is at Stopbullying.gov where you can browse 33 assessment scales that measure bullying, victimization, perpetration, and by-stander experiences.

Another way to analyze the factors affecting how a certain group of students is treated in your school is to ask a group of teachers, parents, and students to complete a force field analysis like the one below. This process allows you to take a thoughtful and honest look at the climate and culture of your school to identify what is helping and what is hindering reaching your goal:

“We treat all students with respect and concern regardless of their sexual identity.”

Use a simple T-Chart to brainstorm

Forces PROMOTING Our Success         Forces PREVENTING Our Success

With the information you gathered from surveys and from the force field analysis, you have a good idea what school feels like to your LGBT students. And most importantly, you now know what you must do – intentionally and systematically – to make your school a violence-free and positive experience for all of your students.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers