Blog Archives

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?”

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

“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.

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…

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.

Some Numbers to Think About

This following sampling of safe school climate statistics paints an interesting picture of what violence in our schools really looks like.

What does this information tell you?

How can you apply it to your everyday life as a teacher?

  • 628,200 students ages 12-18 were victims of violent crime at school in 2005.  (CDC 2008)
  • 90% of teachers surveyed felt it was their job to intervene when they witnessed bullying. (NEA 2010)
  • 76% of Americans say they have trust and confidence in public school teachers. (PDK/Gallup 2010)
  • 55% of  students said schools needed to increase teachers’ trustworthiness to improve student-teacher relationships. (NYCSS 2004)

  • 39 % of middle schools reported student bullying occurred at school daily or at least once a week compared to 20% for primary and high schools. (U.S. DOE 2011)

  • 160,000 students go home early on any given day for fear of being bullied. (CDC 2008)
  • 29% of students in 6th-12th grade said they had the social competence to plan and make decisions. (Search 2002)

  • 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. (GLSEN 2009)
  • < 2% of  homicides and suicides among 5-18 year-olds occurred at school. (NCES 2009)
  • 0% difference between the number of public and private school students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school. (NCES 2011)

Resources:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)

National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)

National Education Association  Nationwide Study of Bullying (NEA)

New York Center for School Safety (NYCSS)

Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Annual Poll (PDK) of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools (PDK/Gallup)

Search Institute

US Department of Education (USDOE)