Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Paper Towels

One of the realities about teaching that seldom gets any attention is the role of parent that accompanies the job.  As a culture we acknowledge that the classroom teacher wears many hats, from instructor to cop, nurturer to protector.  Parents are usually our allies.  We partner with them in the same way we partner with administrators and other community members.  But playing that role to 35 at a time, and 150 a day can sometimes take a toll that seldom gets discussed in all the well-meaning reform conversations taking place these days.
Often this role involves what Dr. Phil calls "a safe place to fall."  Teacher as advice giver, as listener, as role model.  Sometimes it's more like first responder.
Certainly in the spate of recent school shootings, we have seen teachers and other school personnel rise to the occasion and play the protector/defender role with selfless courage.  And then there are those physical emergencies.  Actually that seems to be a euphemism.  The emergencies aren't physical, they are health oriented.  Kids in pain, kids under the influence of a controlled substance, and certainly the least favorite kids getting sick...sloppy, disgusting, messy sick.
I still recall some of the specific occurrences I witnessed as my classmates lost their cookies during the lesson of the day.  From kindergarten while at the easel doing watercolors to my 7th grade Art elective (hey I see a pattern here) there were a few memorable upset stomaches and their consequences whose memories never faded with time.
When I look back on my 33 years at the helm I recall a few instances where I played the role of care giving parent.  From fainting to the crippling pain of ovarian cysts, I have knelt in hallways trying to reassure a scared adolescent that this too would pass. Lots of Kleenex for tears...a panic attack or two, and certainly many, many fistfights that saw blood trickle or clothing torn or, the worst injury of all, a bruised ego.
But one incident stands out from all the others because of the response I received.  During my year teaching middle school,  I  experienced what could only be called an underwhelming response.  My 7th grade class was reading silently.  As I often do, I was glancing around the room to observe their reading behavior.  How they appear while reading, whether they are focused, or restless.  I chanced to glance in the back corner of the room and noticed Fernando, usually quiet, rather squirmy.  Then his head went down.  I thought about walking back to see if he was OK but decided instead to just keep my eye on him.  Within a minute his head rose and his face was olive green.  You know what's coming, yes he puked all over the table in front of him and thensome.  36 twelve year olds reacted, as did I.  Opening the windows on the opposite side of the room, I told the class to face me and I would call the custodian and see that Fernando went to the school nurse.  There was relative calm.  I seemed to be in control and sensitive to the embarrassment that Fernando must have felt.  I called the office and asked them to send the custodian because a clean-up was needed at once.

I marveled at the composure of this class although the odor in the room was beginning to make the kids uncomfortable.  Nobody reading now.  While waiting for the office to respond, I conjured up visions of my beloved elementary school custodian Mr. Herrick.  A hard-working German immigrant, Mr. Herrick could do anything.  His well-worn kakis were always a welcome sight.  I recalled too, how in situations like this he arrived promptly with a bucket of sawdust that absorbed everything.  He swept that up with a few quick strokes and then mopped with a cleaning solution.  The room was clean within minutes.  Reading resumed.  While congratulating myself for navigating this difficult situation there was a knock on the door.  When I opened it an extended hand offered me two paper towels...then walked away.  Official response.
I want to end here, but I won't.  here's what happened next.  My anger and astonishment quickly turned into action and I had the class move into the hallway.  I asked my colleague next door to watch my class as I went to the closest men's room and grabbed the entire roll of paper towels after wetting a few.  Mildly enraged, I cleaned up that mess in about 5 minutes and the class returned to the room.
We read a little longer that day.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


I was reading an article by a woman called Julia Galef about a new teaching strategy called Surprise Journals.  The thinking here is that we get locked in to our opinions and beliefs and then seek affirmation from those with similar thinking.  She writes:  "Many behavioral psychology and cognitive science studies demonstrate that humans find it difficult to change their opinions.  In what is known as the "bias blind spot," it is much easier for us to see other people's biases than our own. The "confirmation bias" reveals that we seek out feedback from people who are likely to agree with us: We read newspapers and watch TV talk shows that are probably going to tell us things we already agree with. Galef says that there is much more research about how biased humans are than how to change these biases. "I really wanted to get better at changing my mind...This is not a perfect solution, but it has gone a long way to making me more open and less defensiveness about when I'm wrong."
 The writing technique asks us to note down the times/circumstances we fall into this trap and then challenges us to change our thinking, especially when we must go counter to people or institutions that we don't usually disagree with or that whom we respect so much that we couldn't possibly imagine being of the other side of their ideas.
It's easy to see this "bias blind spot" all over our culture these days.  From TV stations that are slanted to our deepest thoughts about public institutions like schools and political parties, and law enforcement.
The photo here shows the teaching strategy as students write potential Surprise Journal entries on Post It notes.

The Surprise Journal helps us change our mind about things and argues that it's healthy to do that.  So what would be some of your first entries in a Surprise Journal?  What assumptions, I keep asking myself, do I make about things I assume to be true but are probably not?
Recently I nixed a move because I felt the new place was just too small.  I was adamant.  I may also have been wrong.  At least I was decisive, I kept telling myself.  But I now have the option of allowing myself to be surprised by this assumption and can work to change my thinking.
It's easy to see how this would work with something of real significance, too.  We all assume things about the important people in our lives and our skills and abilities.  Any surprises there when you stop to reconsider?
In the end, this is all about opening our minds even further than we think they are.  Many surprises to follow.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Brown-Eyed Girl

I remember going for a walk that day.  It must have been before the VISTA training was over because I didn't have a car.  I must have been eager to get outside and off my myself because most July days in Houston, Texas are hot.  Hot as in 100 degrees or more, then muggy then cloudy then gully-washer rainstorms, then steamy, then hot again.
I remember it was Westheimer Road where I ended up walking.  Not sure how far out of town or where exactly but I entered a small antique store and began to look around. The usual array of items in a small glass case. Some jewelry, old political buttons, Depression glass...watches.  On the walls various paintings, on the tables, more glassware and dinner sets of fine china.  And then I saw her.  I looked right in her face and was fixated.  The oval frame was cheap but the watercolor painting was deep and clear, and haunting.  The artist had talent.  The brown eyes were lifelike, the yellow bonnet enchanting.

I couldn't have paid much more than $20.00.  Thinking back, I doubt I had more than twenty bucks with me any time that year.  Wish I could see the face of the man that sold me that painting.  Wish I could recall the name of that store.  All that remains is Westheimer...the name Westheimer is recognizable in Houston.  One of the early pioneers, Michael Westheimer gave his name to the street and left a legacy.  His wife, Bettie, supposedly made the painting I took home with me that day.  That's what the man who worked in the store told me.  I never forgot that.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I recently contacted David Lackey of the Antiques Roadshow.  I've watched his appraisals for fine art for years.  He's from Houston and has his business very near where I found the little watercolor.  I knew he'd respond, and surely, in a matter of two days, he assured me that the beautiful little painting was not really worth more than $50.00 and may or may not have been painted by Mrs. W.  Nobody seems to know whether, in fact, she painted at all.
So...happily, the mystery continues.  Just fine by me, because I'd never sell this watercolor.  It continues to please me everyday.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sound Behavior

Most teachers I know have heard the sound.  They know when it is likely to happen, and, truth be told, which student is likely to make it.  Probably Social Science and Language Arts teachers have more experience with it.  Subjects that deal with the human condition are more likely to produce the sound, but it’s definitely not exclusive to the humanities.  All too often the sound is predictable.  In fact because a teacher is often able to predict this occurrence it could actually be avoidable.  But censorship presents other problems.
So what’s the mystery noise?  It’s the enthusiastic, often adoring, sound of unbridled excitement when one human being hits another.

 You might be showing a documentary on labor strife or the film version of a classic piece of literature.  When raw violence occurs, usually in the form of a slap across the face, or as we’ve recently seen in surveillance videos a knockout punch, there are always a few in any classroom who literally jump out of their seats with joy.  While others might wince, or look away, or display empathy with the victim, these few who seem over the top with glee get most of the attention.  It usually takes them a few minutes to calm down.  Any information or film dialogue that follows the violent outburst is always lost.
It’s unsettling.  It’s curiously disturbing.  It’s usually left alone.
We like to think that no person or culture values violence for it’s own sake, but they do.  In my classroom experience it is most often the students whose childhood involves corporeal punishment that react the most enthusiastically to violence.  Their lives are most likely to be filled with violence either from family, friends, or the amount they see in the media.  Physical fighting is often encouraged. Discipline gets confused with punishment. Might usually makes right in their world.
I taught a full year in a middle school once when the historic education cutbacks hit California in the early 1980s.  My students were mostly Latino and African American.  The school principal was African American as was one of the three counselors.  The year proved most enlightening for many reasons.  While my students were engaged, intellectually curious, and developed a love of reading, there were a few who acted out on occasion.  On one rare occasion that I sent a student to see his counselor because it was not a good day for him to be in class, I was asked by the counselor if I could please join a meeting between her and the student in question.  She phoned to tell me that the boy’s grandmother, with whom he lived, was not able to attend.  After school that day I gladly went to her office.  I knew the back-story.  The grandmother adopted Paul when his parents abandoned him.  In her late seventies, she could barely get around so attending this discipline meeting was out of the question.  Mrs. Washington, the counselor, played a vital role in Paul’s life.  She was the role model he needed.  She set the limits and she enforced the rules.  Paul was not a difficult student.  He was not meaning, vindictive or even unmotivated in the classroom.  He simply found himself out of control on occasion and had the habit of displacing his anger on his classmates or even his teachers.  Mrs. Washington gave him a choice.  He could either be suspended for two days or face her consequences.  We all knew suspension would not be the choice.  It was merely a formality because Mrs. Washington knew that if he stayed home with grandma nothing productive would result.  Paul chose the alternative.  Mrs. Washington told him to get ready.  He then thrust forward his arms and she produced a ruler from her desk drawer.  I watched her strike his wrists with the ruler about 5 times on each arm.  Paul apologized for his behavior in class and then left the office promising to be on time to class the next day. 
I never spoke much with Mrs. Washington about her method of discipline.  I knew that culturally it was the norm.  The rod was not spared in many God-fearing families.

But this is part of the behavior that needs to change.  Today that form of traditional discipline is gone.  Even the wooden paddle “swats” my P.E. teachers administered to their all male classes are a thing of the past.  But residual behaviors and attitudes survive.  They have come to light as the technology continues to encroach on our time and privacy.  Reluctantly or benevolently, we move forward.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tackle This

The media is all abuzz with the story of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.  New video released today shows just how brutal his violent assault on his then girlfriend, now wife actually was.  That the NFL failed to act in a serious and timely fashion is part of the story.  Today he was summarily cut by the team because there is definite proof that he knocked his beloved unconscious with one punch to the jaw.  All this took place behind the closed doors... of an elevator.
Sure he should be severely disciplined...even lose his job, undergo counseling, and serve as an example to other young NFL players who think they are untouchable.

But something is missing from all the outrage.  The NFL is and has been getting increasingly violent.  Small wonder that it's players often react violently in every phase of their lives.
Until this story surfaced, and then resurfaced with the new video most of the current NFL concern centered around the impact of violence on brain injuries.  Al Jazeera submits the following data:

  •  American High School football players were struck in the head 30 to 50 times in every game and regularly endured blows similar to those experienced in car crashes, according to a Virginia Tech study
  • 47 per cent of high school football players say they sustain at least one concussion each season
  • 35 per cent of them say they had more than one in the same season - according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
  • 85 per cent of sports-related concussions are not diagnosed - according to the American College of Sports Medicine
  • Three million sports concussions occur every year in the US
  • 57 per cent of fans believe something should be done about head injuries
  • But nine in ten football fans say reports of head injuries will not affect their viewing plans
  • A record number - 111.3 million - watched American football's big game, the Superbowl, this year
  • The National Football League made some $9 bn in revenue in 2010 from merchandising, advertising and stadium revenues
Al Jazeera
I'm curious just how long it will take mainstream media to make the connection.  Just last weekend, while watching some of the opening week highlights, I noticed something I've never seen before.  While returning a kickoff, a running back attempted to hurdle his pursuer.  Oh, I've seen them do that before, but when it seemed that he hadn't quite cleared the would-be tackler, he extended his foot and kicked the defender in the face.  Penalty flag. Yes.  Fine and league action...probably.  What's next?
Remember the days when they called it tackle football because it was about tackling the other guy not "hitting" him.  Football, and NFL football is evolving right before our eyes, in my view.