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As promised, author Lyn Miller-Lachmann is back with a guest post on bullying—an issue addressed in her latest novel ROGUE. Take it away, Lyn!

bullying_tell_version3

Earlier this month I attended an anti-bullying workshop in Albany presented by the Anti-Defamation League, the organization known for its “A World of Difference” diversity training. Combatting bullying in K-12 schools is a new initiative for the ADL, one prompted by the rise of cyberbullying and the rash of suicides of young people targeted by bullies. Even though I got into the workshop because I teach part-time in a religious school program, I was more interested in this workshop because I experienced relentless bullying as a child and teenager, and both my recently-published novel, Rogue, and the one I wrote after Rogue begin with a bullying incident.

My difference as someone on the autism spectrum made me the target of bullies. Although I wasn’t officially diagnosed until adulthood, my atypical behavior—which included crying at the slightest provocation and having full-blown meltdowns when situations escalated—gave bored classmates endless opportunities for entertainment. In between provocations, however, I mainly experienced neglect and exclusion. I received few invitations to parties and was rarely chosen for teams or for leadership positions in school activities. Once, when I did become a committee chair in my temple youth group, an officer removed me several months later to give the position to one of her friends.

Although I encountered physical and emotional bullying, my protagonist in Rogue, Kiara, mainly experiences exclusion—first from the popularRogue_JKT_FINAL girls who push her lunch tray from the table, and then from the school that suspends her because she fights back.  For much of the story, she sees herself on the outside, with her nose pressed to the glass of a world she cannot enter. While much of modern-day bullying occurs on the Internet, Kiara is so disconnected from her peers that she remains unaware of what they might be saying about her, at the same time as she trolls websites anonymously for advice on how to make and keep friends and information about a world she doesn’t understand.

At the ADL workshop, the presenters introduced us to the social norms approach as a way of reducing the incidence of bullying in schools. This approach was first developed in the late 1980s as a way of reducing binge drinking in colleges and universities. The idea is to counteract the belief that “everyone does it” with actual statistics showing a small minority of students engaging in this dangerous practice. Once students see that binge drinking is an infrequent and extreme activity, peer pressure to drink will turn into peer pressure not to drink.

Adapted to counteract bullying in K-12 schools, the social norms approach leads to informational posters that read, “DID YOU KNOW, 96% of us think we should always try to be friendly with students who are different from us,” “Get the News! In the 30 days before the survey, most of us have not teased others in a mean way,” and “GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE! A majority of Middle School students would tell an adult at school if they were being bullied.”

6-8_crowdAnd then there was this one: “Join the crowd! 84% of us agree that the teachers and other students care about us.”

I raised my hand, and when the ADL presenter called on me, I said, “But what if you’re in the other 16%? That is an extremely isolating place to be.” I spoke about my own experience with exclusion because of my weak social skills and atypical behavior, and added, “And what if the 16% happens to be all the students who have disabilities? Or all the students with limited English proficiency? Or all the students who happen to live in a mobile home park in an otherwise wealthy suburb?”

One of the other people in the workshop answered, “If you see the poster about binge drinking, and you’re one of the 20% who binge drinks, that’s a sign that you need to get help. It’s the same in this case.”

But it’s not the same. To begin with, the individual takes action to drink while being an outcast is something others do to the individual. And while using social norms to rein in problem drinking has proven effective, social norms are part of the problem in dealing with individuals and groups who have already been put out of the pack.

My different perspective on the subject of social norms comes from personal experience—the kind of personal experience that went into the writing of Rogue. This different perspective is important if we want to eliminate bullying in schools and in society.  A social norms approach is not the answer, unless we also include an understanding of and appreciation for diversity—including neurodiversity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurodiversity )—and a commitment to giving everyone a place of dignity, respect, and importance.  And that means a genuine commitment, not giving an answer that the person doing the survey wants to hear but reaching out to people who may be isolated and difficult to reach. For that person who is different may be the one with the special talent to offer, or the solution to the problem.

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…and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I first heard this years ago, back when I was an avid NBA fan. Marc Jackson told a reporter that his father had given him that advice when he was young, and it made absolute sense to me at the time. I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, however, and I now know that loving what you do doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard—it just means that at the end of a busy day you don’t feel defeated. You DO get tired, and some days you DO dread getting out of bed. But for the most part, having a job you love means you feel the time and energy you spend are an investment in something important. I spent last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and was impressed over and over by the enthusiasm and dedication of the librarians and educators I met. On Friday I had dinner with three black women academics (Rachelle Washington, Michelle Martin, and Dianne Johnson) and a recent grad just starting her career in communications. It was an interesting moment—Jasmine laid out her plans for work/life/family and we elders talked about the need for self-care. Rachelle runs a “Sistah Doctah retreat” at Clemson University that provides mentoring and support for black women scholars and graduate students. There have been a lot of articles online lately about the specific challenges black women face in the academy. After my mid-week migraine I had to admit that self-care has not been high on my list of priorities this semester (I just had leftover cake for breakfast). I felt guilty lounging in a hotel room last weekend (I did grade midterms for a couple of hours) but I know that if I don’t slow down, eventually I’ll crash. The semester gets going and you try to “hold on” and “push through,” but that’s not healthy. I haven’t gotten any writing done lately, either, and that just makes me mean…

On Saturday I got some books at the Robert Mills Museum and then walked over to the Richland County Public Library to meet Michelle’s graduate students. They had compiled a list of more than *fifty* questions after reading Wish and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the novel, my writing process, and the challenges of getting published. I also got to learn about their literacy projects, which include books clubs, book drives, and puppetry! The library has its own puppet theater and I melted a little when I saw all their puppets hanging on the wall. I immediately recalled the raggedy old monkey puppet my mother saved for me when she retired from teaching. I need to figure out how to be the kind of professor who gets to play with puppets now and then. Or maybe I should’ve become a librarian! The ones I met in Columbia were so energetic—especially when talking to or about their teenage patrons. The best part of my author presentation was the Q&A and the two young women who talked about their own struggles with writing. “Did your parents support your decision to become a writer?” Uh—no! Not at all. They eventually came to tolerate my writing but you can’t expect *your* passion to mean as much to other people. I often say that being around teachers is like being around family, but the difference is that the teachers and librarians I meet *now* truly value my work. Having dinner with RCPL librarians Heather, Sherry, and Jennifer was a lot fun—we talked about Game of Thrones, trauma in picture books, having immigrant parents, and (of course) the election. Sunday was a day of rest and then I spent Monday at Westwood High School—a beautiful, brand new school just north of Columbia. My librarian host, Marti Brown, is also a student of Michelle Martin so she was familiar with my work and planned an amazing visit for me with her co-librarian Cathy. How often do you show up at a public school and find hot biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, and bacon?! I ate my fill and then gave a short talk to a nice group of teachers—as long as their day is, they still showed up early to hear about my books. Then I gave a presentation to about three hundred students in the school’s state of the art auditorium—complete with cordless mic and remote so that I was able to roam around and still advance my slides (all tech stuff was handled by members of the broadcasting club!). I told the students later that I wished the kids in Brooklyn could see Westwood High—*every* child should be able to attend a school like that. Before leaving for the airport I had a pizza lunch with the book club and heard a powerful poetry performance by Marshay, the Miss Westwood pageant-winner. They sent me off with a portable Redhawk blanket that kept me warm on the chilly flight home…one of my best school visits ever.

It was lovely to be spoiled like that but it was also good to come home. Getting out of NYC wasn’t easy—we’re still recovering from “Superstorm Sandy” and it was hard to hail a cab since most of them were taken and/or were in line waiting for gas. I got gouged by the cabbie (and lectured on why I should have kids) but I made it to the airport on time and even made my connecting flight despite a one-hour delay leaving JFK. I stepped off the plane in Columbia and looked up at a clear, blue sky—there was sunshine and a strong breeze—and I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Everyone I met asked how I had weathered the storm and I shared how blessed I felt not to have experienced any flooding or power loss. So many New Yorkers are still homeless, still without power and heat—and it’s FREEZING right now. We had a snowstorm yesterday and there are plenty of empty seats in my classroom because my students are struggling to recover from the storms. I woke up on Monday morning and there was no hot water in the hotel; I immediately went on Facebook and typed up a complaint to post on my feed and then had a reality check. This week has been rather overwhelming but I don’t have the additional challenges faced by those who live along the coast. I have heat, power, internet access, and food. I’m busy, but I’m also blessed. Trying to focus on that fact as I do what I can for those in need.

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We’re five weeks into the semester and I’ve already caught my first cold. Stress weakens your immune system, so I suspect that the confrontation I had with two students last week probably contributed to my health breakdown. Or rather, not the incident itself but the fact that I dwelt on it for days afterward. Someone just posted this article on Facebook: “Why I Quit Teaching.” That struck a chord with me. This is the most challenging semester I can remember, and even though the vast majority of my students are following the rules and making progress, I still have a couple who are raising hell. And somehow that makes me want to leave the classroom, which is irrational. On Saturday night To Sir, With Love was on PBS—Sidney Poitier always reminds me of my father: the pencil tie, the fitted suit, the handsome smile. My father taught for more than 30 years, and he taught special ed students here in NYC. He fussed about his students (like I do) but loved them (like I do) and definitely saw himself as a father figure (I certainly don’t). In the film, the students give “Sir” a hard time until he cracks the code and figures out how to connect with them despite the difference in race, class, and culture. He finally gets the dream job offer he’s been waiting for, but then realizes that teaching is his true calling and so tears up the letter. Hollywood still makes those kind of films but the reality is that teachers aren’t meant to SAVE students—we’re there to SERVE students because that’s what professionals do:

A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve.

But what do you do with the ones who don’t want to be served? Or think of you as a servant to be given orders? And of course this is about gender because female students never challenge my authority the way some male students do. And perhaps this is a “hypercritical woman thing” where I expect perfection of myself and so continue to focus on the ones who aren’t really trying to grow or learn. I applied for a fellowship today that would give me one full year without teaching. That prospect used to scare me, but these days…it’s looking pretty good! If that acceptance letter comes in the mail some day, I will definitely NOT tear it up.

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I thought I might need a day to settle in but the more I travel, the easier it is to move between worlds. Dreamt about Brown Hill last night; Mrs. Daniel took me on a tour of the village the night before I left Nevis, and so I have a somewhat shadowy sense of the place. I remember steep hills and fenced yards, and tree frogs (called “crapauds” by the locals) sitting in or hopping across the road, land crabs frozen in the car’s headlights, and packs of donkeys ambling by while passing cars slammed on the brakes. Brown Hill is also home to Brown Hill Communications, a call center for Bell Canada. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to move between my various “homes”—they’re all connected. At the airport this time I *did* pick up a SKN key chain. Back in June I decided I wasn’t enough of a patriot to flash the flag, but now…I don’t know. On my way to the airport on Wednesday I met with three members of the Slave Route Project curriculum committee and it looks like I may have a chance to take an active role in helping to develop lesson plans and train teachers. Which would be awesome, except for one thing: I have a full-time job here in NYC. Still, I’m going forward with my citizenship application; I applied for my long-form birth certificate this morning, which should list my father’s name, and picked up my letter of good conduct from One Police Plaza this afternoon. Looking at these great photos from Monday morning’s workshop makes me wonder how effective I’d be in a Caribbean classroom. Kids are kids but there are cultural differences to consider along with my own lack of teacher certification. Loving to teach doesn’t necessarily make me qualified to develop and/or deliver a brand new curriculum, even though I’m passionate about the subject of slavery. When I led my postcard workshop on Monday, I couldn’t get the kids to share their work…usually there are more hands in the air than I can call on, but this group was more reserved—maybe because they didn’t know me or each other. Instead they just worked quietly and diligently, raising their hand or softly calling “Teacher!” when they had a question. And when you’re summoned, you have to respond. Teachers teach. I’m just not sure I can manage to teach all these subjects and all these students at the same time. But I guess I can try…

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I never have to wonder why I write what I write…here’s a recent review posted by a teacher on Amazon:

1.0 out of 5 stars Just the Thing to Stir Up Racial Tension
June 30, 2012
By Biblically Informed Reader
This review is from: A Wish After Midnight (Paperback)

I won this book as part of a prize in a drawing for teachers. Frankly, I am appalled. I would never use it with my students. It’s nothing but poorly written, mind-in-the-gutter, depressing trash destined to incite racial tensions, rather than to encourage unifying discussion. Surely there is something better than this to offer the youth of our nation.

I read seven more Ruth Chew novels yesterday and continue to find striking similarities between her books and mine—except I’m sure the above teacher would *love* Chew’s sanitized version of historical events…

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On Thursday I ordered my new bookcase from Gothic Cabinet and then went to the new visitor center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my cousin and purchased this little pin…we then went next door to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the Question Bridge exhibit—I will definitely be going back to watch more of this expertly integrated video installation (you can watch excerpts on the website *and* there’s an educator guide). Black men ask and answer questions of themselves and one another, and though their answers are interesting, it’s almost more fascinating to simply watch them processing and articulating their values and beliefs…and they’re beautiful! I joked with my cousin that they need to put names and numbers in captions, but really it’s quite moving just to hear so many thoughtful black men reflecting on issues that matter. I wish I heard those voices more often…it’s somewhat sad that it takes technology and a degree of manipulation to create/simulate this kind of dialogue among men. Still, it’s very creative…I’ll be teaching two sections of The Black Male this fall, and will definitely use this in the classroom.

On Friday morning I went up to East Harlem to join the party—my Behind the Book students at JHS 13 were celebrating the publication of their full-color short story anthology, Remembering Our Loved Ones. These are stories they wrote after completing my “Postcards from Far Away” workshop. It was really gratifying to listen as each student went to the front of the classroom and read part or all of her/his story, which was a tribute to someone s/he loved and lost. At the end I asked the students to autograph my copy of their book…I felt really lucky to be able to share that moment with them. Chris from Behind the Book then gave me a packet of letters written by a group of 6th graders I’d worked with at Thurgood Marshall Academy. Their teacher already sent me a moving email, but there’s nothing like hearing from the kids themselves:

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I know I fussed about all those school visits last month, but I miss working with kids. Yesterday I caught the bus (van) back to the hotel and it was full of uniformed school children. I sat alone at the back until we pulled up to another school and half a dozen little boys piled in and filled the back seat. The littlest one accidentally stepped on my toe and looked up at me with a blend of awe and fear—I managed to keep a straight face as he softly apologized. I wanted to ask them what they do for fun once school is out, which books they love to read, but I don’t know these kids that way. Yet. Today I head over to my cousin’s school where I’ll speak to her mixed class of 1st–4th graders. I won’t have my powerpoint presentation to fall back on, so will answer their questions and ask a few of my own. Yesterday I received a lovely email from a teacher in Harlem:

I just wanted to say a huge thank you to you for coming and visiting with my 6th grade class at **** Academy. My students had so much fun working with you, and even more fun working on their speculative fiction stories (which we hope to complete this week). You had such a huge impact on my kids. I’m watching my students push themselves to improve as writers in ways they haven’t tried before. Some students who have stumbled to find points of entry into class activities this year have finally found success and enjoyment as a result of the work you did with them in the classroom, and for that I am forever grateful.

That particular collaboration worked so well because Behind the Book knows how to select the very best teachers…

This is my last full day here in Nevis. I have a lot more work to do, but I think I’ve absorbed about as much as I can for now. It will take months for me to fully “unpack” everything I’m bringing back. Yesterday I stopped at the police station but no one had any idea of how to find a record of my grandmother’s institutionalization; I’ll try the hospital later today. I went to the registrar’s office and flipped through two big books of birth records but didn’t find my great-grandparents. Many babies born before 1900 weren’t named at birth, it seems—or not at the time of registration. So I scanned the column that listed the name of the mother…interesting to see how certain names appeared over and over, sometimes because women had multiple children and other times because certain names were clearly popular: Keziah, Eliza Jane, Dorcas, Rosetta. Just not the Jane and Eliza I was looking for.

I spent the morning at the Alexander Hamilton House Museum. They had a small section on slavery, which was interesting, and I had a great conversation with the museum attendant. She confirmed what I had suspected: that Alexander Hamilton was an octoroon! His maternal grandfather, a doctor, lost his wife and so remarried a creole woman who was mixed race (mulatto). They had a daughter, Rachel, who would have been a quadroon (one quarter black) and she in turn had Alexander! Everything’s mixed here, and everyone’s connected it seems. This plaque (right) explains that John Smith, before founding Jamestown, VA, stopped at Nevis for 6 days back in 1607…we’re all migrants and have been for centuries.

I walked over to the alley—a narrow drive with high stone walls that marks all that remains of the original slave depot. Then I met Amba and Dianne for lunch at a nearby cafe that’s on the site of Amba’s former family home. We talked for more than two hours and could have kept on going—it was great to get the perspective of other “returnees,” people who have ties to Nevis but lived most of their lives abroad. We discussed the cost of living, the artist’s need for community, and the challenge of learning new ways of doing things to shift from “outsider” to “insider.” Dianne also shared *her* family research, which indicates that our shared Hood ancestors were of Portuguese Jewish descent. My cousin in Canada confirmed this, and added that her great-aunt moved to Panama at some point. It’s dizzying, all this information! But it’s also another point of entry, another open door…

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