Ridiculous Dreams

dreams

My grandchildren tell me that their high schools are crowded with thousands of students. I have a difficult time relating to that concept because there were probably fewer than six hundred students in the school from which I graduated and under five hundred kids in the high school from which I retired from my career in education. I enjoyed the benefit of personalization for young men and women navigating their way to college and careers in both my own youth and my work life. Keeping secondary schools small nurtures an atmosphere for truly getting to know and understand each and every person. It creates a caring environment that allows for crafting graduation plans that take into account the needs of individuals. It helps each person to feel loved and important.

It’s so easy for students and perhaps even teachers to get lost in mega high schools. With thousands of people in a system it is a constant battle just to keep a semblance of order. There are never enough counselors to get to know each student as a person. People fall through the cracks of a one size fits all kind of education. Generally only those specifically protected because of their special needs receive a more custom designed education. Classrooms and hallways are crowded and teachers are overwhelmed with duties. There is little time and almost no patience for those who feel lost or ignored by the system. The squeaky wheels often get punished and those who quietly just get by sometimes lose interest. A great deal of human capital is wasted simply because it is so difficult to reach everyone in a factory like atmosphere. From time to time the truly disturbed resort to violent outbursts to gain the attention that they seek and actually need.

I have long held that no high school should be bigger than around one thousand students and even that number is a bit large. Having around two hundred fifty kids in each grade is more than enough for teachers and counselors to handle. Classes need to be restricted to twenty five or less and there should be a team of both an academic, emotional and college/career counselor for each one hundred twenty five students. Nobody is a cipher in a school that has a team of grade level teachers, three grade level counselors and a grade level chairperson diligently watching over the unique needs of each individual. The school becomes a kind of family unit away from home. People have the time to really “see” each person.

Teens are experiencing an upheaval of hormones and emotions. They are frantically attempting to determine where their lives should lead. They are dealing with social issues, physical and psychological changes, and academic challenges all at the same time. Some seem to easily handle the process but the vast majority would benefit from guidance tailored to individual personalities and abilities. In the mega high schools this becomes a tall order if not an impossibility. Each adult’s workload is so expansive that there has to be a strict and unyielding  set of rules to keep operations running smoothly. It’s not that nobody cares. It’s a matter of having only so many hours in a day to get things done. The task of keeping tabs on every single student in a large school is almost insurmountable. There are inevitably those who fall through the cracks.

There are many arguments that creating a caring and hands on environment in high schools does not properly prepare students for the harshness of the adult world. Some feel that the best approach is to figuratively throw the kids into the water and hope that they swim rather than sink. The efforts to save them are reserved for those about to go under, believing that choking on a little water is no big deal. While there is some merit to the idea of toughening our youth before they meet the real world, a small school allows for doing so in carefully monitored increments in which students feel ultimately safe. They may make mistakes, but they have adults who continually help them to learn valuable lessons from them. They graduate well versed in knowledge but also in how to navigate to and through the rest of their lives.

One aspect of the KIPP Charter Schools that is exceptional is that there are teams of adults who continue to stay in touch with former students even after they have graduated from high school. These adults are literally on call to help graduates with any kind of problems that begin to impede their progress in becoming the very best of themselves. The responsibilities of the schools do not end when the students receive their diplomas. Representatives regularly travel to college campuses and hold gatherings where the young men and women are able to openly discuss the difficulties with which they are dealing. In other words there is an army of support that continues without limits.

I worked in a KIPP high school. Many of my former students have returned to the KIPP Charter schools to work as teachers, counselors and support personnel. They realize with gratitude that their own lives were dramatically improved by the efforts of an army of adults who viewed each of them as being worthy of a program individually designed. They are the products of a powerful statement of action that taught them that each and every life matters.

What I propose is both radical and expensive but wise individuals might find ways to make such visions become possible. If we do not dream then when can’t really expect our children to think out of the box either. The best ideas have almost always sounded ridiculous until the were not. 

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Those Kids

bad kids

A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.

Be That Person

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It’s quiet this morning. As I write my blog the children in my neighborhood have not yet started back to school, but by the time it is posted their educational routines will have begun again in earnest. This time of year causes me to review the totality of my own life and to consider the challenges that I faced in growing up as well as those that plague today’s youngsters.

I was five years old when I became a student for the first time. My father dropped me off rather unceremoniously at St. Peter’s Catholic School where I began the first grade with little preparation for the routine that would overtake my life. My mother had only days before returned from the hospital with my brand new baby brother. My favorite uncle was fighting for his life at the Veteran’s Hospital in a battle that would not end well. There was a bit of chaos in my little world and thus the adults decided that I would be happier in the structured environment of school than the free range of a home turned upside down by life’s events.

Nobody took a photograph of my milestone entrance into school nor did they explain to me what lie ahead. I was simply told at the last minute that the time for my formal education had arrived. To say that I was unhappy and a bit overwhelmed would be an understatement, but I was always an obedient child and so I quietly demurred to my parents’ wishes even though I was frightened and confused. Luckily my teacher was an extraordinary educator who sensed my reluctance and did her best to help me to feel more comfortable about being away from my family for long periods of time. A sweet girl named Virginia who befriended me in my hour of need helped to soften the experience as well.

I soon found that learning provided me with a profound sense of control over my life. I was by nature an anxious child, but once I began to read and perform mathematical calculations I actually became so caught up in the experiences that time passed quickly and I hardly thought about the concerns that so often crowded my mind. I found solace and escape from worry in the lessons that inched me toward becoming the person that I would ultimately be. Still, as each successive school year rolled around I found myself dreading the return to structure and assignments and being away from my family only to be surprised at how much I enjoyed being a student.

My fourth grade years brought eight year old me to school as a fatherless child. My world had been turned upside down by my father’s sudden death and I had spent the summer in a kind of sorrowful haze. I remembered how much he had loved learning of all kinds and thought of him dropping me off at the first grade. I was a psychological mess, and sadly I did not get a kind and gentle teacher that school year so I experienced my first episode of school as a source of stress. I protected myself by retreating into my books and I found that even without the kindness of the adult in whose care I existed each day I still felt a sense of serenity within the pages of those tomes that carried me to faraway worlds.

Year after year I repeated the rituals of school until one day I was the one greeting the children and directing the lessons. Knowing how important it had been to me to be in the presence of a compassionate teacher, I suppose that I spent an inordinate amount of my efforts trying to make the learning experience a lovely one for my students. I understood all too well what it was like to come to school carrying baggage that made it difficult to concentrate or think. I had learned the power of kindness and understanding in breaking through my own walls, and so I did my best to appreciate each of my students just as they were rather than worrying too much about how I wanted them to be. I always hoped that they understood how much I cared about them.

So many children today begin their educational journeys as infants when their parents place them in daycares and pre-schools while they work. The educational scope and sequence has been accelerated to a level that is demanding and allows little time for relaxing. The buses that come to my neighborhood arrive before seven in the morning and don’t return until after four in the afternoon. The school year begins earlier and earlier. Today’s kids spend most of their young lives outside of their homes and the demands placed on them are often enormous. In an effort to help them be well rounded they are enrolled in extra curricular activities and spend afternoons and weekends competing in athletic events. Their time at home just resting and being themselves is ever shrinking. With homework and projects they are at times in a perennial cycle of exhaustion that allows them less sleep than they actually need and few moments of quiet time.

As adults we have seen these things and maybe even worry about them but continue to simply go with the flow lest our youth fall behind the progress of their peers. After all the college years are looming and our kids must be competitive enough to earn spots on the finest campuses. There is no time to waste, or at least it seems so. Our intentions are good but sometimes the pressure is too much for certain individuals to bear. They break and feel as though their lives have ended. I know this because I have counseled many a young person who felt as though he or she had reached the end of all possibilities. They saw themselves as failures who would no doubt spend their adult lives feeling ashamed. They had been programed to judge themselves with rubrics that did not allow for those moments in which we demonstrate our humanity with bad decisions or horrific mistakes.

As we send our children off to school this year each of us would do well to help them to maintain perspective. A life is not a series of sprints, but rather a long distance marathon that requires us to save some of our energy for the inevitable times that become difficult. The best lessons that we might teach our children are how to pace themselves, how to keep balance in their lives, how to know when they are attempting too much, how not to constantly compare themselves to others, how to choose the right people to be in their lives, how to learn from mistakes and get back in the race. We owe it to their futures and ours to help them keep a positive perspective and to give them our time and attention every single day.

Academics are important, but it will be in the love and understanding of caring adults that our children learn the lessons that will sustain them for a lifetime. Be that person in the life of every child that you encounter. Never underestimate the power that you have to make a difference in the world one young person at a time. The best lessons are not found in books.  

A Paperless World

laptop on table turned on
Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Pexels.com

The world is becoming more and more technical, and the trend is forcing us to learn how to use complex implements for living or be left behind. There is such a rush to modernize and improve the way we do things that most of the electronics that we buy are outdated within a few years. Technology is the new driver of industry creating a conceivably better way of living, but also a host of unforeseen problems.

When I attended college as an undergraduate I typed my papers on what was essentially a keyboard that directed a piece of shaped and cut metal to strike an inked ribbon to leave an impression of a letter on a sheet of paper. If I mistakenly hit the wrong key I had to use a white liquid to hide my error and then strike the correct button to hide what I had done. A bit of correction fluid here and there was somewhat unnoticeable, but I tended to have far too many slips of the hand as I typed, and so my entries were more often than not rather messy looking. I invariably lost points for the rather shabby appearance of my efforts, even though I was known to type and retype my papers in an effort to make them perfect. I once begged a professor to allow me to simply hand print my offering on lined paper which he obligingly agreed to accept. He noted with a laugh that my scribing was a hundred times better than my typing.

I was thrilled with the invention of the word processor which permitted me to concentrate on my phrasing rather than the physical construction of my papers. My days as a graduate student were far easier than my earlier years of education, but as usual inventors were not satisfied with leaving things in a simple state. They had to create software that enabled the users to develop professional looking presentation pieces that were often far too complex for me to manipulate. I generally didn’t have the time to study the processes, and so once again I found myself falling behind not in how I said something, but in how it looked on the page.

It was about the time of my graduate studies that the Internet was becoming a thing on college campuses. One of my professors taught us how to use it and required us to send him emails. It seemed almost like magic to be able to communicate so easily with him. It would only be a couple of years later that the concept of email would become a thing and the need for almost everyone to purchase a computer became a reality. Before long the educational world was onboard for creating an almost paperless society.

At first I worried mostly about my economically disadvantaged students. The virtual way of doing business did not always work so well for them. It assumed that they had computers and wifi in their homes, which many of them did not. I was often criticized for allowing them to use my machines and printers rather than the computer lab, but I had learned that the fight for use of the facilities was real. Over time home computers and Internet access became as common as having a stove for almost every person, but I was still concerned about those who were not up to speed with the world of technology. I saw the changes happening so quickly that most students were working with outdated and sometimes unreliable equipment that created huge problems for them. I remember one young man who had worked for weeks on a research paper only to have some quirk of his home computer lose all of the writing that he had done. Because he had been conferring with me on a regular basis I was able to confirm to his teacher that he had indeed been nearing the completion of his great efforts and he was given one  additional night to attempt to recreate his paper.

Now students are being bombarded with technological demands. They register for classes online, receive emails with syllabi and instructions for projects, take online tests under the eye of proctors for whom they must pay, and submit assignments electronically. They must watch for confirmations that their work has been received and be alert for last minute messages. The old face to face meetings with professors during office hours are often replaced by attempts to “speak” with them via text or email. In spite of the fact that messages get lost in the barrage of information drowning students each day and equipment failures at the worst possible moments excuses are rarely considered. Students live and die by their ability to cull the wheat from the chaff, and must hope and pray that there is no power failure or unforeseen problem when due dates loom.

I have heard many stories from my former students about issues that they have encountered because of the assumptions by professors that they will be able to navigate successfully in a fully automated world. One young man spoke of how his dyslexia was not well served by computerized tests. Another called me in a panic one evening when his laptop crashed just before an important paper was due. Others have spoken of having to spend far too much time perusing their email inboxes each day just to be certain that they were not missing some important information from their professors. Sadly occasionally they became so snowed under that one tiny misstep obliterated what had been an excellent grade in the class. The brave new world of technology can be as hurtful as it is helpful.

Technology has been a boon to much of our way of life, but it has also created unforeseen problems as evidenced by cyber bullying, out of control tweeting, and an inundation of information that often creates new anxieties. Without checks and balances the electronic way of doing things can leave individuals feeling alone and isolated. What was supposed to be an aid to better living can become a source of major frustration.

We know full well that each human is an individual with a very specific learning style which highly computerized teaching does not always address. I am a very tactile person who needs to have a paper in my hand with words written on it that I may then highlight and annotate. That is how I best study and how I do well on tests. If I have to deal with a computer screen I still need a piece of paper on which to jot my ideas and create outlines. The paperless world does not work well with my dyslexia and I’m soon transposing numbers and reading words that are not on the screen. I’m certain that there are many others just like me who are struggling with the demands of an electronic world.

As we educate individuals we must ask ourselves why someone might make all A’s on traditional work in our classes and then suddenly make a failing grade on a computer generated assignment. Surely we need to take the time to find out what happened and then adjust for that student accordingly. The key to good teaching has always been to understand that there can never be a one size fits all way of operating. We have to be ready to deal with the exceptions to rules.

I was the valedictorian of my high school class of 1966. I was proud of that accomplishment then as now because I earned it with old fashioned hard work, not native intellect. What it taught me was that goals are achieved through persistence and effort. The playing field on which I excelled felt level and fair because it allowed me to learn the way I am best suited. I’m not so sure that I would have done as well in today’s environment. The learning difficulties that I overcame would be sorely challenged by the letters that seem to jump around and glow on electronic pages. There would be no place for me to set them right with my markers and pens and little drawings. Like my blind student who required braille books, I need materials in my hands to learn most efficiently. I wonder how many more like me are struggling to demonstrate that they have what it takes because it is so often assumed that everyone does better when no paper or textbooks are involved. It’s something that we need to think about and address.

The Final Entry

you are enough text
Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.