Tag Archives: special ed

Hot for Teaching

I am coming up on a new quarter at my high school gig and a new semester at my college gig. I recently received my finished schedules for both of them, which means I have roughly a week and a half to prepare for all of them.

Despite my desire this summer to reinvent my college-level creative writing class, once the school year got going, I found myself too busy to act on it, so the class I’ll be starting next week will probably look much the same as the one before. I may get inspired between now and then to implement some changes to my weekly lectures, but the general syllabus of the class will remain the same.

As for my high-school teaching duties, I have another section of Dungeons & Dragons this quarter, which though it takes a lot of prep, doesn’t require as much as it used to thanks to the number of times I’ve taught it now. I also have Creative Writing, which will run like a simpler version of my college course (this one will be one-on-one, just me and a fifteen-year-old student, so it won’t run — and can’t run — exactly the same as a college course designed for two dozen 20-year-old students).

I have a bunch of other classes that will require some significant prep time though. I’ve taught on similar topics in the past, but these classes really need to be designed from the bottom up if I’m to address the unique needs of this year’s crop of students.

The first new class is called Talking Politics, Religion, and Sex: The Art of Difficult Conversations. This class will meet three times a week and include five upper-level students (the youngest is fifteen; the oldest is nineteen). I’ve asked one of the older students to act as our facilitator so that she can develop and demonstrate her speaking and listening skills as per her graduation requirements. The other students and I will act as the interlocutors, sharing our understandings and opinions on various difficult topics of the day. The students will participate in the selection of the daily topics, but I will provide each week’s general theme (politics, religion, or sex, for example).

I don’t want the class to just be a bullshit session, however, so each week will also include direct instruction in the various strategies, styles, and norms that come into play when we engage in difficult conversations. This isn’t something I can pull off the top of my head. I will need to do some research if I’m to understand exactly what I need to teach and then some creative time if I’m piece it back together in a form my students will recognize. Finally, I’ll need to do some systematic thinking to understand how I can weave the direct instruction into the flow of an overwhelmingly dicussion-based class.

The second new class is Women’s Studies, with a dose of Marginalized Communities. I’ve taught a version of this before during a series of seminars on the historic waves of Feminism, but that was to a classroom full of eager philosophy students. This version needs to meets the unique needs of a single teenage boy.

I have one intention with this class: to get this teenage boy to not become a sexual assailant. As a teenage boy growing up amidst rural poverty and ignorance, he is, unfortunately, at risk. I’m creating this class solely for him, and I’m creating it as the father of a young girl, the mentor to dozens of other young girls, and the professor of over a hundred young women. I don’t do this to protect them; I do this to make their lives easier and to ensure their sexual experiences are more free from tragedy than those of their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and so on back through eternity.

We see a lot of memes about the shotgun-toting father. I’d like to see one about the story-telling teacher, the one who can engender enough empathy in his male students that they begin to value their female counterparts not just for their bodies, but for their minds and their spirits, a teacher who turns his young male charges into boys and men who can see in girls and women the same struggles and desires that they see in themselves, and realize, when they look into their faces, that they’re looking at human beings, creatures with a right to just as much liberty as them, and not one iota less. Where’s that meme, huh?

So that’s the self-righteousness that I’m bringing into the class, which is obviously not a good thing. Self-righteousness does not a good teacher make. I need to tone it down and simply meet the kid where he is at…and then gently lead him into the future with the rest of us, a future where women are truly equal, not only in their opportunities, but in their estimations.

The “dose of marginalized communities” is included in the title as a tangential topic because it’s not my motivating force, but I do understand that the lack of empathy that opens him up to being a potential sexual assailant lies at the root of not only misogyny, but also of racism and nationalism, two more ideologies that lie like a curse across this country’s future. This understanding will be like a bass line beneath all of our discussions, but the class will focus more directly on his relationship to women; that is the fault line that will shake him to his core and loosen his ideologies up for a shift on everything else. I’m still not sure how to do that though.

Another relatively big class I need to teach is Civics. This particular class includes five students ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, and all of them were assigned to it (i.e., this is not a class they’ve asked for). I’ve taught some version of civics in a variety of contexts, including a deep dive into the Supreme Court and others into some of the agencies subsumed under the Executive branch.

But this class is a little bit different. First, I’ve yet to teach this particular combination of students, and I’m unclear as to how well they can work together, let alone my reservations as to how each of them will work (or can work) on their own. Leaving that aside, I’m also unclear as to my overall objective with the class. When the class is all said and done, what do I want them to understand and what do I want them to be able to do?

Two of my five students are eligible to vote. The other three are not far behind. When it comes time, I want all of them to be able to do that — to vote — and to do it in as informed a manner as possible. I don’t want to shape the way they think about political topics (they can vote for whatever and for whomever they like), but I do want to shape the way they think about their role in our government.

I want them to see the entire tree of our democracy, understand its main branches (including the military), and feel their own standpoint as being deep down among the roots. I want them to understand how their actions and their decisions help feed the entire tree. I want them to have a sense of civics that is less “how a bill becomes a law” than it is “how a person becomes a country.” I think that could be kind of fun.

I’m also teaching a small class to two students about The Art of the Sentence. I haven’t taught this one before, but I’d like to make it a staple of my quarterly offerings.

The majority of my high school students hate to write, and most of them have been socially promoted throughout their education, leading to a situation where not only do they hate to write, but they flat out don’t know how to.

I haven’t ever addressed this question head on. I’ve focused more on the shallowness of their thinking than on their inability to write down their thoughts (neglecting, in the process, a major contributor to the cause of their shallowness). With so many of them hating to write, I concentrate a lot on their verbal skills (hence, Dungeons & Dragons), trying to get them to ask questions when they don’t understand something and to reiterate a speaker’s points when they think they do. When I’ve forced them to write, I’ve concentrated on the way they introduce, support, and transition through their ideas, focusing my instruction on the highest levels of their argument.

I’m hoping this new class will correct my error. By reducing their focus to the sentence (rather than to, say, the paragraph or the argument), I hope to change the entire game that they’ve been taught to play, and in the process, try to engender a new joy for writing.

I don’t yet know how to do that exactly. I don’t know what example sentences to provide; how much grammatical jargon to use, and whether to teach it and insist on its use directly; how much time to spend on punctuation; when to introduce each piece of new information; how to assess for their understanding and practice; etc. But regardless of how I do it, I know I have to do it, and for that, I’m excited.

The final class on my upcoming schedule is called Technology. It’s a one-on-one class with a graduating student who simply needs a quarter-credit in Technology to graduate. Essentially, I can make the class about anything, as long as it includes technology. I have a couple of ideas: podcasting; blogging; a conceptual breakdown of the Internet, supported by technical materials…but I haven’t spoken with the student about it yet, so I don’t want to make any assumptions. The podcasting thing could be fun, but we’ll see — it’s really up to him.

That may seem like a lot to prep before January 23rd, and the truth of the matter is that it is, but each of the topics are of real interest to me, so the prep is something I’ll enjoy. I’m sometimes too busy or exhausted for it, but I know that every moment I can give to it will pay me back in spades.

I guess one word for what I do is called work, but working is easy when you truly love what you do.

There’s More To Sex Ed Than Just Sex

How do you teach 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys not to objectify women?

I suspect the answer lies in empathy. You have to get them to understand what it feels like to become an object. That’s the only thing that would work. They’d have to step outside of their own lust and imagine being the unwilling object of that lust.

But you couldn’t approach something like that head on; they’d  laugh you out of the room. You couldn’t approach it from a perspective of media criticism either, because the concept would be too abstract for them to grasp it. You’d have to come at it on the sly, sneak it in under the cover of something else.

The something else couldn’t be academic, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones whose ignorant state of objectifying women could eventually lead to the criminal stage of assaulting them.

An easy answer is literature and film, since the best lessons are often communicated in the language of story — but again, not for the kids I’m talking about, the ones who don’t read and who can’t sit still long enough to watch a whole movie.

So what is the hard answer? How do you teach 14, 15, and 16 year old boys not to objectify women?

Is it the kind of job that requires a woman to lead it, or maybe two women in tandem, or maybe a combination of the sexes, one to speak from the experience of the object and the other from the experience of the objectifier?

And if, for want of the students’ maturity, you can’t approach it head on, then how best to approach it?

Or maybe, in this instance, you just have to push past the maturity question and treat the subject as honestly as you’d treat math. Not by hiding it in something else, but by saying, straight up, “We’re going to talk about objectifying women,” and let the conversation go as it may, immaturity and all, until you finally get enough buy in on the seriousness of the topic that even a 14, 15, or 16-year-old boy will know enough to pay attention.

One out of every six women in America will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Nearly one in every two women will be the victim of some kind of sexual assault other than rape in her lifetime. Nearly 25% of rape perpetrators are under the age of 20.

This part of a young man’s education matters. And because it affects the way the person treats 50% of the world’s population, maybe it matters more than most other elements of their education.

If we’re to stop the violence on women, we need to do it by curing the systemic causes in our 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys. They are tomorrow’s college students and criminals, and they need to understand the difference between biological lust and the interpersonal violence that comes from sexual objectification.

It’s too important to leave out.

Freedom Isn’t Easy

I could tell you a lot of cool things about my school, but yesterday, the sheriff’s department escorted one of our students out of our school in handcuffs; and earlier this year, one of our former students (who had dropped out) was shot in the head while sitting in a parked car at two in the morning; and one of the people in the car when the gun went off was also a former student, and he went to prison soon after because, by being in the car that night, he violated his parole; and earlier last year, two other former students were accused (though not convicted) of stealing from their employers, with each incident independent from the other.

No matter how cool our school might be, the truth is that we attract some difficult kids, and while we try to provide them with every opportunity to take control of their education and, in the process, gain control of their lives, too many of them find the freedom too difficult to handle.

One of my students told me yesterday that they feel like they’re living in a role-playing game because even for the simplest of decisions, they sometimes roll a die to decide what they should do. When the student told me this, they were thinking of episodes in their life where they actually, physically rolled a six-sided die, but they were not connecting this anecdote to their immediate reality, wherein they were seated on the floor, consulting a new-age ripoff of Tarot cards for insight into their current predicament. They honestly didn’t see a connection between their inability to make simple decisions and their desire to seek out answers to life’s problems in a deck of commercially produced and professionally marketed cards.

Earlier in the class, for reasons I don’t need to go into, I found myself having to explain to this same student the market forces that lead to SPAM phone calls and emails, a conversation that resulted in the student returning a SPAM phone call they had received earlier in the day to demand an answer from the telemarketer as to how her company acquired the student’s phone number. The conversation did not go well; my student was being earnest and the telemarketer refused to budge from her script, leading me to have to provide explicit instructions as to how and why my student should simply hang up the phone, regardless of whether the telemarketer was done speaking on the other end.

All of which is to say that most of the students who come to my school have difficulty with the simplest things. It’s not that they are dumb — in fact, most of the kids I work with are incredibly bright — it’s that some simple but important things about living in society do not click into place for them like they do for you and me. They just don’t get it, and unfortunately, some of them never will.

We designed our school for one mission: to provide every student, regardless of their abilities, with the opportunity to be interested and engaged in their own education (including their social-emotional education). But so many of our students come to us without being interested or engaged in anything beyond their own drama, or what’s worse, their own trauma, which makes them unable to stay out of their own way.

Our tactic to overcome this is both simple and incredibly hard: We try to make them feel safe. At bottom, that means safe not just from something, but also to become something. The kids who come to us have rarely heard an encouraging word; they’ve been told they are worthless, and in some cases, they’ve been abandoned by their dearest family members, literally left alone in the world with no one to protect or care for them.

It’s no wonder they have trouble making decisions. They have zero self-confidence, and so they don’t trust themselves. Every decision they’ve ever made has led them to where they are now: kicked out of almost every school they’ve ever attended — some residential, some not, some institutional, some not — told that they don’t belong, told to get out, told that they’re a freak of some kind. Their parents, if they’re around, are rarely worth much, and what they are worth is often compounded with negative interest in their kids, which can often mean verbal, physical, or sometimes even sexual abuse, resulting in the child experiencing incredible pain and suffering at the hands of the people society tells them are supposed to love them more than anyone.

Why would they trust themselves? Why would they trust anyone?

And then we come along, offering these students with incredibly acute social-emotional needs a true progressive model of education — one that is student-centered and student-driven, where they’re asked not to do as they’re told but, instead, to do as they think they ought to.

What do we expect will happen? That they’ll all start singing kumbaya, and butterflies will descend from the heavens, and within days, they’ll each be as happy and as engaged as the students on a college brochure?

No. What we expect to happen is what happened today. One student will be escorted from the building in handcuffs. Another will have such an emotional crisis that they will collapse to the ground shaking and in tears. Another will scream so loud on the drive to school that their driver will have an actual panic attack in the car and be unable to feel her hands and feet. Another will refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, choosing instead to physically wrestle with their teacher. Still others will actively avoid your best advice and refuse to work on the projects they need to exhibit publicly in just over two weeks.

Trying to give kids conscious and moral control over their freedom is a struggle. It’s a real struggle.

Thankfully, I’ve had enough days that were the complete opposite of yesterday to know that, with most kids, the struggle is worth it.

And so while I should expect days like today, I should also be ready to celebrate success whenever I can find it. Like the fact that yesterday two of my students donated their time to complete the duties of a staff member who had to leave early due to a family emergency. Or the fact that the day before, one of my students consulted with a professional in the student’s field of interest to verify the quality of their homework, and the student did so with only the most minimal of supports. Or the fact that, earlier in the week, another of my students, despite being incredibly tired and out of sorts and despite having a history of verbal diarrhea, found enough self-control to be respectful with their peers, their teachers, and the public for longer than I thought possible.

All of them did those things not because they were told to, but because, as free thinkers, it was what they thought they ought to do.

Some days are a struggle. But the struggle really is worth it.

A Serious Mistake

I had a moment with a student this week. It was early in the morning, and this student was not feeling up to it. I entered the classroom and already I could tell that something was wrong.

But for some reason, I didn’t do anything to help him. I was in my own head, feeling self-important as I entered the room and focused on my own agenda for how the next sixty minutes would go. While I saw him and knew something was wrong, I did not let that deter me from accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.

In my school, teachers share classrooms. While we are a one-to-one school, very few of our blocks are truly one-to-one. Even if we have one staff member assigned to one student, we often group students and staff together in the same space, even when they’re not working on the same subject. This allows the students and the staff to play off of each other in fruitful and often serendipitous ways.

So that morning, as I entered the classroom, I saw this student having a real problem, but he wasn’t my student for the next sixty minutes, so I passed him by and moved on to what I imagined my responsibilities were for that block, a combination of administrative obligations and student supervision (not teaching, per se, but supervision; my assigned student works independently that block). There were two other teachers in this shared space, so I assumed he was one of theirs, and hence, his problem was their problem.

About twenty minutes later, I noticed that the student was still sitting there, without any adult’s undivided attention, so I asked him, “Hey, who are you supposed to be with this block?” He looked up at me and said, “You.”

And then it hit me: he was absolutely right. It’s just that, until this day, he had worked side by side with the student who was working independently, and so I forgot he was assigned to me. And then, on this day, when it really mattered, I wasn’t there for him.

As soon as I realized my mistake, I immediately left behind every obligation I imagined I had and sat down with this student, made direct and clear eye contact with him, and asked him what was going on. Within moments, he had tears in his eyes, and for the next 30 minutes, we just talked. We didn’t talk about the problem directly (he doesn’t yet trust me enough for that), but we did talk about something else that was bothering him, and by helping him process that more minor problem, I believe I helped him talk about the real problem later on in the day with our school counselor (not to take anything away from the incredible skills of our school counselor, who is perhaps one of the most analytical and yet most present listeners I’ve ever met).

But that’s not the point. It’s not about the twenty minutes he and I spent together, having what I felt to be a meaningful conversation; it’s about the 35 minutes before that, when I told him with every fiber of my being that he didn’t matter (not enough for me to stop focusing on my goals anyway).

Unfortunately, at my school, there’s really only one thing our boss completely expects from us (most staff members have other obligations, but this is the big one), and that’s to be present with the kids we are assigned to. When a staff member is having an issue connecting with one of our kids, they can blame whoever does the schedule, but I’m the guy who does the schedule, so there’s no one left to blame but myself. In my capacity as the scheduler, I chose this student for this block; I knowingly committed myself to him; and that day, I forgot he was mine.

As I said, I didn’t solve my student’s underlying problem that day. And the truth is, I’ll never be able to. It’s a systemic problem that originates in the home, is diffused and exacerbated by society, and spilled onto the floor for everyone else to deal with. It’s the problem of being (or at least feeling like) an unwanted child.

Most of the students in my school have come to us as the last stop. There really isn’t anything after us except a bed in a state-run institution, and there’s not always enough beds. They’ve been told by almost every single adult they’ve ever interacted with that they’re not wanted. Many of them are in some kind of foster care, or living with non-parental relatives, or shuttled off into quasi- or state-paid-for apartments. They’ve been kicked out of every school they’ve ever attended, and sometimes they’ve even been kicked out of other schools like ours.

We are the last stop, and when they don’t make it with us, the next stop might not just be a state-run institution; it might actually be death.

I’m not trained to handle that kind of responsibility. But honestly, who is?

You might think, “Um….psychiatrists? psychologists?…you know…doctors?”

Okay, fine. But do you know how much doctors get paid? How much are you willing to pay in your taxes for some other kid’s education? Would it be enough to pay for a school full of doctors? And just one school or two? What about seven? What about 250? What about 98,271?

Until society decides to pay teachers like doctors (or pay doctors to be teachers), who are we willing to pay to be present with those kids whose next step might include a noose, or even worse, holding a loaded machine gun?

Me. That’s who.

You’re willing to pay me.

An adult who sometimes forgets what kid he’s assigned to. But also an adult who is willing, every single day, to sit down with any troubled young person and ask, with all my heart, “What’s going on?”