Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Good Times

For those who have been reading this lately - you may have noticed that I have been a little down on teaching and education. So I decided to write about the good times. This past week I had a day that was every teachers nightmare, the students were mocking my attempts to tell them what to do and then of course doing whatever they wanted which included breaking a few things in the classroom, hitting each other, etc. By the end of the day I was so frustrated my co-workers were encouraging me to use one of the many personal days I have left the following day so I could have a break. I thought about it, and then I worried that maybe Thursday would be one of the good days, or better days. Maybe I would miss one of the "good times" that make teaching worth it. So I came in, and was so glad I did. Not that the day was easy or anything, but there was a moment.

We were walking back from PE at the end of the day and to distract a students who was starting to pick on someone else, I started to talk about the leaves and flowers along the walk. At one point where there was a delightful sweet smell I stopped and asked my students "What is that wonderful smell? Do you smell it?" They immediately located its source in a honeysuckle bush and started plucking the blossoms off and putting the stem ends in their mouth. Having grown up in the North, I had never tasted a honeysuckle blossom. I asked the students in amazement if they were eating the honeysuckle and they all sort of clamored to explain it to me and show me how to do it. It was one of the "good times."

And to be totally honest, there are moments of every day even the worse days that qualify as part of the good times. I have decided that during these last four weeks, with a class that has challenged me in more ways than I thought possible, that I will go to work everyday and focus on the good times, try not to worry about the broken pencil sharpener, the bits of crayon flying about the room, the graffiti scratched into the refrigerator, the screen that has fallen out our window, or the things my students holler out he window in an attempt to get the girls walking by. Yes, I will keep addressing those issues, but I hope not to get bogged down in them. I want to remember the honeysuckle moments at the end of the day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Prison School

Yesterday I decided to watch some Democracy Now! while baking some cookies. I listened to this report on racism, brutality and humiliation in California prisons. I had to stop what I was doing and listen more closely and gasp over and over as the words in the report matched those we use every day at school. I hope this will become more clear in the post. As I said to a friend last night at dinner, not a day goes by when I am not aware of the oppressive nature of the school I work at and when I am not at least a little bit torn apart by it. Still, when I hear certain reports or read certain editorials I am still shocked at the reality of it all.

This blog is going to be a bit of an experiment in that I am going to re-listen to the report on Democracy Now and simply type my thoughts and reactions as I go along. It may be helpful to watch the report yourself.

They introduce the piece saying there is a controversy rising in California over allegations of racist treatment in prisons. How do we raise the awareness, the issue of education, particularly special education as it exists in my context to the place of a controversy? There are so many assumptions or beliefs that revolve around it. Some that come to mind are "we are doing what has to be done" "these kids won't be successful any other way" "What else are you going to do?" "They are 'special kids' they need/deserve this"

Cruelty brutality and corruption.....

extreme isolation, idleness and deprivation....

A troubling pattern of behavior -

The abuse has been discovered in what were originally called "behavior modification units" that have now been renamed "behavior management units" due to the bad connotation with behavior modification. Interesting that in education we use the EXACT SAME LANGUAGE to describe our schools, programs, and plans. We do not shy away from the behavior modification name, indeed we embrace it frequently bragging about the results. It runs the gamut from the use of detention halls and tardy marks to the school in Massachusetts that is still using electric shock "treatment" as a crucial component in its behavior modification. My school falls somewhere in between as we use restraints and "quiet rooms" as well as a token economy system.

"This was a pretty alarming set of facts to learn..." (every time I share info on where I work, I get a similar reaction)
Now, these behavior management units, how do they differ from what’s normally referred to, I guess, as isolation cells in these prisons? And what are they supposed to do that’s different from those isolation cells?
"How do special education and behavior management schools differ from "regular schools?" ek

My initial thoughts on both of these (the second is mine) is how can prison and when you think about it, school, be considered normal, even in the most usual circumstances? They both involve people who are trapped behind closed doors living in some sort of artificial reality that has an entirely different set of rules and values from those that exist outside the doors. They both seem to exist more for the protection of the people outside than for the betterment of the people inside.

They (behavior management plans) had carrots and sticks associated with them. The sticks were a reduction in privileges. Prisoners lost contact with family members, in many cases. They lost time in the exercise yard. They lost the ability to draw from the prison canteen. They lost access to electronic media, such as television, very restricted access to reading materials. Kind of an isolation tank, you might say. And the carrot was that for good behavior, in other words, reduced rule breaking in the prisons, they could gradually earn back a few of those privileges and eventually graduate into the mainline prison environment, where they could be a more—have a more normal prison experience.
In our school we have a point sheet system that determines what level a student is on (red, yellow, green, blue, and silver) With these levels come different privileges such as internet access, extra food from the school store, listening to music, Friday recreational activities and more freedom of movement (being able to walk the halls without an escort). Students drop their level by breaking the rules. Extreme rule violation can result in time (5-20 minutes) spent in the "quiet room" (a small bare room with a door that can be held shut from the outside). Students earn back privileges slowly by not breaking rules. However, the opportunity to go back to "normal school" is extremely rare for our students.

The path was something called “life skill” classes. These were things like anger management and Alcoholics Anonymous, things that prisoners could use to essentially heal themselves, at least by design. What I found was that these classes were largely dropped by the prison system. In other words, budget cuts and lockdowns, where prisoners are locked in their cells, often, all but all week, every week, except for perhaps two or three visits outside the cell for a quick shower, in many cases—these kinds of conditions made the classroom part of the program increasingly meaningless. And so, what you were left with was fear and deprivation. Now, fear and deprivation can be a powerful motivator. As a result, the prisons reported that these were successful programs. They reported that rule violations were down as a result of the behavior modification program.
Again with the language. We do "lockdowns" in our school, sometimes on a class by class basis, sometimes on a school wide basis. Lockdown in school means that students are not allowed to leave their seat without permission. There are maybe 3 or 4 opportunities to use the bathroom in a day. Students only leave their seats for the required computer programing meaning they no longer go to a teacher or TA desk for tutorial. Education comes to a halt as students are expected to complete worksheets on their own, in their cubicle all day long. So yes, "these kids of conditions [make] the classroom part of the program increasingly meaningless."

On another note - is behavior modified through fear and deprivation really modified behavior? Or is it simply a fear of deprivation? I frequently wonder the same about my students. I have learned that it is impossible to force a person to be respectful, or to care about others and the world through punishment, and yet that is what we try to do every day.
This guy is a guy who has a criminal past. And I think viewers may logically say, “Why believe a guy like that?” Prisoners do lie. They aren’t the most credible sources, because they’re constantly trying to game the system.
If I only had a nickle for every time I heard someone make a similar statement about our students, or about "inner-city kids." And I think these statements do reveal underlying beliefs some people have about who can be trusted and who can't, and more often than not, our beliefs are racist, because they are so strongly associated with skin color.
I should add that I want listeners to understand that most correctional officers do their jobs professionally and well, even in the difficult conditions of overcrowding in the California prisons, and they deserve a lot of credit and thanks for their public service in an often dangerous and difficult job.
Yes...what is frightening is what it can mean to do your job "professionally and well" I have found in my position that it asks me to act against my own senses of freedom, justice, and fairness. That my definition of doing my job well is in direct conflict with the administration's definition of doing my job well. To meet the standards of the administration I would have a quiet, well controlled, and thoroughly tested class that never questioned adult or system authority and always obeyed. My desire for a lively class, in which students feel they have a right to question has never lived up to those standards.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Which Side Are You On?

The other night I had the honor and privilege of being at a benefit where Bernice Johnson Reagan, founder of Sweet Honey and the Rock, Civil Rights Leader, and Cultural Activist spoke. She told stories about her connection to the Highlander Center interspersed with songs.

One story she told was of a woman whose husband was leading a strike - there were some local people angry about the strike who were threatening to kill her husband. He managed to leave the house but the people came and ransacked it while she was there, destroying everything. And she knew almost every single one of them. In her anger, she wrote a song "Which Side Are You On?" demanding some sort of response from the neighbors who had destroyed so much of what they worked for.

As we sang the chorus over and over I thought about my classroom. Do my students ask the same question? They must get confused because while I encourage them in developing an activist voice at some moments, I also support the oppressive systems in the school. They may not even wonder - they may say flat out that I am not on their side - or maybe they understand the struggle. I sometimes try to tell them.

But most importantly I have to ask myself this question. Which side are you on? Am I on the side of point sheets, and suspensions, and silence in the classroom? Am I on the side of a better world existing for my students? Yes and Yes. And it is a HUGE contradiction - more later.....