Thursday, November 19, 2015

What You Call "Life"

I have taught music in a number of unique situations. I've worked in a true inner-city, urban school in Newark, New Jersey. I have taught in schools exclusively for children on the autistic spectrum, and where the population were all physically disabled. I have also worked in alternative education settings where the students were classified as having behavioral and/or emotional issues, and where the population was labeled "at risk". I've also worked in suburban schools where the students were classified as "typical".

When we hear the term at risk we don't think of upper middle class suburban kids. The sad part is, this is a new context in which that term is viewed. A recent study done by Arizona State psychology professor Suniya Luther was designed to zero in on inner-city at risk kids, and why they engaged in certain behaviors. While doing a comparative study between that population, and a typical suburban school, Luther discovered the suburban teens were engaging in more damaging behaviors (drugs, alcohol, internalizing problems) than those living in inner-city settings. The end result is the term at risk has become applicable to a wider range of young people.

I am not shocked by this. In the varied populations I've worked with I've seen an extraordinary amount of pressure being placed on young people. The world around them is changing at a staggering pace, and in every way possible - socially, politically, technologically, environmentally, and economically. The pressure is on them to not only go into this world, but go in and excel. This mindset has crept into every aspect of their lives - and not just academics. In upper middle classes, extra curricular activities are no longer "for fun", but are done to bolster college applications and/or earn a scholarship. Kids in our inner cities can't even fathom academic success when half their battle is getting to school, then getting home without getting beat down or shot. In addition, both populations have to navigate an adolescence made more complex by social media and a youth culture in a constant state of exposure and judgement.

The end result is an American public school population more complex than ever before. Our kids are more emotionally fragile than they've ever been. According to the CDC, children between ages 3 and 17 now suffer from attention deficit/hyper activity disorder at a rate of 6.8%. The same age group has a 3.5% rate of behavioral and conduct problems, 3.0% suffer from anxiety based issues, and 2.1% from depression. These numbers are unreal (consider that the rate of autism diagnosis in that group is 1.1%). We can sit around and shrug our shoulders - or we can take a step back and think about that in a not so distant future these young people will be out in the world trying to run it. How do you think that's going to go?

As adults we need to create a world, and systems, that encourage healthy youth. After all, our future is dependent on their well being. We seem to be in denial of that. What kind of a world are we creating for our kids...and do we care?

"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people...and you can change it."
             - Steve Jobs

Friday, October 30, 2015

Sorry Kid, You Gotta Go

As I have written here before - the greatest thing about the American Public School System is that it legally has to educate every child who walks through the door. This is regardless not only of ethnicity, race, or economic background, but also ability or disability. If your child has been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, your district school doesn't only provide an education - it also provides the services, procedures, and protocols to ensure that your child will be educated properly. This includes, and is not limited to: speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills classes. Perhaps your child will be placed in a inclusive classroom along with an aide, so that she can observe and learn from, as well as amongst, typically developing children. Maybe she will be in a self contained classroom with aids and a specially trained teacher, because this is what the district feels is best. Your child would be evaluated at some point and perhaps moved to an inclusive room if she progresses.

The above would apply to children who may have physical disabilities as well as to those who have behavioral and emotional problems. Perhaps there are children with processing delays who need specific individualized education plans (IEP's) so they can grow and learn accordingly. The reasons our public schools do this are not only legal. Educating our kids is vital, not just to our communities, but also our society. I have seen many children with IEP's as well as varied diagnoses not only go onto productive jobs after high school, but also trade schools and community college. In other words: they become functional members of society. 

Today there's an article in the New York Times about a charter school in Brooklyn who created something called the "Got to Go" list. This was a list of students who displayed behavioral problems and rather than help them - the school threw them out. The school made some effort, but apparently got frustrated with repeated behaviors and rather than try to accommodate and educate, just let them walk out the door.

This is not uncommon in charter schools. In fact, it's policy. I know from firsthand experience. When I taught in Newark Public Schools we had many a student show up mid-way through a month or the school year who were behavioral nightmares. When these students were asked where they came from, the answer was always the same: "I was kicked out of a charter school." When people ask why do charter schools do better than public schools? the answer is easy: they can throw kids out...and they do. Rather than scuff up their almighty test scores, and invest money into special teachers and staff as well as programs and protocols, they just throw kids out. Why bother with them?

This, I believe, speaks volumes of what charter schools have come to symbolize. They don't want to educate all kids - they want to educate some. In many cases, they don't have a choice. The school is on a schedule and any student who may possibly slow that down is viewed as a nuisance. Nothing else.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: If I ran a school where I could throw kids out and only teach who I school would be better than any public school within 100 miles. The motto of any school should never be "Got to Go". It should be "Come to Learn, Stay 'til You're Done."

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Bigger Picture

Last week a 14 year-old Texas teen named Ahmed Mohamed was handcuffed in school, and suspended, because teachers and staff mistook a homemade clock he'd brought in for a bomb. Yes, the boy is a Muslim. Did Islamophobic based paranoia play a role in his treatment? Probably. Truth be told, though, this incident is less a commentary on how Muslims are viewed in the US, and more a commentary on something else: Guns in our schools. 

I can tell you from personal experience that when teachers report back after summer, one of the first things reviewed is lockdown/live shooter procedures. Typically there is at least one more staff session devoted to this during the year. In addition, there are multiple lockdown drills with students during school hours. Ask any school teacher (or college professor) how many staff development, in-service training hours, and regular school time is spent on school lockdown drills, and live shooter protocols. You'll be shocked to hear. There's a reason for this: We live in a country where mass school shootings occur on a semi-annual basis. In fact, I can say with a tone of certainty (and sadness) that there will be at least one this year. It's not out of the question. 

Since the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the Washington Post reports at least 44 school shootings at k-12 schools or college campuses. The non-profit group Everytown For Gun Safety reports 94 school shootings. In the k-12 shootings, where the shooter's age was known, 70% of the gunmen were minors. Take that in for a minute:  70% of school shootings were done by kids less than 18 years of age. So when we ask was there some paranoia involved in Texas, the answer is "Yes" - but this is justified. That fact should piss off any parent with a child in school. 

People need to understand that todays teachers are required to do more than teach. In addition to coming up with creative and inspiring methods in which to bring our subjects to our students, we must also be their protector. This is overwhelming. In one school where I taught, the building went into actual lockdown. I had a classroom full of kindergarten students at the time (I'm a music teacher), and I can tell you the anxiety that hit me - once I had all of the students under the table and out of sight - was harrowing. As I was calming down a crying five year-old girl, I suddenly became aware that I was responsible not just for her, but the other 24 lives as well. You can't imagine what that feels like (after it all ended, we discovered the individual who'd entered the school was unarmed). In addition, we have to listen to what kids say. How they appear. What their mental or emotional states are like, and whether or not they're being bullied at school. If something is missed and people die - it's our fault.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said "Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school". Has anyone ever thought that maybe the ever important US test scores are lower than our competitor's due to our rate of mass school shootings? When you compare the number of school shootings between us and Europe, the numbers are unreal. In fact, they're embarrassing.

One of my nieces recently told her family "I try and be friends with as many kids at school as I can." Her father said "That's great. Be nice to everyone." To which she replied "That's one reason I do it, but the main reason is, if one of the kids at school brings a gun in, I don't wanna get shot."

There you have it.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Golden Rule

The single greatest thing about the American Public Education system is its obligation to educate all children who come through its doors. It does not base admission on race, creed, income level, or ability/disability. This is incredible. Many people do not recognize the magnitude of this nor do they see the big picture.

Let's say, for example, that your child is diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Not only would your district's schools be responsible for teaching her, but also providing the subsequent services so she could be educated fully. This includes, and is not limited to, speech and occupational therapy; and perhaps physical therapy and social skills lessons. She may be put into a inclusive classroom with other children on the spectrum which has one on one aids in addition to the teacher. Or, she may be mainstreamed into a typical class - again, with the help of an aid - so she can perhaps model their learning behaviors.

What if you had a child who was classified with a behavioral and/or emotional problem? Not only would your public school be obligated to teach her, but also provide the subsequent protocols needed so she can get a proper education. This might include an Individualized Education Plan ("IEP") that is created with the help of parents, teachers and therapists. This will include specific methods and/or approaches that may include outside therapies in addition to what goes on in the classroom. If this does not help, and your child still proves to be difficult in the classroom, she may then be given a Behavioral Modification Plan ("BMP") - which will also include additional methods and/or professionals. If that doesn't work, she may be placed in an alternative education program or perhaps an in-house "bridge" program. Regardless, the district must make every accommodation to ensure your child's education.

If the above child was enrolled in a charter school chances are she would be thrown out. Unlike true American Public Schools, charters operate outside of the rules - they have their own charter that stipulates the rules and regulations of their school. This is sketchy because while accepting public funding (aka "taxes) they are under no obligation to educate who comes through their door. I have spoken before about my experience in Newark Public Schools and the students who showed up around late December/January who'd been kicked out of charter schools. Many of these students could have benefited from an IEP or BMP, but charters don't want to be bothered with that. They have test scores to worry about.

It is these issues that played into the recent ruling by Washington State stating charter schools are unconstitutional. In the ruling, the courts sighted how charters use public funds, but don't abide by the same rules as true "public schools". Maybe this is why they often classify themselves as "public charter schools".

I've written here before about the weird connection between corporate money and charter schools. They seem to be more about profit and/or privatization than education. Educating a child fully takes time, patience, training, and empathy. It also takes additional costs as well as accommodations. These are two things that charter schools don't have - and certainly don't want to concern themselves with.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Ones Lucky Enough to Be Superkids

In his OP ED column in the New York Times today, Frank Bruni writes about "Today's Exhausted Superkids". These, by and large, are kids in suburban communities whose parents - in the last ten years or so - have completely lost their minds. They sign their kids up for fifteen activities a week, push them to take as many AP courses as possible, talk to them about the athletic scholarship beginning at age seven, and apply so much academic pressure, their kids are sleepless and burnt out by the age of sixteen. Bruni states how kids in these communities feel so much pressure, they cheat, take Adderall, and aren't getting nearly enough sleep they need to develop and grow.

I know what he's talking about because I live in a community like this. Far too many of the kids in my town get whatever they want, have never been told no, are pushed hard by their parents, and by and large, are spoiled rotten. My kids are surrounded by peers who show up for baseball games toting $500.00 dollar bats, and $275.00 dollar gloves. Two kids on my son's freshman baseball team this year made fun of the summer team he was playing on because it wasn't "elite" enough (the team they played on cost $3,000.00 dollars for the summer and that didn't include travel expenses). My niece is going into her senior year of high school, and her parents have been pushing college on her since the day she started eighth grade. She attends a high achieving magnet school, and is very smart, and also hasn't slept properly in years. I recently took her to a concert, and at dinner before the show, she complained to me about how " one sees me for who I am. There's more to me than just the smart kid whose applying to college." I felt terrible for her.

The funny thing is, I live in this world, but teach kids from a completely different world. My students have no idea who they are - or could be. The word potential means nothing to them. This past year, I was telling one of my classes that they all possessed the intelligence to do or be whatever they wanted. One girl looked at me and asked "Why you always gassin' us like that? Why you always tryin' to tell us we're smart?" They honestly didn't know how to respond to being told those words. One day at school, I had a female student confide in me she was pregnant. I had a boy tell me he and his mom were about to become homeless, and one of my favorite students came to school with his jaw wired shut. He told me it was the bi-product of a basketball game, but I knew he was lying. I knew from another student he had been "jumped in" by the local chapter of the Crips. That night I stood in my kitchen crying because I knew three of my students lives were never going to be the same.

On the Daily Show last week host Jon Stewart had President Obama on. The president spoke how the "best education of his life" was when he worked in a poor section of Chicago as a community organizer. He basically said that venturing into a poor, inner-city community was the best education he ever got. My own kids and their peers worry about what college they're going to get into. They live lives that are no different than the student sitting right next to them in class. They put all of these pressures on themselves, and never step out of the world they live in, and enter college with no real grip on the world that's out there. If they really want to know what it's like out there - they should drive ten miles up the road and see kids living in poverty. They should come to my school and meet the boy who was going to be homeless with his mother. They should the boy whose options consisted of joining a gang - not going to college or trying out for an elite travel sports team.

Want to take pressure off of our kids? Have them spend their summers working in an poor community so they learn and understand what's going on out there and also how blessed and lucky they really are.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Summer Streets

As another school year winds down, those of us in urban education are in the midst of experiencing what we call "summer street syndrome". Basically this means that our students (who are mostly black, Hispanic, and poor) are not only preparing to leave school, but preparing to survive on the streets. When school gets out, their safe place is gone - as is their source of breakfast and lunch - as well as the people in their lives who provide love, structure, and discipline (aka "teachers").

When June begins, we shudder. Students who were involved, and committed to their studies throughout the year, suddenly stop studying - or doing any work for that matter. They become angry, hair trigger, and begin fronting. They're putting on a show for the students in school who may be involved in gangs or on the fringe. Some students even begin acting like they're in gangs - even though they're not - and change their posture, attitude, and way of dress. It truly is a metamorphosis - and not a good one.

I have a student who was an "A" student up until around April. Then, it happened. He began coming to school with a sneer on his face, and a new swagger and attitude. The funny thing is, he would pass me in the hallway, when no other students were around, and smile, then shake my hand. An hour or so later he would walk into my classroom, and curse at me. One day I asked him to complete an assignment and he threw the paper in my face and yelled Fu%k you!"

There was a video posted on Youtube a few weeks ago of a New Jersey teacher getting beaten up by a student. The teacher had taken the boy's phone, and the student proceeds to throw the man on the floor. Watch the video, and make sure you watch the students. Not a single student moves to help the teacher. At the very end, you finally hear a voice off camera ask "Should I get security?" The reason no one helps the man is because they're afraid of the consequences after school. The streets come into the classroom.

Teaching inner city kids is tough - and teachers who sign up to do it know that. But this time of the year is the toughest of all. When other teachers begin relaxing a bit, and wrapping it up, those of us in urban classrooms go on high alert.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Joe Pundit

Here we go again.

On the Saturday evening when Washington's political, media, and entertainment elite got together for the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, the city of Baltimore (about 40 miles away) was erupting into violent protest. CNN decided to cover what was happening on the Dinner's red carpet, and ask their fellow twenty-four hour news anchors questions like "What celebrity are you most excited to see?", while the city of Baltimore was getting ready to boil over. John Stewart did a critical, and sadly funny, bit on the April 27th installment of The Daily Show. It not only showed how out of touch our media is, but also how out of touch we are.

This was all in response to what has become the next chapter in the on-going saga that is America's police vs. black men. This time a young black man, while being taken into police custody, had his spinal chord severely injured and died later. Of course in the aftermath, the police are saying "It's not our fault!" and the inner-city youth most affected by these things are saying "This is our life on a daily basis." Yet again, the latest incident has taken place in a city that is mired in crime, violence, and (of course) poverty. West Baltimore served as inspiration for HBO's The Wire and was also where the book "The Corner" took place. This community is not unlike Ferguson, Missouri, or East St. Louis Missouri, or Newark, New Jersey, or the south side of Chicago, or,,,you get the idea.

Sunday night, West Baltimore erupted into full scale violence. There was looting, burning of stores, and (of course) violent clashes with police. And (of course) there were the voices in media asking why "the people" of this community think burning the place down is going to make things better. They shrug their shoulders in confusion, and shake their heads in disgust while trying to act concerned. My question to them is: Where was this confusion, concern, and disgust while cities like West Baltimore were rotting on the vine for the last, oh I don't know, thirty years? Why aren't media pundits and/or politicians questioning why American cities, and their citizens, are allowed to erode into a third world country existence? Where was Joe Pundit when the number of people living below the poverty line in West Baltimore went below the national average? Where was Joe Pundit when the Ferguson Police were arresting and fining its citizens for "violations" like walking the wrong way down the street? Where was Joe Pundit when the young men on the south side of Chicago started calling their community Chiraq because of the violence and poverty?

The smoke has cleared from Baltimore, the ashes are swept up, and the he police involved in the death of the young man have been arrested and charged with murder. Funny thing is, the police will have the support of a strong fraternal community to turn to. Other departments around the country will have that community teach them new tactics and implement new protocols. They will receive help, guidance, and, hopefully, be taught how to change. Many community police departments have already done this (body cameras), and continue to do so. In other words: the police will have help in changing and evolving. But what will happen to West Baltimore? How is change going to come to that community? The community (like the others mentioned) is dysfunctional and lacks true resources to implement any significant change, and (sadly), I don't see any change coming soon.

I beg Joe Pundit to go back to West Baltimore in three years and see what has occurred. Check in with the community and see what problems have been addressed. Have their been jobs created? Are the streets safe? Have the schools improved? Has the rate of poverty decreased?

I think we all know the answer.