Financial Slavery

Monday, October 31, 2011

Real Education is Human... and Empowering... and Uplifting

So I'm joining in the voice of IDEA this week in celebrating the values of real education.  Those being that Real education is ... Human. ... Powerful.   ... Relevant and ... Transformative.  They are spending the week promoting blogs that help illuminate this message. 

Since I am a huge fan of using theatre to help students empathize and humanize the world around them, I thought I'd lend my voice to the process.  This year is a challenging one for me in many ways.  Our anti-bullying piece is getting more and more requests from other school districts.  The message contained in it resonates with young people and adults.  And yet, my own administration is somehow frightened of the power of the voices of the young people.  We say we want to hear what they have to say, and even when they speak within culturally acceptable standards, we are afraid.  Of what, I wonder...  Meanwhile, I move forward with the anti-bullying year long campaign here at the high school.  And the students' perceptions of what makes a bully, what makes a victim, how do we help (or is there any solution to this issue) continues to perplex me.  Even in my own classroom, where I struggle to keep the young people from treating each other and themselves poorly.  What messages are we as adults teaching them that their immediate response is to denigrate one another?

And then there is our self-esteem piece.  I have close to 500 surveys sitting on my desk these days.  I have to read them in small chunks.
"I feel like after I lose weight I'll be 100% confident all of the time."
"Sometimes when I look in the mirror all I see is disgust.  I see all my flaws immediately."
"How I feel depends on if I have my mask on or not.  (My make-up.)  I mean I love myself but I don't feel pretty.  I would change my body.  My self-esteem really took a hit when I went to a store and no clothes fit...  The perfect person?  Skinny.  A size 0 because that's what size the models are."
We use theatre to remind the young people that we are all human.  Flaws and all, we are all unique and special.  Theatre is especially forgiving to those students who struggle in other classes.  You don't have to be good in math or science or even in reading to do well in theatre.  There are ways to make it work.  If you are willing to try.  If you are willing to work with others and try to find ensemble moments.  If you are willing to take a risk...   Ah, there's the rub, right?  Taking a risk.  I constantly battle to create a safe environment for my students.  A place where they can fail and still get up and try it again.  We talk about my failures (and goodness knows I have had many) and my successes in my career.  But if I hadn't tried, I never would've succeeded or failed.  I just would've "been."  My students (I hope) feel safe to try crazy things onstage, knowing that they might fail ... but they just might be brilliant.  Unless they are willing to try, how can they know?

The fact that they have won theatre competitions empowers them.  They fact they wrote an award-winning, published play... empowers them.  The fact that their voice gets heard through their art - through theatre and music and dance and video... makes them feel like they have something to say.  And when they feel that someone is listening, they become more passionate, more involved, more committed to all aspects of the educational experience.  Too often we plop students down, gravestone style, in perfect little rows and talk at them.  In the dynamic classrooms I work to emulate, the students are moving, they are talking with the teacher and with each other, their ideas are up and presented everywhere for everyone to see.  They use technology to further their education.  Our literary club will soon have its own blog.  Our video students create, write and produce their own television show.  The theatre students write, direct and perform their own one act plays.  Their voices are being heard.  In our year of respect, the social studies students are putting together a plan of action for the school.  Their voices are being heard.

At the end of the day, that is what makes us human.  The need to connect.  The need to have our voices heard.  The need to listen and communicate and share with each other.  Real education MUST be human.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Getting Ready for Week Two of Our Year of Respect

Well, I've received some of the student reflections from the first week of the anti-bullying workshops I led in the US 1 History classes I led in the beginning of October.  I think we have a lot of work to do.  How do we create empathy in our young people when so little of it is demonstrated and modeled in the real world?  I was particularly struck by one young man:
"Bullying for me was a social-structuralizing activity that helped me grow as a person.  It taught me about morals and compassion.  There will always be bad in this world.  But that's part of growing up.  It teaches you to stop being such a close-minded pansy and work things out for yourself.  It prepares you for the real world.  But if it's a situation that you ABSOLUTELY can't do anything about, then obviously tell an adult.  (i.e. can't get out of the house, hospitalized many times, things are stolen.)"
So, for this young man, things have to escalate to MULTIPLE hospitalizations to be deemed serious enough to warrant outside intervention.  How do we reach young people who believe it is a sign of weakness to ask for assistance?  Or that it is "being a snitch" to let people know what is going on in others' lives?  Many students feel (and adults I've discovered) that we really need to "mind our own business" and the world will be a better place.  I ponder this concept.  Should the world have minded its own business during Bosnia?  During Rwanda? (Oh, wait, we did.)  How about World War II and the Holocaust?  At what level does the human cost become high enough to warrant our attention?  Is it only upon death?  Or is the despair, loneliness, unhappiness of children enough to catch our eye?  Perhaps I am a hopeless optimist who still believes that one individual can make a difference.  But I wonder...  are we starting to ingrain in our young people such a "me" mentality that they can no longer see anyone's pain but their own?

Not all reflections were this down heartening, please don't misunderstand.  A couple more uplifting ones included:
"The best part of the workshop was the video.  The video contained students from the high school and their words were very powerful.  It really touched my heart and the video was just great.  We students got to understand the teacher perspective on bullying.  Students and teachers got to connect about the bullying.  I learned about bullying that it can start online and in texts."
"It seems like there are never nice words said in our high school.  I learned a lot, especially after the video rap.  People really get hurt from mean words."
So, clearly the workshop connected with many of them.  Most students wrote about the workshops being valuable and meaningful.  So, why do I find myself obsessing about the ones I didn't reach?  I know going in I won't reach them all.  But I find it disheartening to see such cynicism in fourteen year olds.  I can't understand where it finds its roots and growth.  Again, that hopeless idealist in me still wants to believe that young people can find hope and change the future.  I continue to think about how to push them further during the next session, to get them to dig deeper and take the next steps.  I know I have a year for this and I must take one plateau at a time.  But it is an interesting journey when you see these young people once a month and that's all.  So different from my regular students who I see every day, all year long.  There the relationship builds and solidifies and takes roots on trust and respect.  It is a bigger challenge with this program.

I find myself both apprehensive and excited to go back in two weeks to do session two with these students.  Where will we be come May?  Will some of their actions reflect their words?  Will we see a meaningful difference in our school? 

If anyone has ideas and suggestions for additional activities going forward, please feel free to comment.  I look forward to connecting with people. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Start to a New Device Drama - Tackling Self Esteem

Last year we worked on a device drama about bullying.  We developed a survey, interviewed people, looked at national stories and most importantly, examined our own beliefs and stereotypes.  It was an emotional and exhillarating journey that culminated in the award-winning (hopefully soon to be published) piece, "Shadows," now shown to well over 3000 people over the course of a year. 

Well, a new year has begun and so has a new journey.

This year, we decided to tackle self esteem.  This seems to me to be a much more complex journey in many ways.  Self esteem is such a personal issue.  How willing would any of us be to open up honestly about this?  Would our words contradict our self affirmations?  Would the vulnerability be too much, especially for the teenagers?  We started out the first week with creating our survey -- thirteen questions that probed people's sense of self - including their personal appearance, their place in a diverse community, their intelligence/strengths/weaknesses, and an interesting question -- if they were someone else, would they be friends with themselves?  Those surveys hit the general school population next week via the English teachers.  I don't know if we'll get the same kind of honesty and response we did last year with the bullying questions.  I think it is much harder to look deeply at yourself and try to ascertain how you view "you" versus how someone else views "you" and who impacts your self esteem the most.

The second week, we looked at our own impressions.  This proved to be tougher from the start than the journey last year.  We started by creating adjectives to describe our colleagues.  Words like "creative," "diverse," "talented," "funny," intelligent," "determined" and "unique" all came out in this discussion.  Then we moved to words to describe ourselves.  The words were similar but markedly different.  "Unique" became "weird," "diverse" became "crazy," "short" appeared, along with "musically inclined" (instead of talented).  The students then chose one word for themselves and another for a colleague.  They stuck post-its on themselves and each other's backs.  And then we talked.  And talked.  Some students who were labeled "talented" by others didn't feel talented in comparison with their siblings or colleagues.  One beautifully articulate young woman stated that she shouldn't have "intelligent" as a label (someone else gave her that).  She then went on to talk about how she wasn't influenced by others in her life as to her dreams or her self esteem.  She was her own driving force.  She was going to go into the airforce and be an artist.  It didn't matter that she wasn't smart or a genius like her mother.  She wasn't going to be a teacher and follow in her mom's footsteps.  We were all struck by how this intelligent, beautiful, articulate young woman didn't think she was smart.  So we questioned that assumption.  She said she knew she wasn't smart because her test scores showed her so.  So I asked the students, "How many of you believe that test scores are an intelligence indicator?"  No one raised their hand.  But I was struck at how impacted we all were at these outside assessors in our lives... and how much they impact our self worth - whether it be tests or evaluations or critic's reviews or peer's perceptions of our work.

As the students departed for the day, they reflected on the difficulty of the journey we had chosen.  I, too, was struck by how emotional the session had become.  I wonder as we go forward; how do I keep these young people safe and still explore this issue in a deep and meaningful way?  Can we take this journey and not make it personal?  And I think, most importantly, how can we use this as an opportunity to lift and affirm these young people's self view?

It is going to be a precarious year.

Friday, October 7, 2011

First Week in Our Year of Respect

I've spent the last week going from freshmen US History class to freshmen US History class.  I think I have now led discussions with close to five hundred freshmen here in our school about bullying and how we define it, how we as a community try to combat it and what the new laws in New Jersey mean.  It has been a fascinating journey to date.  Many of the honors classes have played devils advocate - challenging the belief that the bystanders hold any responsibility to try and make things better.  As one student stated, "bullying has always been around and nothing we do will change things."  Several others expressed the thought, "if it has nothing to do with me, I shouldn't get involved."  And then the ever famous, "I'm not a snitch.  I'm not going to snitch my boys out."  One class took the stand that "bullying actually strengthens us."  The victims should be strong enough to stand up against bullying and if they aren't when it starts, they will be by the time it finishes. 

Other classes were movingly compassionate... talking about how the victim cannot prevent the abuse, that there is a fear factor involved in reporting it or standing up to the bullying.  One student talked about how if they even "block" a bully from texting them, the bully might escalate into more extreme physical abuse.  Others talked about trying to reach the victims, reaching out with comfort or inclusion and support.  And the ESL students empathize the most.  Clearly, these were students who had experienced much of what was being discussed.  They stated clear examples of exclusion (no seat on the bus) and being made fun of because of lack of English skills or what country they came from.  The other group that showed great compassion was the students with "IEP's" or students who had been "classified" in some manner or another.  These were often the kids who were labeled by adults to be problems, difficult, non-communicative, impossible to teach, hoodlums, punks and other condemnations.  These same "at risk" students talked eloquently and passionately about cyberbullying in particular and how isolation and exclusion had such a devestating impact on the victim.  Clearly, there was personal experience involved.

Every class challenged me in new ways.  Some were challenging in that it saddened me to see that they really believed that unless it personally impacted them (or a friend), it didn't (and shouldn't) matter to them.  It wasn't any of their business.  The bigger "human picture" didn't occur to them.  Some touched me with how clearly they understood the impact and hurt bullying had on people.  Some of them made me smile as they struggled and debated amongst themselves about how to define bullying, what EXACTLY did it look like, how did you know when it was just "joking around" versus "real harassment" and what were the different players' responsibilities?  For them to see that they couldn't reach a consensus was enlightening for them.  And I would watch as they struggled with issues that adults can't wrap their heads around.  It was empowering to listen to them go back and forth and discuss and debate and think and deliberate and try to find a path. 

I find myself wondering... what will they retain?  As they walk through the halls, will any of these discussions linger?  When I return in Nov., will we be able to move forward or will we have to review everything again?  Are the teachers listening?  Because, honestly, some of the teachers' reactions were enlightening as well.  One particularly telling moment was after a class that I had been warned about all day.  "These kids are terrible, they don't listen, they're marginal, we'll have to do crowd control the whole time, etc, etc."  The kids were incredibly engaged that period - they talked, they listened, they debated, they were focused and passionate.  Afterwards, I mentioned to the teachers how great the students had been.  They said, "yeah, too bad you can't teach them anything."  I replied, "they were taught something today."  And the response was, "Yeah, but they can't learn the real stuff..."  Afterwards, I followed up with one of the teachers because a student had mentioned a story about a victim.  I wanted to get the victim's name to do follow-up with.  I was concerned.  The teacher said, "Well, we all heard it, so we're liable.  We better get the name, I guess."  I thought, hmmm, I think you need some empathy.  Other teachers were amazing.  Some said, I learned stuff today.  I'd like to use some of these techniques in my class to teach other lessons as well.  It really varied.

The week is over.  I'm tired but I still feel hopeful.  I am very curious to see where we'll be in May 2012. 

For those of you interested, I did the following for this activity (didn't get through all of it for some classes, depended on the discussion).  I started by showing our student created music video on Bullying, then the following activities were done:

·        Students will start by brainstorming about “what is bullying?”  The teacher will introduce the concepts of three “parties” involved – bully, victim and bystander.  The group will discuss and learn about their roles traditionally and globally in broader sense (genocide, etc.) 
·        Teacher shows and introduces the Bullying Circle:
o       Students Who Bully
o       Bystanders
o       Student Who Is Bullied
·        Then to help the students expand the creative thinking process, the teacher will put two sheets of paper (or use the white board) with the alphabet listed vertically.
·        Students will be split into two teams.  They will line up and on “GO,” they will race to write one word per student next to each letter in the alphabet that relates to bullying.  Their team may help them if they get stuck in on a letter (i.e. Q or Z).  Whichever team finishes first “wins.”
·        After both lists are completed, students will then look at the opposing team’s list of words.  (There will be some cross-over words.)  They will chat briefly about the words and meanings.
·        Teacher will then instruct the students to create a “tableau” using two of the words from the opposing team’s list.  A tableau is a frozen picture using the student’s bodies as the “art.”  So for example, the students can use “Mean” and “Scared” as their two words – their tableau may have three students standing over two others in a threatening pose.  This is a frozen moment.  They should not share their words with the other team.
·        Give students about three minutes to “compose” their tableau.  Then have each group present the tableau to the other.  Have the watching team guess at the words being portrayed.
·        At the end of class, discuss what the words represent, in terms of bullying.  How did the tableaus make the students feel?  As the bullies?  As the victims?  Did it seem realistic or fake?
·        For tomorrow, have them write a reflection of what bullying means to them.

Also, as part of the week, "Shadows," our device drama on bullying was performed for the middle school students.  They wrote reflections about it.  I wanted to end with a few quotes from the middle school students:

"I was moved by the beginning when the girl said, "that's a lie.  Everyone has bullied someone."

"I have been bullied.  I don't like bullying and I don't like to be bullied.  I see it in school and out of school.  In the park, at a store, etc.  I might be short, have glasses and not that bright.  But I have feelings."