Education from Inside and Outside: the dilemma of social status

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Social status is a fraught topic for humans. We each seek some assurance that we have sufficient social power to be respected. The dilemma of social status begins early in life, but becomes acute with the onset of puberty, as children begin to see themselves as individuals separate from their parents.

In middle school, a variety of factors may determine each student’s perceived social status. For boys, early height, athletic prowess, and the ability to make others laugh are often routes to social power. For girls, early breast development, up-to-date fashion sense, and the ability to say nice things while still excluding others can convey social power. For both sexes, wealth and early physical maturation can raise status; as may the capacity to acquire followers. In some schools, acceleration in math class can raise social status. Strong social emotional skills help children navigate their societal demands.

How can teachers help address the effects of social status on students’ well-being? First of all, teachers must recognize that a student’s perceived social status is of significant importance to a young adolescent. Not having a desired status can consume a student’s mental and emotional energy, leading to lack of attention and participation in class. Students with the lowest status are often victims of mean teasing and many have very low self-esteem – if they don’t conform to cultural standards or don’t live in the “right” neighborhood or do have unusual physical or vocal attributes, others may begin to peck them to death, just like chickens in a barnyard.

Teachers must observe carefully to notice a student who may be suffering, as students will not usually willingly admit social discomfort. Whenever a teacher perceives behavior that may be unkind, an immediate intervention – labeling the language or action as appearing unkind and ignoring the inevitable response that it was only a joke, and then restating that the behavior appeared unkind and must stop – is always helpful to the student who needs an ally. Even better is if another student acts as an ally in this way. Sometimes teachers can enlist the help of students who have well-developed compassion to serve as an ally for a student who is suffering from mean teasing.

At the same time, teachers can talk with students about the difference between popularity and friendship. Most young adolescents crave popularity, which is closely aligned with social status and social power. Unfortunately, popularity can be evanescent, ever-changing, and ultimately painful. Friendship is something entirely different – a relationship with someone who appreciates you and shares a common interest, a relationship with someone who stands up for you and respects you. A student who has one close friend is much more likely to be socially resilient than a student who is in the popular crowd but has no close friends.

Teachers themselves must not be trapped by believing that the students with the most social power are always “nice.” Often socially powerful students are adept at appearing to be caring citizens while being observed by adults, while wielding their power in unkind ways in the world of children, a parallel world that is hidden right under the adults’ noses. Teachers must make an effort not to have their vision of their students’ social world clouded by flattery from socially adept and powerful children. Students who have low social status often remark that others are mean to them right in front of teachers and that the teachers do nothing to stop them. The reality is that the teachers may not even perceive it. When teachers improve their general self-awareness they are more likely to have an accurate picture of the social structure of their students’ world and are more able to intervene effectively.

Legacy International’s LivingSideBySide® program of teacher training offers teachers expanded self-awareness, as well as activities to use with students to increase student self-awareness and social resilience. For more information, visit http://www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside/

Common Ground

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How can we each contribute to a more positive, unified America that works together for the good of all Americans? We must seek what we share, find common ground. What do we all value? I suggest that we value kindness, honesty and health.

We value kindness and honesty because they are qualities that create trust. If I show you kindness, and I don’t try to trick or cheat you, you are more likely to trust me. When you trust me and I trust you, we can develop a relationship that will bring us each understanding and support. We value health because without it, we suffer. To be physically healthy we need adequate water, food, sleep, movement, and shelter. To be mentally healthy we need close relationships with others to provide understanding and support. To be spiritually healthy we need the freedom and time to connect with whatever nurtures our soul.

Parents and teachers seek these qualities for children. They seek to treat children with kindness and honesty. They seek to teach children to be kind and honest. They seek to provide children with what they need for health. They also seek to teach children many other things, but no parent or teacher I have ever met hoped for children to be mean or dishonest or unhealthy.

If we agree that we value kindness, honesty and health, then we can work to model those qualities for each other and for children. We can argue about how best to achieve those qualities, but we will not hate each other for seeking those things. We can agree that we wish for all Americans to share these qualities, regardless of their many cultural differences.

Education from Inside and Outside: Inclusive School Community?

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What is the best way to create an inclusive school culture? How can a school leader promote a feeling of belonging for everyone in that school community: from the dyslexic second grader to the sole African-American in sixth grade, from the student whose parents speak Chinese at home to the divorced teacher trying to raise three children on one teacher’s salary, from the part-time worker in the cafeteria who struggles to pay his bills and has to work two jobs to do so to the elegantly dressed tutor who can afford to work part-time? Each child and adult in a school community has a different story to tell. Each one longs for connection, validation, affirmation.

Teachers strive to create classrooms where children feel valued and safe. One of the ways they do this is by building individual relationships with each of their students. To do this is much easier when their students have much in common with their teachers. White middle-class teachers understand white middle-class children more easily than they understand children with different physical features and different backgrounds, because they have more in common with them in terms of life experience, culture, and manners. Similarly, teachers who did well in school relate more easily to students who are doing well in school, just as teachers who struggled in school relate more easily to students who are struggling. Teachers who recognize this know that they must work harder to understand and connect with children who have less in common with them.

Unfortunately, not all teachers realize that children who are different from them in some way need more understanding. Some teachers unconsciously equate difference with something lacking in the child or the child’s family. If they start a relationship with a child from a sense or belief that they are somehow better than that child, it is difficult for that relationship to result in the child feeling valued and safe. When a school leader recognizes that some teachers devalue children unintentionally because those children are different in some way, he or she seeks ways to address that, especially if the goal is to have an inclusive school community. School leaders are in a uniquely powerful position because they can bring learning to teachers. They can bring training to their schools to help teachers and staff to recognize their unconscious judgments and learn ways to overcome these biases.

One teacher training program that is highly effective in giving teachers deeper awareness of their own attitudes toward others’ differences, while offering techniques for addressing these attitudes in positive ways that breed positive outcomes, is LivingSideBySide®, a training program offered by Legacy International. For further information, visit  www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside

Education from Inside and Outside: Respect

Teachers who grew up and began teaching as members of the dominant American culture may have an idea that students should respect them simply because they are teachers, and “teachers deserve respect.” As educational practices move toward students having and taking more responsibility for their learning, and away from the teacher being the holder of all knowledge; and, as American culture moves toward including the presence and contributions of many cultures in addition to the dominant culture, respect has taken on a slightly different meaning. Students will show respect to teachers whom they trust. Students will show respect to teachers who show them respect. This requires a shift in teacher thinking, from an expectation of compliance and blind obedience, to an expectation that the teacher build trusting, respectful relationships with all of their students, whether they come from the teacher’s culture or not. This is part of what it means to live and work in a multicultural society.

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Simultaneously, teachers must work together, respectfully and collaboratively, to ensure that their expectations for student behavior are consistent from classroom to classroom. If the responsibility of the teachers in any school is to create a safe learning environment, they must work together to create consistency of expectations for behavior — otherwise, students must navigate many different sets of expectations throughout the day, which is difficult and unsettling. Lack of consistent expectations for students leads to conflict among teachers, as students compare different teachers’ expectations and play teachers against each other. Teachers grow angry, hearing of student behaviors they do not tolerate being allowed in other classrooms. These conflicts distract from teaching and learning, for both teachers and students. To reduce such conflict, teachers must build trusting, respectful relationships with each other, regardless of their own personal philosophies, and must come to a collaborative agreement on student behavior expectations, for the good of the students. This requires strong communication skills, as well as the ability to be honest and courageous.

On Friday, February 2, I had the privilege of attending the first of a series of workshops designed to help teachers and youth workers develop the skills it takes to build respectful relationships: Relationship Building Blocks. The workshop was enlivening, challenging, and eminently practical. I highly recommend it to any teacher or youth worker. Relationship Building Blocks will be offered again on Friday, March 23, 9-5, at Riverviews Artspace in Lynchburg, VA. The workshop series, LivingSideBySide®, is a program from Legacy International, a non-profit youth leadership and peacebuilding organization. http://www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside/

 

Education from Inside and Outside: Optimism in January

When school reopens in January, teachers and students can be challenged by the prospect of two to three more months of short days and cold weather. Sometimes the weather means indoor recess for the students and not enough opportunities for gross motor activity, which leads to restless students. Sometimes getting up in the dark to go to work leads to depression in teachers. Students and teachers need to be able to refresh their relationships and start the new calendar year with hope and good cheer. Here are some suggestions for teachers:

0024Make a list of all you have accomplished with your students so far, September-December. Instead of focusing on what you haven’t done, celebrate what you have achieved. Share appropriate parts of the list with your students, so they can approach the new work with a sense of optimism.

Establish or reestablish a classroom routine that involves personal connection with your students. Perhaps you begin class by greeting them individually, or you send them off at the end of class with an individual good-bye. Perhaps you take a moment at the beginning or end of class to collect yourself and speak directly to the class about how much you care for them and appreciate them.

Set realistic goals for yourself and your students. Instead of thinking about all that must be done before the end of the school year, choose the most important thing to be done this month. Articulate that for yourself and your students, and then make celebrate when your class has accomplished that goal.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, talk about it with a trusted colleague. Schools are filled with caring adults who are great listeners. They won’t “make everything all better,” but they will make you feel understood and appreciated.

 

If you are interested in pursuing some of these skills, take a look at the February 2 workshop for teachers and youth workers:  http://www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside/

 

Education from Inside and Outside: What is community service?

Many schools have community service programs. The idea of service to others is appealing to parents who want their children to grow up to be generous. Many parents demonstrate service to their children by volunteering at the hospital, at school, at a soup kitchen, at a food pantry, and by philanthropy.

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How can schools truly teach their students to serve? Often the first thought students have when considering the idea of service is to raise money for a charity. This particular kind of service, philanthropy, is relatively easy for many American children to accomplish. They identify the charity they want to support, and then they ask their parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors for a donation. Sometimes they get their parents to bake or help them bake, and then they sell the baked goods. Sometimes they pledge to read books or walk a certain distance in return for contributions. The result is raising funds for programs that the students are excited to support. I would argue, however, that this is only superficial service. A deeper and more meaningful service requires action and personal sacrifice.

I worked for ten years with a master teacher who understood service in a way that goes beyond fund-raising. She took her second grade students to visit the Adult Day Care Center regularly. She took them on the day of the Halloween Parade. She took them with gifts of homemade Valentine’s cards or holiday place-mats. She took them to sing and to perform presentations they had created for school. She made it a habit for them to think about their friends at the center, what those people might enjoy, what would brighten their day. She served her students as much as they served the center, because she showed them that it is important to think of others and not just of ourselves.

Another service project that can be especially meaningful is the “Season of Giving,” in which middle school students identify some activity or action they can do independently that will benefit someone else. Students then commit to performing that action for a certain length of time. At the end of a month, students share their experiences with each other. Some examples of individual projects: raking leaves for a neighbor, taking the trash can down to the street and bringing it back up to the house for a grandparent, writing thank you letters to teachers and coaches, doing chores at home without whining or being reminded, putting up or taking down chairs for a teacher at the end or the start of the day without being asked, picking up trash on the playground, smiling at everyone sincerely and deliberately, starting a conversation with anyone who looks lonely, offering to babysit for no remuneration, bringing in the groceries and putting them away, mowing the grass for a grandparent, weeding the garden – the possibilities are endless, and truly are examples of service to others.

“To be a successful human being is to serve.” – J.E. Rash, founder of Legacy International, the non-profit organization that developed LivingSideBySide®. The LSBS curriculum culminates in student participants working together to envision, design, and execute a service project that will result in a positive change in their community. Students must think of what their project team can do to meet a need in the community. Students are supported by their teachers, but the students are the leaders of the project and are responsible to ensure the project’s success. In this way, LSBS channels the social/emotional and personal knowledge students have gained in the program into action that benefits their entire community.

 

Designing an Educational Program

0098As a person who has spent many hours thinking about teaching and wondering what makes “good” teaching and a “good” school, I have been reflecting recently about how I used to prioritize decisions about the classes I taught and in the schools where I was an administrator. One of the games I often played with colleagues over the years was, “What if we were in charge – how would we do it at our school?” Eventually, I learned to base my decisions on what I thought was best for the children, and that strategy served me well in schools that were already in existence.

Now that I’m retired, I find myself going back to the questions I had when I first began teaching – if I could design a school, how would I do that? What classes would I include? What would the schedule be like? What kind of teachers would work there? How would I ensure that the program would be good for children? I firmly believe that the first decision should be the intent of the program – the outcome of the program should be a best-case scenario for the children who participate. Once I know the desired outcome, then I can determine how best to accomplish that outcome.

I think that the American public education system has put the amount of time needed for schooling as the first decision, rather than deciding first what the outcomes for a graduate of that system should be. Since we have an entrenched yearly school calendar of nine months (although some school districts are experimenting with this), we do our best to “fit in” whatever might be important for our students to know and be able to do, rather than deciding that FIRST and then figuring out how to accomplish that outcome. The curriculum is squeezed and stretched to fit the time allotted to it, running the risk of being fragmented and ineffective.

If I had the luxury of designing an educational program completely from scratch, I would begin with intention: the outcomes the program hopes to produce in and for its students. I would create a graduate profile that describes what students who have experienced the program will know and be able to do by the end it. In other words, I would first determine the mental and moral habits or character; the information and enduring conceptual understanding or content; and the research, problem-solving, communication and critical-thinking skills that the program intends its graduates to possess. Once those desired outcomes are clear, then choices about the academic curriculum, the yearly calendar, the daily schedule, the character education program, the correct qualifications for teachers, and the best instruments to assess the program’s effectiveness, will flow in a focused and coherent way.

To illustrate my point about program design, let’s imagine that you are in charge of designing an academic program and are able to have control over each component. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that one of your stated outcomes is for your graduates to be able to read and write on or above standard grade-level when they finish your program. Now you must make decisions that will result in your students achieving that outcome. You must decide what measures you will use to assess student achievement at the end of the program. You must plan instruction, including choosing instructional materials, pedagogical techniques, and the activities and assignments students will complete. Each of these choices will be driven by what you believe will achieve best results for your students’ reading and writing skills. Because not all students learn in the same way, you will need to have flexibility in what and how you teach, but always with the aim that your students will master the skills you have stated are important. You will need to determine the skills the teachers need to possess in order to be able to deliver the reading and writing program effectively. The school culture will need to be conducive to learning — how will that be accomplished? Your reading and writing program instruction will take time to deliver. You must decide how many minutes per day/week/semester need to be devoted to reading and writing instruction in order to reach the outcome you have chosen.

Unfortunately, in the schools where I have worked, there was rarely sufficient time allotted to program elements to ensure their success. In my experience, many schools have too many desired outcomes (both explicit and implicit) for the amount of time they devote to delivering their programs. Schools often ADD program goals without discarding others, but do not increase the overall time available to deliver the program. Most schools have already decided on the time to be spent before deciding on the outcomes to be achieved. This means that the schedule is always a compromise: most academic courses are trying to accomplish big goals with insufficient time. If an educational program has unrealistic or ill-defined goals and provides insufficient time to complete them, no daily or annual schedule changes can fix that problem.

An exercise in articulating program goals and the amount of time necessary to achieve them could help schools appreciate why their programs are not always successful. I would be very interested to see an educational program with clearly stated outcomes and with a daily, weekly, and annual schedule that is driven by a realistic estimate of the amount of time it will take to accomplish each stated outcome. I am not sure that if I designed a school myself that I would not fall into the trap of choosing unrealistic outcomes. There are so many things to learn, and so many different kinds of learners!

 

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