Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chinese Proverb: It is easy to get a thousand prescriptions but hard to get one single remedy.

Did you know America ranks the lowest in education but the highest in drug use?  It's nice to be number one, but we can fix that.  All we need to do is start the war on education.  If it's anywhere near as successful as our war on drugs, in no time we'll all be hooked on phonics.  ~Leighann Lord

I have mixed feelings about drugs. No, not pot, or cocaine, or anything illegal. I'm talking about the medication that are prescribed to kids with ADHD and other related mental issues. It seems like there are a lot of kids on meds at my school for various reasons. And while I don't get a list or anything of who's on meds, teachers' comments have helped me put together which kids are dealing with what. Sometimes, teachers will make a comment that perhaps a kid should be on meds--there are a lot of kids with behavioral and focus issues at my school. (For some students though, whether or not their parents would be on board with meds, but because of insurance-or lack thereof-or money issues, the students won't always be able to get the help they need.)

The meds do help--sometimes a student will forget, or run out or really any number of reasons and they are noticeably more out of control than usual. So in this case the meds are beneficial; these are smart kids, and when they're more focused they can learn more. And they will not only learn more, but so will their classmates because they won't be as distracting or take up more of the teachers' energy that should be used towards teaching not discipline.

Then again, not only are you starting a habit, however beneficial, that these kids will be dependent on the rest of their lives. And this is where I admit my lack of expertise. I don't know what research is out about ADHD, or any other issue. But I do wonder if meds will mess with the natural development of a child. Whether, in helping them in the present, it will really benefit them in the long run. Not only that, but in some senses you're teaching a kid how to not take personal responsibility. "Oh, it's not my fault, it's because I didn't take my meds today." This cuts both ways--you may not be doing well in class not because you're not smart, but because there's a physical barrier keeping you from reaching that potential. Still, I had a kid justify his behavior because he ran out of meds, and at that point his mom didn't have enough money to get more right then. Well, sure, that's part of it. But it's not helpful to simply justify your behavior--just because you have a condition doesn't exempt you from taking responsibility for your actions.

I wonder too, how much of these students' behaviors are just because they're growing children. Most children, ADHD or not, don't fancy sitting in a desk and doing math for an extended period of time. They get antsy. So are we jumping the gun, prescribing all these meds? Are they a quick fix for an issue that needs to be approached with a larger picture perspective? Is it that because we know more we are able to accurately diagnose more children, or are we over-diagnosing because we have more ways to control behaviors chemically? Or is there something going on in society where more kids are affected by these conditions than in the past?

I was talking with a friend about this issue, and he brought up an interesting point: It almost seems as if children aren't allowed not to be smart. If your kid isn't doing well in school, well, it's not their fault. It's something chemical. But maybe they just learn at a different pace than other kids. Maybe they're just being kids.

Ultimately, I don't know. Which is why I'm excited to go back to school after another year, and see what the research says, and what people whose jobs it is to figure this stuff out think--because this post brings up more questions than answers--but that's the nature of this blog.

Friday, February 18, 2011

It means "which is in danger of speedy disappearance"

"A hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank...but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child." -Forest Witchcraft

"When I ask college students who attended Chicago public schools what they remember most about their elementary and high school days, the details of their answers vary. But one of the first things out of their mouths, almost without fail, is, 'Well, there was this one teacher...'" -Gregory Mitchie

I really like the word ephemeral. Maybe because it reminds me of Le Petit Prince--where the title of this post came from--The Little Prince learns from the geographer that most people would not be interested in his beloved flower. No, the flower is ephemeral--in danger of speedy disappearance. Adults concern themselves with things that are much more permanent. Things like mountains and such. I love The Little Prince, and may quote him again later--I think there's a lot of wisdom in that book, beyond the commonly quoted: 

"Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."
(Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.)

For now though, I want to talk about the ephemeral nature of teaching, or more so, the ephemeral nature of AmeriCorps positions. 

One reason that Teach for America is not really a solution to the achievement gap, but rather should be a placeholder for real change, is that, while it may be a great growing experience for the teachers, it's not necessarily the best for the children. Not only are the first years notoriously bad, but for teachers to be a part of a students life--much less community--for only two years is doing a disservice to a student for whom school is the most stable part of their lives. At least with a regular teacher, while they may only be a direct part of a student's life for one year, are a presence for however long that student is at the school--and possible after.

My job is similar--it's really just a year long position. But given that I've totally fallen in love with my students--not to mention the school and staff--it's hard to just put in a year and say see ya! So I'm applying for the Reading Corps for next year so I can stay with my school. (Even AmeriCorps is ephemeral--each program undergoes review every three years--if the program isn't working, it loses it's grant money. The program I'm in won't exist in quite the same way next year--so my specific position won't exist.) I'm excited to see how my students react in the next grade. It almost seems wasteful to have created these relationships and then just immediately leave. Especially given that the school is moving locations, it would be helpful to retain as many familiar faces. As I've learned with my kindergardeners, young kids often have trouble breaking from routine--any time there's a substitute, the class becomes WAY more chaotic than it already is. 

In related news, I've decided to not have a favorite student again. I mean, what? I don't have favorite students. Well, I certainly don't act like I do, but it's really only human. However, my two favorite students no longer go to the school I work in. The first, N, moved, and one day I saw him, and then he just never came back. And not like I really know what the story is anyway--no one really ever lets me know if a student no longer attends the school, it just sort of comes up every now and then. The second student, E, switched schools right after the announcement came that the school would close. (Well, it's not closing anymore, but I guess the damage is done.) I don't know why N and E were my favorites. Both of them had some behavior issues--weren't always the best listeners and sometimes didn't have good impulse control if they got angry. But they also for some reason took a liking to me, which helped. N sometimes seemed as if he wouldn't give me the time of day, but then he would randomly give me a hug, and one time asked if I would be here next year, to which I had to say I didn't know, but was touched that he wanted me there. And he'd been there since I believe pre-K, so it came as a surprise for me when one week, he was gone. And made me sad--I don't know if he'll even remember me at this point. Same with E--whenever I'd go into his class he'd want me to come stand by him or help him. And then he wouldn't always do his work or listen well to my direction. But he was so cute and was pretty sensitive for the tough front he put up. And one day, he was gone. 

It's hard--I doubt I'll ever see N or E ever again. Which makes me sad. And I wonder, what will become of them--will they end up in a supportive school? Will they make it to graduation--much less go to college? Will their behavior keep them from succeeding? They were both smart if they actually put some effort into it--especially N. There is so much outside of a teacher's control. And it really bums me out that I only had one--maybe two years with them and even that short amount of time was cut short. So I guess what you have to do is make the most of whatever short amount of time you've got with a student. --you never know when your chance will run out. I had huge soft spots for N and E. Which was maybe unprofessional of me, but what can I say? It's hard enough when you know to say goodbye. But I had no closure--and they were just thrown somewhere new in the middle of the school year--their lives were probably more upset than mine was. And while I hope they remember me, I know they likely won't, and it's probably for the best--it'll make it easier for them to adapt to a new environment. 

So this post is dedicated to E and N--and the other students who've passed through my life far too quickly. And to the hopes that they find success where they don't become a statistic about students of color or low economic status but rather complete their education and find success...

 "On risque de pleurer un peu si l'on s'est laissé apprivoiser" (You risk tears if you let yourself be tamed")  -Antoine de St. Exupéry

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Miss Amy, do you have kids?

"The most effective form of birth control I know is spending the day with my kids." -Jill Bensley

More than once someone's asked if I have kids. In fact, one 3rd grader has called me Mommy, which prompted another to ask if I really was his mom. Same with when a kid gave me a hug. ummm, nope. Some students have asked me multiple times--I guess they forgot. Or didn't realize that there are several steps needed for that status to change, and they would definitely notice if I were to get pregnant. (Kids are way more perceptive than I give them credit for. They may not remember their math, but they often notice small details/changes relating to appearance).

It seems as if kids don't have a great concept of age. Sure, some of them have young parents, so it doesn't seem that far off for me to have kids (even though to me, it is so far off). Not many kids, unless they've already asked me, would probably guess correctly how old I am. I was chatting with some 5th graders after school one time and they went through the kids, married, boyfriend questions, and upon telling them I don't have a boyfriend, one goes "M* is single!" So I say, "dude, I'm 10 years older than you." and M goes "nuh-uh!" And so I ask, "how old are you?" 
"right, so 10 years older." 
"So how old are you?" 
"Um, you can do the math." The older kids have a better concept that I'm closer to their age than to most of the classroom teachers. 

There's this one kindergardener who has red hair, a lot like mine. I've been asked both by students and a couple of faculty if we're related. But nope, kids are a long ways down the road for me. (I'm thinking I need a husband first, although when one 3rd grader came to my defense about not having kids--the follow up to me answering no is often "why not?"--she was like, "well Miss Amy's not married!" and the girl who asked responded that you don't have to be married to have kids. Which is a valid point, and likely more common in the population I work with. Or it's just a trend that's occurring more than it did in the past and is more accepted).

Of course, then there's the question of whether this job makes me want to have kids or never have kids. It's a toss up really. Today I spent the end of my day with a kid who'd been super super naughty all day and had to stay in from recess. He spent the first 10 minutes just bawling, and screaming some. And I'm really not sure he learned from this experience, but we'll find out tomorrow.

Okay, it's not actually a toss up, I know I want kids some day, and they will be way better behaved than some of these little monsters. Shoot, I still love the troublemakers. Who am I kidding? 

*It's probably best that I not use real names. So I'll just go with an initial. Maybe I'll make up names if there's a kid I talk about a lot. We'll see.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What's Wrong With America

"At the desk where I sit, I have learned one great truth. The answer for all our national problems-the answer for all the problems of the world-come to a single word. That word is education." -Lyndon B. Johnson

"America believes in education: the average professor earns more money in a year than a professional athlete earns in a whole week." -Evan Esar

Sure, I've never proclaimed to have any expertise in the area of politics and government, but in light of things happening both locally and nationally, I have now determined what I think is wrong with America.

First: On a national level there is a bill that proposes to cut--and possible eliminate funding to AmeriCorps. On a local level, my school district has a new proposal called "Strong Schools Strong Communities" which is ironic, given that it was mainly created to work within cut budgets, not based on school performances, or what's best for the students. The school I work at was slated to be closed at the end of the year. Now, some of the staff and families at my school were not going to have that. So at a school board meeting, a huge crowd turned up, and students, staff and parents spoke. It was enough that the superintendent decided to move the school to a new location, because the main reason it was closing was because the student population is too small--but there was no way that we could grow within the building we were in. We were designed to be a small school--which I think is a huge strength. There's really no question that smaller class sizes is better for students. And smaller schools allows for a much tighter community.

So, what's wrong with America? America doesn't have its priorities in order. It seems as if the government looks for quick fixes when looking at the budget. Putting more money into education might not help the economy or the deficit within a year, but in the long run, by investing in youth, we can keep down costs in the future--if everyone has equal access to quality education, maybe less people will be in jail, or need to be on welfare, and more people will be positive, contributing members of society. So by closing schools, or setting up less effective school systems to save some money, it's going to cost more in the long run.

As for cutting funding for AmeriCorps, my initial reaction is, are you kidding me? By cutting these programs, you're cutting community members who are integral to the sites they are serving. So not only are you, in someways pulling the legs out from under a lot of non-profits, schools or community centers who would have trouble funding new employees to do some of that work, but AmeriCorps is actually a pretty good deal. It's encouraging people to be involved in service--the motto is "Getting things done for America." Plus, members just get a living stipend--I think it averages out to 3-5 dollars per hour? So really it's a good deal--you get wonderful dedicated people making a difference, working for under minimum wage. And most AmeriCorps jobs relate to education, which is really the most valuable investment you could make.

Not to mention the fact teaching is probably the most under paid and under appreciated profession out there. Yeah, there are some bad teachers out there, and with some teachers unions, some people are still teaching who really shouldn't be, but overall teachers are incredible, dedicated, wonderful people who put in so much energy into their students. They also have a huge influence on the children who are our future. Shouldn't we put a little more effort into providing our children with the best education we can? Especially given that it's just embarrassing that the US may be such a rich and powerful country, yet we're falling behind in educational success.

This video is a trailer for Waiting for Superman--I'm posting it not because I'm promoting the movie, but because it touches upon what I've been talking about. In fact, until the very end, it's just an infographic, and doesn't seem like a trailer at all. The documentary itself brings up a lot of really interesting statistics, and despite being critiqued for hating on teachers unions, there is so much more to the film. It balances statistics with personal stories of several students. It's easier to make someone care if they feel more emotionally involved--showing a bright, adorable kid who has dreams that will be much tougher if she can't get into a certain school based on a lottery is going to tug more heart strings than a bunch of numbers.

TakePart: Participant Media - Waiting For 'Superman' - Infographic from Jr.canest on Vimeo.

Well, now that I've figured out what's wrong, shouldn't I propose some solution? I suppose that would be more useful. But like I said at the beginning, I can't say I really get politics or the government. I'm doing my best at a local level, hoping that I can make a difference in some kid's life. Most of the students I work with are on free or reduced lunch, and most of them are students of color, which means, statistically speaking, I'm working with a group that's mostly at-risk. At a larger level, I don't have a solution, but I have hope that things will look up. My school isn't closing, which is a small victory in the big picture, but an important one for those whose lives it affects. And shows that what is right, and what is best for the kids can sometimes trump budget issues, and we need more of that in America.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

No Touching!

"Hugs can do great amounts of good — especially for children."
-Princess Diana, Princess of Wales

I know it's the unwritten--shoot, probably written sometimes--rule that you should never touch a child. We had some "what if..." situations during my training in the fall, one of which included hugging/touching children. The blanket agreement was that the easiest thing is to just not touch students in any way. Clearly things can be misconstrued, and you don't want to put your job in danger.

But let's be realistic for a second: In an elementary school, it is impossible not to end up touching a kid. Kids are incredible touchy to begin with--I was so surprised when at the end of my first day a 3rd grader gave me a hug. Umm, I barely know your name, and can't have possibly been any help on anything given that it was my FIRST DAY. I don't think I did anything to deserve it. (I still get hugs now that I'm not sure I deserve--or are from surprising kids who seem to either not care I exist or hate my guts). I get so so so many hugs at school, almost 100% initiated by students. Also in my first week a kindergardener asked to sit on my lap. I said no, and wasn't going to let anyone sit in my lap until I saw other teachers and staff allow it, so I felt comfortable giving in to the kids. It would be cruel not to allow them that gesture. Especially given that I don't know what their home life is, and if I can show them love that they aren't getting at home, then hopefully that can make a difference.

Students constantly grab my hand, hug me, and sometimes I can't keep their hands off of me. This past week some kindergardeners kept wanting to play with my hair. Kids will just reach for my wrist to see my silly band, or grab my necklace or earrings for a closer look. And you know what, I'm going to let them, because it is so clear that that is what they need. Hugs are important for building relationships with young children. It's helpful to comfort them if they are crying, it makes them feel special if they're sitting in my lap, it gives them attention--and for some kids, they fly under the radar because other naughty kids take up a lot of the classroom teachers' attentions.

On the flip side, touch is important for the safety of children. If a kid won't respond or listen to direction and are physically hurting another student, there's really no other way to stop them. I've had to pull kindergardeners off of each other, watched a fight get broken up yesterday, and have had to restrain kids from making poor choices.

When it comes down to it, children respond to touch. Obviously the no touching rule is there for a reason--to keep child abuse on the part of teachers from being called into question, but schools would be complete disasters without touch--both for the safety and for the well-being of students.

And if a student wants a hug, I won't deny them. Not to mention I love hugs! And it seems like research (and Princess Di) would agree that hugs are important--and can improve your mood. Here's a not so scientific article.

I also pat kids on the head all the time. Once time, a third grader turns to me and says "why are you petting me?" And you know what, I wasn't really thinking about it, I just was. And the other night I was watching TV with friends and a friend curls up on the couch beside me and sets her head on my shoulder. I immediately reach up and pat her on the head. Which then I realize is a little odd when she's 22 and not 5. Oh well.

I'm No Superman

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

-Nelson Mandela

Here's a little bit about me and my job:

I graduated with a degree in psychology, but after having taken some education courses (Educational Psych, Multicultural Education, Teenage Wasteland), I determined that my application of psychology was in education--where I could work directly with people, and see some direct difference-making. But I waited to apply to grad school, and instead decided to see what working in a school was all about--whether it was, in fact, what I wanted to do.

So fast-forward to today: I'm halfway through my year of service with AmeriCorps: Getting Things Done for America. And I LOVE it. I'm working primarily with K-3rd graders in an elementary school in St. Paul. I have fallen in love with my students, as well as the school, staff, and whole community--so much so that I am doing whatever I can to stay with the school next year. (You'll hear more later about why this was more complicated than it should have been). My job includes doing things such as reading with 1st graders, helping 3rd graders with math, helping kindergardeners color/write/recognize letters to lunch duty, giving out snack for the after school program, keeping kids out of trouble while they're waiting to be picked up, and everything in between.

Of course, working with kids is not as easy as my blog title may indicate. Their school work may not be too complex, but boy the students are. Every day brings new challenges--you never know what's going to happen--from the worst: kids fighting, crying, throwing up, not listening, being disrespectful to the best: being respectful, understanding the work, giving you hugs, surprising you. It's a blessing and a curse I suppose. And getting firsthand experience in the field I want to go into is invaluable, so I thought I'd start an outlet for my musings on my job, the kids, and education in general. So here goes nothing.