Sunday, August 7, 2011

Beginning in Baltimore

I first became interested in teaching while working for the Ameri-corps affiliated program called "Teach Baltimore", which I have learned has now grown to become the National Summer Learning Association. In the program, I had to organize the daily learning activities of a class of Kindergarteners for about ten weeks. We did mostly early childhood literacy in the mornings, and a combination of math, science, and foreign language, music, and art in the afternoon. I did this for two summers, and volunteered others hours in the main office. During both summers, I taught in a school in West Baltimore called Steuart Hill Elementary.

As to be expected in most of West Baltimore, nearly 100% of the children live below the poverty line; and most children live with either an aunt or uncle or grandparent. Many of the children I knew had parents who were either dead, in jail, or living on the streets due to drugs or prostitution. Most of the children I taught witnessed constant violence in their neighborhoods and often times in their homes. Some had already been witnesses to murder by the age of six, and had school mates that had been mistakenly shot down. I got fairly accustomed to walking through drug deals to take children home after school–we weren't supposed to walk them home, but sending them to children services was not a good option. It is true that I always felt safer holding the hand of child, than I did walking back to the school alone. As a side note, the organization of gangs to control corners and evade police observation is really interesting to watch.

Kindergaten in West Baltimore was very different than other schools I had experienced. Where I grew up, most children knew how to read before coming to Kindergarten. In West Baltimore, most children I taught didn't not know all the letters of the alphabet after Kindergaten. Still, children were learning all the time. Every child knew every lyric to every popular rap song.

Brandon and Brandee were twins in my class the first summer I taught. Brandee would bring the teachers flowers almost every morning, which she would pick from alleys on her way to school. Brandon was strong, both physically and mentally. I remember how we always wore the same blue jersey shirt and shorts. They usually came to the school early, before it actually began. I was there at 6:00 am every morning to open the school for food deliveries. We weren't supposed to let them in until 7:30 am, but I would let them in so they could read and have breakfast. Over a few weeks, I learned that Brandon and Brandee lived with their Grandmother who had recently broke her hip and was at bed-rest. It made me think about the fact that they would wake themselves up each morning, dress themselves, and walk to school (6 blocks). It didn't take me long to figure out that the reason they did so was because they were hungry. We served breakfast and lunch, and these meals were the only meals Brandon and Brandee would get all week.

Another child in my class, Anthony, was the only child that I felt ill-prepared for. Anthony was violent. He would grab a handful of someone's hair and proceed to try to rip it out. One time, during lunch, he gently set a cardboard milk carton on someone's head and quickly smashed it so the milk ran all over the poor girl's hair and face. Anthony was certainly the victim of violence at home. At first, when Anthony was really bad, I would call to have him sent home. Anthony didn't like being in school. He didn't like being at home. He didn't like life. Anthony enjoyed creating a situation that would get him sent home, I think because it was how he controlled his life. It was the little bit of control he had. Once I stopped sending him home for behavior, he found new ways to get sent home. He would pee his pants on purpose. That got him home the first two times, but I went out and bought five changes of clothes for Anthony. Anthony was never good, but he got a lot better once I started listening to him. I would carve out time during the day just to sit with him and let him talk. Most of what he said was lies–more like fantasies. He would talk about how he was driving a sports car or how he went to Florida over the weekend. By just listening to him for about 5 minutes a day, his behavior went from violent to extremely difficult. My main concerns with Anthony was protecting others from his violence, carving out time for him to talk and be heard, and making sure he was acknowledged and praised for glimpses of pro-social behavior.

Tical was a boy who never talked in public–maybe once a week you would catch him whispering to his friend Lyric. Tical lived with his Aunt, who was very nice, and would help chaperone during Friday field trips. By all measures accessible to me, Tical was exceptionally smart. Years later, I was in West Baltimore serving thanksgiving meals at a soup kitchen, and I ran into Tical. He was probably 12 at the time. When I walked by, he was talking and laughing with friends, but as soon as he saw me, he completely stopped talking. I still wonder why Tical never talked in public around adults.

Keenan was a boy in my class with some degree of learning disability. Among other things, he had difficulty with fine motor skills, which made him appear less knowledgeable than he was. For example, Keenan could not identify the sound of the letter "p" when he was trying to draw it on a piece of paper, but if Keenan was to trace a large "p" in the air using his whole arm, he could make the sound, "puh".

Most of what I remember from my time with Teach Baltimore is the smiles of the children I taught. This sounds cliche, but it is true. I can imagine each of their faces with large smiles. At some point, that became the goal of everyday–to engage them in some kind of learning that would make them smile, to create a place where they felt safe and capable of being themselves. I also strongly remember the stories we read together, especially the ones that were their favorites that we read again and again. I can't tell you how many times I read the book "Yes! Yo!" to the entire school before an assembly or some other gathering (which was about 100 students in the summer program).

My wife and I have a friend who works and lives in Baltimore. She lives *in* baltimore, working for a church. She works with children and prostitutes in the area. She runs summer camps. When mission group come to help, her favorite thing is to take them on "Murder Walks." They walk around the neighborhood visiting places where members of the community were murdered. She tells about their lives and death. The sheer volume and density of violence is overwhelming. Just in June, a group of ladies from the midwest volunteering were witness to a murder–a new place to visit on her murder walk the following week.

Her backyard is an alleyway that looks into an entire block of abandon homes. A single block of abandon homes isn't that bad. In some areas, entire neighborhoods are boarded up. Although the homes in the alleyway are boarded up, it doesn't take long to figure out which ones are used for stashing drugs. Looking from her balcony into that alleyway is like looking into a third world country. I encourage anyone and everyone to go and visit such places. Depending on where you live, they are probably not far from you.

Anyway, I've written enough. I just wanted to convey some of my beginnings into education.

Life Lessons

Here are some "Life Lessons" I would like my students to learn:
  • They have wonderful ideas and thoughts that are worth sharing
  • They are smart and capable people who can learn anything
  • Learning enriches life in both practical and aesthetic ways
  • Meaningful learning often takes time and typically happens in concert with others
  • They live in communities that are filled with other smart and capable people
  • Responsibility involves acting in ways as to maintain or enhance one's community
How about you? What's your list?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why my students should do assignments

I want students to put in significant intellectual effort into assignments outside of class. It would be nice if they choose to do so for one or more of the following reasons:
  • They have come to feel a sense of responsibility to the classroom as a learning community.
  • They have found out that their own personal experience in class is greatly enhanced when they put in work outside of class.
  • They are intrigued, interested, or excited about some substantive aspect of the assignment, the topic, or the class.
  • They have come to trust (based on their experience with me) that what I ask them to do has or will have value, even if that value isn't immediately obvious to them.
  • They have come to value the attention and feedback they will receive from me and how this feedback contributes to their growth as a person
  • They value the learning and awareness of self that comes with doing the work
I want them to be driven by a sense of responsibility to community (not to authority)–one that comes with a sense of excitement (not punishment). I want there to be a willingness to engage based on trust (not fear) and a willingness to persevere because of the promise of growth (not rewards).

Tis the season for classroom planning...


My wife and I adopted a dog when we moved to Tennessee. We have wanted a dog for a while, but our apartment in Maine would not allow them.

Rudi is a three-year-old, German Shephard. He is pretty big--bigger than any other dog my family has owned. He is friendly and playful, and a bit attention-seeking. But if you ignore him for about five seconds, he will usually walk away and lie down. The previous owner had had him for those three years. He was house trained in simple ways, but beyond sit and one trick that was it, and he didn't really know sit.

After a day, we managed to get him to wait for our signal ("It's OK", and a tap to the shoulder) before moving through the doors leading into or out of our house. In about two minutes, we managed to teach him to stay inside any boundary we set for him (in the kitchen when we are eating in the dining room; in the hallway when we are in our bedroom, etc). In about two days, we also got him to be calm when we come home. Rudi was not leashed trained, but we got him to walk on a slack leash in mostly about 2 minutes in our backyard, and then another 5 min outside for a walk around the neighborhood.

Most of this was done by gently using our bodies. For defining boundaries, we simply 'backed' Rudi up with our bodies (no hands or arms), and calmly said, "Rudi, Back up". When he would cross the boundary, we would just do it again, until he got the picture. With the door, we would just crack the door open and if he made any movement we would close the door. We gradually opened the door more and more (occasionally asking him to back up), until he knew that the door would not be opened until he remained back. It took no time for him to learn that a friendly, "It's OK" and a tap means that you can cross the boundary or go through the door. For the leash, we just didn't let Rudi decide where he was going. If he pulled forward, we excitedly and happily turned and ran the other way and saying, "Rudi, this way." If he started pulling that way, we change direction again. There was no yelling or telling him not to pull, or yanking the leash in punishment. If he did walk with a lack leash, we would just continue forward. On the first walk, we had to turn around less than a half-a-dozen times. Since then, he has only pulled the leash a little as we are returning back to the house. Finally, Getting Rudi to be calm when we come home was also easy. When he came home, we simply did not say anything or look at him until he was calm, and then he would get our attention.

More recently, we have started to work on "Come" and "Stay". Stay has been easy, because it is part of the "back up". We are just using "stay" to mean, don't move at all, rather than "back up", which is move back and then don't move forward. With "come" we are using treats and praise to get him to come. I think next week, we will work on "Drop it". The only other verbal talk we use with him is "all done" with a crossing hands gesture, when we are all done playing with him or giving him pets. We then put toys away and ignore him until he settles. If he is still excited enough to come up and bother us, we simply pull our hands up, cross them, and turn away from him. He gets the picture really quick.

It is very enjoyable to train a dog without ever having to yell or feel angry. Using your body and a calm voice makes things so efficient, but also pleasurable. The only escalating sound we use is, "Bop bop!" with accompanying claps to get him to "leave something" alone -- like the trash can. But the sound is not used in anger. Rather, it's used in a distraction kind of way. It startles him and directs his attention to the noise and to us. Pretty soon we will work on a "leave it" command.

Anyway, I wanted to write about this because

(1) It's about learning and teaching, and

(2) I want to write another post about how I "learned" to be this way with dogs.