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International Conference on Conflict Resolution Education

I have been searching for an affiliation that meets my professional goals (and budget). For a long time, I was a member of NCTE. Even that went through an evolution – attending, attempting to balance philosophical and practical presentations, applying to present, convincing others to join me for a presentation and so on. I tried NAME for a year, and while it had some benefits, there were also some pretty significant drawbacks, both personal and professional. I saw a call for proposals for the International Conference on Conflict Resolution Education and the topic, proximity and cost all appealed to me. So did the fact that my proposal got accepted.

At first, I was concerned that the attendance was so small, but I think that may have helped. Everyone who attended a session was committed to the topic. For the first time ever, I think, I did not attend one session that I regretted. I came away inspired by the work happening in Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, and Louisville. Moving forward, I see the need to balance a few things –

  1. Long-term vs. short-term – many of the programs are serious about wanting to get to the root causes of conflict. This, obviously, takes time. Some students don’t have that much time and that often became a call to “get them while they’re young.” (I teach high school, so that was discouraging.) Also, some conflicts can reach a dangerous level of intensity pretty quickly, so we need to develop more effective emergency interventions as well.
  2. Within and without – Most presenters advocated working with given systems, however flawed (i.e., the police, the courts, etc.). Some argued that such an approach amounts to tacit cooperation.
  3. Ideal vs. real – There seemed to be a gap between the design of certain programs and the implementation – at times a pretty serious one. Given limited resources, we must do all we can to close that gap. In other words, we have to do a better job of using what we have in place already before considering programs like the Alternatives to Violence Project.

A commitment to the notion of restorative justice requires regular training, time, personnel, money, space, and commitment. I think it can work. We need to keep students in school. One of the many challenges we have to address before that / at the same time is getting them to school in the first place.

Again

This time, it wasn’t a walkie talkie; this time, it was a text message. This time, my student is not injured; this time, he’s dead. This time, he is not a current student, but a former one, one who we put out after he verbally threatened a teacher.

He was a tall kid, taller than me. A real beanpole of a kid. I always thought that a stiff breeze would break his ankle. He loved baseball. He installed Spotify on my phone. He was good friends with one of the shortest high school girls I’ve ever taught, and they enjoyed the contrast as much as the rest of us did. He was my advisee. His father came to parent conferences. He came to every single one. Did I mention that he had hair like the Muppet Beaker?

I knew he had a gun. I heard him talking about how he and some others had fired at a van that had fired at them. The other students knew. His phone rang once near the end of the school day, and the other students gave him grief about being late for “work.” When I sat down with him one time and asked what it would take to get him to settle down and start trying to do his work, he said high school was a surprise to him, that he was used to just “chillin'” the whole day.

When I sat down with him one time and asked what it would take to get him to settle down and start trying to do his work, he said high school was a surprise to him, that he was used to just “chillin'” the whole day. He had glasses which he didn’t always wear. His handwriting, when he wrote, was tortured and small. It always seemed like it took him a few extra seconds to process what someone was saying to him. He swore. A lot.

He was 17, he was in an elementary school park, likely for no good reason, and now he’s dead. It’s possible that I know before his father does. I saw this article 13 minutes after it appeared on-line (15th homicide in Cleveland this year) and it said that his name would be released after his family was notified. His father probably knows by now.

I was at a meeting this afternoon about the possibility of trying to persuade the City Council to make the city in which I live a Sanctuary City. Having grown up in Washington D.C., I know part of the way to convince those in power to do something is to convince them that the situation is a crisis, that it’s urgent. I said to the group that I didn’t hear that urgency in our arguments, that I didn’t think we had enough to push the Council to act.

But this, this is a crisis. Two students dead. Two injured. 7 facing hearings for expulsion. But when I asked my colleagues if they’d seen anything on-line, one wrote, “Nobody cares about another black kid killed in the streets.”  Maybe that sounds cynical, but it is also true. It fits the single story, the single narrative that so many people have about African-American teenage males.

I’m all for individuality responsibility, but when we, as a society, as a city, as a school system, as a community set someone up to fail, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do fail. It shouldn’t take heroic made-for-TV measures for a teenage black male to succeed in our country. So while my student bears some of the responsibility, so do we – all of us.

“A philosopher,” someone once told me, “looking at the stars fell into a ditch.” What’s happening on the national stage requires our attention. And so does this. Right now.

It’s a small thing, but when another student was killed earlier this year, I decided not to create a category for the post. What could I call it? Murder? Violence? Now we’ve had three gun-related incidents this year, and two deaths. I think we need new words.

There will be no heartwarming ads or calls for donations. There will be no tear jerker stories; it may not even make the paper or the news broadcast. But “attention must be paid.”

No more arguing. It’s time to give a damn. Now.

“Shots fired!”

I do not carry a walkie-talkie, but I know our administrators carry them to communicate with each other and with security. And I know, or think I know, that the walkie-talkies that the security guards use are district-wide. Maybe they are all district-wide. Generally, if there’s a problem at another school, you can hear it over the walkie-talkies.

Yet when I heard “shots fired” this afternoon, I knew. I knew it was us. I joined the crew of teachers running toward the incident. I am proud to say that I work with a number of colleagues who run towards incidents and not away from them. Two of them, including one who is in the Army Reserves, had first-aid equipment.

It was right after school. I worked on getting students who were milling about back in the building. I tried to walk slowly. I know, during difficult times, that students watch adults, and if adults are troubled, it makes students nervous.

A freshman passed us on his way back into the school and confirmed what I suspected. The “shots fired” had been aimed at our students, and they had been hit. My latest understanding is that one may go home tonight, but the other may need surgery, but should be okay.

I didn’t know what to do. I looked around. A friend of one of the two was crying, careening around as others tried to hold him back. As his friends were loaded into the ambulance, he shouted to them, “Don’t worry; it’s on.” Others tried to talk to him.

I found another student. Tears. She started talking through her tears. I could barely understand her. She just wanted to tell what she saw. I tried to get her to say something to the police; she wouldn’t.

I went back to the building, to my classroom, shut down my computer, collected my things. I don’t know what shock feels like, but I did not feel good. The afternoon custodian apologized for bothering me. I apologized to him. I left.

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes many great points in Between the World and Me. One of them is that we’ve got to stop talking about slavery as a concept. Those were individual people. They had things they loved to do and people they loved. They had favorite songs and things they could cook. They had opinions. They had stories.

I think my students get similarly abstracted. They are part of a narrative. They are inner-city (is there such a thing as outer-city?) black kids. While I cannot say their names, I can say that they are individuals. One loves to write and speak his words. He shakes my hand each morning when he comes to school – not one of those fancy shakes that are making their way around social media – just an old-fashioned one. He looks me in the eye. He cares about his mother and told me recently that he’d read more books if he had them around the house when he was bored.

The other has a million dollar style. He recently turned in a great piece of writing about Their Eyes Were Watching God. I told him to tape it to the inside of his locker, so that if ever doubted he could do it, the evidence would be there. When he read some Coates, he gave him the ultimate compliment: “This guy is raw.” When he had to dress up for game days, sometimes he wore bow ties. I kept meaning to ask him how to tie one. I will when he returns. If he returns. I mean, he will be okay. Physically. But it might not be a good idea for him to return to our building. Who knows? And if he doesn’t return, it won’t be after coming back to say good-bye. He will just simply not be back. I will only know for sure when his name disappears from our attendance roster. I hope he’ll be back. He loves to argue. Guest speakers would learn his name. They would ask me about him. He would engage with them. Challenge them.

Coincidentally, I spent much of the evening in a different emergency room. A friend and neighbor injured herself while cooking. While I waited for her, I texted my colleagues, trying to figure out who was feeling what, and how we were all going to find out our way to Monday. I pursued something small and petty that was bugging me. I tried to comfort and be comforted. I tried to advise.

I don’t know what happens Monday. I encouraged our Principal to call a morning meeting. I don’t know what I’d say or do if I were him. There will be counselors who will do their best. There will be tears. Those I can handle. It’s watching the glazed looks become more permanently etched on students’ faces that haunts me. This, their faces seem to say, is the world we live in. And you, you white guy, you teacher, you suburban-dweller, you preacher of college and career and the future, you don’t know anything about it.

And I am, not for the first time, shaken. What is The Great Gatsby to my students? I know in my head and in my heart that it can speak to them – of the tragedy of time, I think. For Gatsby, that he can’t turn it back. That for them, that they don’t think they have much. Try telling them. Not Monday. Monday, probably poetry.

I have, without ever planning it, become something of an older hand at this teaching thing. Again, I feel watched, and I will be watching. There will be counselors for the students, good-hearted, but largely ignored, I suspect. Who looks after the teachers?

This morning, we had visitors from a local university in. Every two years, they survey students; it’s kind of a health survey. The students, including those two who I’ve written about above, laughed about the names of the drugs (what is Kong Kong?) and compared notes on other questions. Someone read another out loud: How easy would it be for you to get a loaded gun in 10 minutes? More muttering, laughing. After all, though they didn’t have to put their names on the surveys, I was there. At one point, a student asked what would be done with the results and the university rep explained how it would be used as data, that she studied aspects of the mental health of teens and would be using that information.

See, the thing is that I know studies take time, but such reports help set priorities, and money often follows priorities. I told my students, including the two I’ve written about above, that their younger siblings or cousins or friends would be more likely to benefit from their responses. But our students don’t think about time that way. And maybe they’re right.

You see we need help. And we need it now. And I’ve got to figure out if I can be part of the group that gives it.

 

 

Death by Meeting

Has anyone read this — Death by Meeting – Lencioni? A former colleage told me about and it seemed like something I needed to read, but then I lost track of it.

I drove to school this morning with my stomach in knots. The prospect of another meeting. We just came off of a week of meetings – most of them negative, unstructured to the point of chaos, and data-driven. We were either looking at data (disciplinary stats, test scores, attendance) or we were being asked to provide data. Apparently, if we look at little boxes long enough and fill in more, all will be well.

For a time, I was in charge of running meetings. I don’t want to say I was good at it, but I worked at it and kept working. Since I hate having my time wasted, I hated the prospect of wasting other people’s time. I studied books about how to organize and run meetings, had my agendas prepared and distributed in advance, made sure the purpose of each topic was clear, etc.. Again, I am not staking any claim to greatness – just suggesting a few things I tried to do.

I also remembered the first advice I ever got when I was preparing to take my first leadership position. My predecessor said, “Know when to cancel a meeting.” That has proven to be great advice.

We all have them – in the teaching world and elsewhere. Teachers are constantly (and, for the most part, rightly) complaining that we do not have enough time to meet with each other. But I am willing to bet that very few of us have walked out of a meeting and thought it was important and productive. We’ve all seen the meme about another meeting that could have been an email. There’s that issue. But let’s presume there are real issues at stake – how, for example, can we improve student attendance? How should that meeting go?

As for this morning, the expected leader was not present. There was a familiar lack of clarity. Technology was not ready. The proposed use of time was silly. (I’m not calling parents at 7:30 am.) Know when to cancel a meeting.

Lies, Damn Lies and Data

I just looked at the Professional Development schedule for the day and saw one of the words that raises my shoulders to my ears – data.

Now the thing is, I get it. I look at scores, results. When I read a set of papers, I make my own data- who needs to work on what? What should I re-teach? How much and in what way(s) has each student improved?

And when I’ve taught alphabet soup classes (AP, IB), I want good scores and look at breakdowns (as I do with SAT and ACT scores).

Here’s my thesis: Numbers are something; they are just not everything.

I don’t need alliterative reminders like data-driven decision making. I especially don’t need epic meetings involving spreadsheets highlighted with ‘proof’ of my failures and my inability to add value. (Students are not farecards; I understand that there are some objections based on the statistics of the thing, but those arguments elude me.)

My biggest objection is pedagogical. What happens when we reduce students to numbers? What happens when we base teacher evaluations on numbers? The longer I do this, the more I understand how hard it is to define success, even when it comes to grades.

But that’s okay. I think we need to live in the conversation – as schools, as districts. The things is, I don’t think it can be defined. But I also think we need to keep trying.

Professional Development

After 20+ years, I’ve attended a LOT of professional development, some chosen for me and some chosen by me. I would like to hear about your best professional development experiences in order to begin to think about some principles of what makes effective professional development. I’m going to throw out a few ideas in a minute.

We all have examples of bad professional development. I remember being asked to dance out a math problem. But what makes for effective professional development? Do the principles depend on whether the program is chosen for me or by me?

  1. Focus – What are the goals for the year? A colleague once asked why he needed new professional goals each year. He was still working on the same ones. Fair point. I know it’s always tempting to define by the negative, so I’ll fall prey to it here – don’t do professional development in a dozen different subjects. Better to go deep.
  2. Choice- Everyone loves choice. I used to be a regular at NCTE, where there were / are almost too many options. In general, I’d rather have the requirement and the money and be able to make my own choices (subject to an adminstrator’s approval).
  3. Experts – Some are good. I’m on a break from a session right now. The presenter is focused, incredibly patient and helpful. Would I have chosen this if I had the opportunity? Probably not. I think the principle I want to develop here is when it’s better to use in-house expertise. And then how do you do that.
  4. Administrative support – Does the admin attend sessions? Is the admin expected to model what is being presented? What is the support provided for follow-up? Are the expectations clear for the teachers?
  5. Involvement – Some people are good lecturers, but they are few and far between. I want to do things. Computers make this harder; are teachers (who notoriously make the worst students) paying attention? And this doesn’t mean I need to be treated like a student, though I’m okay with it on a short-term basis. But why is professional development so often delivered in a way that we would never allow in a classroom?
  6. Relevant – I always worry about the singletons – the one music teacher. Is the session relevant for him? (And our music teacher is a him.)

What else?

 

Trauma

Yesterday, driving back from a family trip, I got texts and pictures from a student. She has been beaten, badly, by her father. This is the 3rd time. She’s gone to the emergency room and talked with the police. She is safe at her mother’s house.

Today, another text arrives. A student from last year, now at another school, her mother is brain dead. She shot herself. On Facebook Live. At the very least, some of our students know her. I’m sure will know about what happened and some will have seen it once we return from break.

Do you know the  ACE Study? Our students’ scores would be off the charts. The question now is – what to do? How do we teach students who have experienced so many traumas? What support can we offer them? I’m sure we’ll do the usual parade of “Send in the counselors!” For a day. But there’s something larger happening here. And even though I am not sure what we can do, I think a pause is required – both to discuss how we can help the students and how we can support the teachers. This, in one week, in one year, is a lot. We cannot just pass it by.

Betsy DeVos

In the December 26th issue of Time, Betsy DeVos says something impressively honest.

I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. . . Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

In my mind, in this one sentence (the elided section is not part of the quotation), DeVos demonstrates a fundamental and disturbing misunderstanding of the notion of public service, one that should disqualify her from public service.

You may think it naive to say that money shouldn’t buy influence and you’re probably right. I mean, if you want to pay money to have your name put on a stadium, go to it. But the reason (as I understand it) that we keep certain things public is that we consider them to basic to everyone’s life that they must be safeguarded against private, often profit-making entities, who would / could sacrifice things like equity and safety in the name of profit.

Instead, we entrust these public goods to the government. And the government, while it may have botched things in the past and be mucking them up in the present in ways that will make things more difficult in the future, entrusts them to people with the expertise to address the needs. We wouldn’t want someone who just had a lot of money to be in charge of repairing our bridges and roads, would we? We expect training, education, experience – you know, credentials.

DuVos has none. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Trump has given the job to the highest bidder. It’s a problem that we in education often have. Lots of people think they know how to run a school because they’ve  been to school. (I would argue that this is especially true for those of us who teach English. “I have an opinion about how to teach reading because, you know, I can read.” This is a topic for another day.) She went to private school. She sent her kids to private school. She has not taught. She has not been a principal. Her college work was in business adminstration and political science (both potentially useful).

Look. I’m willing to talk vouchers, charters, choice, unions, Common Core, whatever. But let me, let us talk to someone who knows what she’s talking about.

Spark

We attended our daughter’s I-search Open House last night. Initially, I was reluctant, skeptical. And it was crowded. I don’t do well in crowds.

After finding our daughter’s station, we explored and I began to see something I hadn’t thought about – spark. I talked to one young lady about homeschooling. Another young man told me all about the prospects for people living on Mars. The impact of colors, concussions, and chocolate were all popular. I learned something about the cassowary (an Australian bird that reminded me of the one in Up). What I hadn’t anticipated from the students was such passion, such spark. They talked about their subjects with such relish. So, why?

The ability to choose their own topics helped. As did having the time to become experts on them. Getting the common opportunity to share their knowledge with the community.

But what, and isn’t this what matters most, did they learn, aside from, probably temporarily, their content?

Public speaking / presentations?

Research skills?

And how do you know?

And how do you get that spark in the first place? When I’ve asked my students what they would study if they could choose the topic, the responses are generally things like shoes, food, music, fashion, etc.. Where do our interests come from? Our passions? Our spark?

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