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Archive for September, 2011

I asked a journal question this week which ended up being extremely eye-opening to me. The question was “If you could have one of your parents be someone from any time in history, who would you want as a parent and explain why.” The response of one student blew me away. Here’s what she said:

“I would want my mother to be is you, Miss Brailey. You push people to get good grades. Also a kind heart on how people feel. You care about how us students are doing.”

I know this girl’s history. (She’s the sister of the student I mentioned in “When did my life become Jerry Springer?”) Her mom’s in a gang and treats her horribly. Another teacher had mentioned an incident to me where her mom had come to get her from a practice that ran late and cussed her out in front of her coach and entire team. I can’t imagine this girl’s home life, and, though her sister (whom I never had in class) got pregnant at 16, both she and her brother are amazing kids.

I think of the things she wanted from a parent: Someone to push me, someone to be kind and care, and someone to make sure I’m doing okay. Not too difficult of standards to meet, but it’s amazing how few of our kids have that. Thankfully, for the many that don’t there is often a teacher there–in loco parentus–to care about them and push them to succeed.

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We’ve been discussing World View recently in an effort to give some background on author beliefs. I begin the discussion with the explanation that everyone in the world has to answer Three essential questions: Where did I come from? (Meaning how did the world begin), Why am I here?, and Where am I going when I die? I then lay out all the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Agnosticism, and Atheism) and explain how they answer these questions.

Next, we read Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne and The Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman. We examine each for the author’s beliefs. John Donne’s work is ordered and rhymed (design) and demonstrates his deep longing for a relationship with God. Whitman, on the other hand, writes in a free verse style (no rhyme or rhythm), and demonstrates his lack of answers to the essential questions. In his own words, he is “Seeking the sphere’s to connect.”

Usually, it’s one of my favorite lessons, as it provokes a lot of questions about a number of different things. This year, though, my mom came to visit me in the middle of the week. She had been watching a number of specials on this generation, and when I said she was welcome to come to school to meet my kids, she said not only would she like to, but that she’d like to speak as well. Shocked, I agreed.

Even my rowdiest kids were silent and attentive as she shared five stories. She began with an explanation that we are in a battle daily between good and evil, and that their age group is especially vulnerable, being at the age where moral decisions are made. She then shared the story of Joseph, explaining how his brothers had mistreated him and sold him into slavery. She explained how he was falsely accused, after gaining favor with his new master, and thrown in jail. Yet, at the end of the story, he had risen to prominence and saw his brothers again at a time when they need his help. He explains that he has made the choice to forgive them because he knew God had a purpose for all the harm that had come to him.

The next story she shared was about my grandpa, who was one of the oldest of twelve children. He had to drop out at eighth grade to help his family put food on the table. He went to work in the mines, but eventually began selling equipment, becoming so good that he was in charge of the sales distribution from Mexico to Canada through the Western United States. Ashamed of his eighth grade education, he consistently bettered himself through extensive reading.

The third story was about her. My mom has dyslexia, but determined to do well. While reading was difficult for her, she had auditory and observations skills which helped her learn and allowed her to graduate valedictorian of her class. She then went to college, where she graduated with highest honors and became a teacher.

Fourth, she shared about me, and how I had been born with a heart problem, and had to have three surgeries where I could have died. She explained that during my first surgery (when I was two), God assured her that He had a special call on my life. She looked my kids in the eye and said, “And you’re it.” She explained how God had given me a love for junior highers and that I cared about them. In a recent interview, students who had started out in gangs and drugs then turned their lives around were asked what made the difference in their lives. They each shared that they had someone who cared about them, and they had decided to quit making stupid choices. She explained that they had someone who cared about them (me), but the last part was up to them.

Finally, she shared a story from the war. A convoy had driven into an ambush, and after a bomb went off and they were being sniped, the sergeant was trying to get the wounded into the vehicles that were still operational, and he looked around to see a soldier standing, dazed. He said, “Soldier, get in the truck and drive!” The soldier responded, “But, sir, I’ve been shot.” To which the sergeant replied, “We’ve all been shot. Get in the truck and drive.” My mom explained that she’s learned that everyone’s been shot. We’ve all had hard times that we can use as an excuse or a launching point. Our job is to get in the truck and drive.

The talk had a huge impact on my kids, who all too often are tempted to use the circumstances of their lives as an excuse. Once again, it was another great opportunity to let them into my lives, and we were all richer for the experience. I think my favorite part of the day was a student telling me, “I really like your mom. I know that sounds like a ‘Your momma joke”, but I really mean it.” Definitely a memorable experience!

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Yesterday, I taught my now annual lesson on suicide. I added it to my standard curriculum about 2 years ago when one of our recent graduates committed suicide. This past Spring, another student killed himself.

I use the poem “The Thread” by Ellen Hopkins, which is a poem of intricate design and artistry. I initially picked it because of its powerful imagery and how well it illustrates the fact that “Free Verse” doesn’t mean “No design.” I read it on the back cover of the book Impulse and loved it. (For those who have not seen it, it introduces the story of three teenagers who try to commit suicide, fail, and end up in the same rehab facility.)

The basic structure of the lesson goes like this:

1. I begin with a journal topic: What was the most difficult time for you to keep on going? What was it that helped you make it through?

Students write for about 3-5 minutes and then we share responses.

2. We read “The Thread” aloud. The last line of the poem is “Put the gun to your chest.” When we get there, most students react: “WHAT?!?” I immediately ask them for their initial reactions to the poem. Usually, I get the typical answers: Depression, suicidal, psycho, emo, etc. Occasionally, like this year, they go a little deeper: loneliness, they feel like no one cares…

3. Then, I go through the poem and ask them a series of questions right out of the poem: “How many of you wish you could stop thinking sometimes? (every hand.) How many of you have been in a situation where you wish people would just leave you alone? (every hand) How many of you have wanted to forget something about the past? (every hand)…” There are about 10 questions I draw from the poem.

I then explain that I include this poem in the collection because we have recently had two former students commit suicide. I share that at Zach’s memorial service, his mom stated, “There are a number of problems with suicide. First, no one talks about it. Second, everyone that commits suicide feels like they’re alone–that no one understands what they’re going through.” I gesture around the room and say, “Obviously, that’s not true. Maybe they don’t understand your exact circumstances, but I guarantee you, they can relate.”

4. We then discuss the options kids have when dealing with problems: i.e., counselling, play a sport, write in a journal, go to a friend’s house, etc. I explain that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. All problems will pass–don’t make a decision you can’t rethink to handle a problem that will eventually resolve itself.

5. Finally, I discuss the design in the poem–the repetition of words which make a “thread” running through the poem, breaking off at the stanza beginning, “Act.” I also explain the cliché “Hanging on by a thread.”

All in all, it’s a very raw, real day. This year, I happened to have the sister of one of the boys who killed himself. She didn’t talk much, but I talked to her today to make sure she had been okay, explaining, “I don’t want what happened to your brother to happen to anyone else.” I also had a student write me a note which explained that “I don’t usually talk about emotions, but I trust you…” She proceeded to explain that her mother had robbed their family for drug money, cheated on her dad (who moved the family away from her), then promised to come back and never did. My student was 5 when all of this happened.

Giving kids coping tools is one way we can help them make it to graduation–not just academically, but alive.

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This summer I had the opportunity to hang out with a dear former student. We were discussing her future plans, and she mentioned counselling. This didn’t surprise me since she and I are a lot alike, and when I was in high school, I wanted to be a counsellor too. I shared that much of my job is counselling. Yesterday was just such a day.

How I feel...

Most kids know I’m at school until at least 4 on Fridays, so I had two different sets of kids stop by to talk. Both were cases of relationship issues–friends, girlfriends, typical struggles. We talked through things until it was time for me to go out for a fellow teacher’s birthday. I didn’t get finished with one of the kids, so I told him we’d talk after the game (He’s a football player.)

I’ve decided football games are vital times to talk to students. I realized this during student teaching, and it’s been reenforced continually. While during other sports you can talk to one or two kids, at football games, a lot of our kids just walk around, so it’s a good time to chat with current and former students.

My first serious conversation came when a student approached me on how to handle a situation. He had discovered his cousin’s girlfriend was cheating and his cousin wouldn’t believe the people who told him. He wondered if he should say something. We discussed the options he had in handling the situation, and I moved on.

A girl I don’t usually talk to started talking to me when I walked by her, and ended up being my second good conversation. She had shared her future plans with a counsellor who had laughed at her, and she was devastated. She had left the meeting and cried outside the office. I asked her what she wanted to do, and we discussed the options she needed to achieve those goals. (She wants to be a physical therapist.) I told her that she should talk to our athletic trainer and see about helping her out so she can get some hands on training before she goes to college. I also got to share with three other seniors or recent graduates who were deciding about their futures–either colleges or military.

Now, I think our guidance counsellors are amazing, but I know a number of kids don’t like talking to people who “are paid to listen to you.” It is for this reason I think a lot of kids seek advice from teachers over counsellors: I listen because I care, not because I have to. If you are willing to care about kids and take the time to listen, there’s no limit to the impact you can have.

A little later, a fight broke out, and a large crowd ran to check it out. Someone yelled the name of one of my former students as one of the participants. He’s in 10th grade and had a baby when he was in 7th and his girlfriend was in 8th. So, I went looking for him–he ran by a second later. I started off in the direction he headed and ran into his girlfriend. She assured me it hadn’t been him, though he had planned to fight earlier in the evening, and we caught up a bit. I found him and checked on him as well.

In all, I think I paid attention to about 5 minutes of the actual game. Afterwards, I got to talk to a student about doing her best–not because her sister’s a straight A student, and she’s tired of being compared, but because she is worth her best. I helped another student find her iPod she thought she’d lost, and got introduced to another student’s girlfriend, and finished the conversation with the student from the afternoon.

I finally left the school around midnight. As I was driving home, my heart was so full. This is why I teach: to have the daily opportunity to help students navigate this thing called life. Sometimes the hours are long, and the relationships don’t end just because kids graduate or move. The old adage is true: To teach is to touch a life forever.

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