Friday, August 26, 2011

Slavery

There is a blog post I want to share, from a blogger I really like, because it reminds me of some interactions I've had with some of my students.  This blogger talks about her (black) kids going to a slavery exhibit and getting really scared.  It felt to real to them and the fact is, if they had been born into a different time, they might have been put on a real one of these ships.

Kids don't really understand timelines.  I've had many students, in all seriousness, ask me if I had slaves as a little girl.  Or if Martin Luther King, Jr. freed the slaves.  Or if they lived in Africa if they would have been captured and sold.  It's interesting, because in many ways, we try to "child-proof" history, like I've talked about before - making fun little Underground Railroad mazes and word searches.  But history is really scary in many ways.  Is it better to protect kids or to explain the truth to them?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Feelings Paper

Feelings can be very scary for children, and in the lower grades, they often don't have the vocabulary they need to express their feelings.  Frustration, anger, sadness - sometimes even excitement - can all lead to kids acting out in a number of ways.

I wish more adults understood that there is always always a reason for kids to act the way they are acting.  They aren't just being "bad" because they want to be - there's something behind it.  Some kids hit others when they are angry, some kids put their heads down and become unresponsive when they're sad, and some kids interrupt constantly when they are nervous.  There's always a motivation behind the behavior, but children are often not equipped to see this.

One of the things I'm most proud of is creating this silly piece of paper that the kids called the "feelings paper."  I did it right before the first day of school one year and I wished I had done it sooner.  I've seen similar things with pictures of facial expressions, which I suppose is where I got the idea, but I tried to pick the feelings that would be most applicable for my students.

If you can't see the photo, the paper has a spot for the child's name, and then says "I feel:"  They can check "angry," "sad," "disappointed," "worried," "frustrated," "nervous," "excited," "happy," or "I just need attention."  They can also write in their own feeling.  At the bottom it says "Please tell me why and what would help you.

If I had to pick the single most effective tool I have used in my years of teaching, it would be this paper.  I set some ground rules.  The papers were in a stack in a certain place and the kids could get up and get one at any time as long as they were quiet.  They could also hand it to me or put it on my desk at any time.  I would look at it as soon as I could but they understood that I might not be able to do anything immediately.  Often, they didn't need me to, because they just needed to acknowledge their feelings.

I'll write later about how I taught some of those words ("frustrated" was a particularly empowering word for many kids).  Every one of those words got used, and the most common write-in was "I want to hit someone."  (We had talked about how it was OK to feel like hitting someone, as long as you didn't actually hit someone.)

One child whose mom was getting out of jail kept filling out papers with "excited," "happy," and "nervous" all checked.  He didn't need me to do anything except read it.  One kid, who I wrote about before, checked every single emotion, and filled out a feelings paper probably four times a day.  Often he'd write something about hating himself.  I don't know if it helped him at all, but maybe it made him a tiny bit aware of the fact that he had a lot going on.

A girl I remember quite well verified the need for "I just need attention."  Before I introduced these papers, she was a big of a nightmare.  After, she still acted out sometimes, but she would often get a paper instead, and check "I just need attention."  Then she would underline it four or five times and add exclamation marks to it.  Sometimes she would rewrite it at the bottom, just in case I hadn't understood.  The amazing thing was her self-awareness.  She really did just need attention.  I could get the paper, read it, go over to her and touch her shoulder, and go back to the front of the room, all without stopping what I was saying to the class, and it worked.  At least, it worked for 30 minutes or so before I got the next paper from her.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Labels

I was in a crowded public area with a friend last week when I saw a woman in a really short skirt.  I kind of nudged my friend and looked toward the woman and my friend didn't see her.  I whispered to her what I was looking at (she skirt was really short) and my friend still didn't see her.  I tried a few other descriptors: the woman with short hair, the woman with brown shoes, etc.  Then I realized what I didn't say.  I didn't say that it was the black woman.  That would have pointed her out right away.

Aside from why it was so important to me to point this woman out (it wasn't that important, but once I had said it, for some reason, I wanted to make my point), I thought later about why I was so hesitant to point out the woman's race.  I was willing to use just about every other descriptor, but for some reason if felt wrong to say "the black woman." 

I have noticed this at school too.  The kids were very direct.  "Who hit you?"  "That Mexican kid."  Who is in your class?"  "That black girl."  This can be a little jarring, but it's very clear.  Teachers, on the other hand, went out of their way to not mention race when pointing out a child.  I've heard teachers point to a child across the playground, and mention what child is wearing, what position he or she is in, what his or her haircut is... all when pointing out the race of the child would have cleared it up immediately.

A friend recently shared an interesting article about race and how we talk to children about race.   It turns out that it is essential that we talk directly to children about this subject.  Many of us are pretty uncomfortable with this and like to take the "colorblind" approach, but this may not be the best way to deal with it.  Comedian Stephen Colbert does an excellent job of pointing out how silly this approach can be, saying things like "I don't see color.  People tell me I'm white and I believe them because police officers call me 'sir.'"

I'm not entirely sure I've always done a good job with this subject - clearly I have my own issues around it, as we all do.  But I've found that when students ask me questions and I answer directly, they're happy to get an answer.  They're naturally curious and want to know why my skin doesn't look like theirs, and they're not afraid to keep asking questions - everything from why I get sunburned so fast to if I had any black friends growing up.  I wonder if we shouldn't take this approach more often.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Separate

I wrote another blog for Teaching Tolerance that you can find here.  It describes an eye-opening experience I had in my second year of teaching about how drastically segregation/separation can affect children.  I'd love it if you read it!  Even more exciting is the fact that they want me to blog for them regularly!

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