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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Respect and school discipline have to be discussed.

Do not use without permission.
During my teaching experience, I tried to respect students because I knew classroom learning is a complicated social experiment.

This is a transcript from news anchor Brenda Woods' LAST WORD from Atlanta's Channel 11 whose motto is, "holding the powerful accountable." It's in response to a South Carolina resource officer using excessive force against a 16-year old Algebra student.

"It's the age everybody is recording, so Officer Fields is fired. No question, he was unprofessional. His behavior was absolutely unacceptable. But, don't miss the bigger picture here. The discipline problem in our schools is out of control. Not on the part of resource officers, but the kids. 

"Our outrage collectively over that video is rooted in our naïveté about what actually goes on in schools all the time. Talk to those on the front lines and you'll learn that that video is not as black and white as it may seem. 

"Just about every teacher in a big city public school will tell you their biggest daily issue in the classroom is that kids have no respect for authority, and that when a student gets aggressive, the teacher has no power to do anything about it. And the students know that, so they have no incentive to back down when a teacher asks them to or asks them to follow orders.

"In the video, we just see the reaction; we don't see the action that precipitated it. Note what everybody else is doing in that classroom. Just sitting there, no '0oh, oh no he didn't. You wrong.' No, none of that because the kids know this wasn't one sided. That video gives us only one dimension. 

"Now again, let me be clear. I think the officer abused his power. What he did was not OK. But don't get it twisted. That's not the problem in our schools. 

"Teachers and those students who were truly trying to learn are burdened every single day with the albatross of disrespectful, mouthy, misbehaving kids who have no intention of following the rules and will defy anyone who tries to make them. I challenge you, talk to some teachers. They'll tell you. It's a war out there, and the teachers are losing."

First, I have attended both public and private schools and am a graduate of Indiana University in Telecommunications. I am a former educational television producer, college professor, Upward Bound instructor, and substitute and supply teacher in over 15 county schools in one of the largest school districts in Georgia. I also am the mother of three children who all graduated college and have careers in metro Atlanta. I homeschooled my last child for 2 1/2 years of high school, and she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Business. One reason I ran for the Cobb County Board in 2008 was because I felt that the school system had policies in place to help students, but they were not being followed.

Second of all, Brenda's "last words" give neither facts, data, nor personal observations on school discipline and student disrespect, and her remarks are a simple opinion piece prescribed to describe a volatile situation involving a powerful officer and a small child trying to protect her property and reputation. The other students in the classroom did the only thing they could - document the situation, but all violated the "cellphone rule" by having their phones out and pressing record. 

Since Brenda, who is a "morally correct" 7th Day Adventist and wife of a minister, said we should ask teachers about Classroom Wars, here are some facts and opinions from someone who worked in the trenches as a teacher and observer in the public schools.

The bigger picture, in my opinion, is that the school is a place where administrators and teachers are trained and paid to do their jobs and are citizen's employees, not the other way around. Parents and business owners are tax payers who want safe learning environments for their employees and their children. I worked many years as a substitute so I could be home with my kids if they got sick...and believe me, being a substitute is no cakewalk when it comes to classroom discipline. Substitutes are not privy to any student records, so you don't know the backgrounds of students. You've got to be creative to work in this type environment, believe me!!!

Brenda describes a "war" going on inside classrooms where a teacher is outnumbered by 4-30 students, but instructors are suppose to have the leadership, academic and psychological training as well as administrative, political (school board) and security (police) power to back them up. So why does Brenda think the teacher is losing the classroom war? Wars are fought with weapons. A student may have disrespect and a cellphone in her pocket, a little like David and Goliath scenario coming against the giant school system with all its policies to secure its power. That's why in many locales parents have banned together to end battles going on in schools. The only war that we should be fighting in the classroom is the war against ignorance.

U.S. Department of Education suggests we rethink school discipline as it related to students.
    Increase their awareness of the prevalence, impact, and legal implications of suspension and expulsion;
    Find basic information and resources on effective alternatives; and
    Join a national conversation on how to effectively create positive school climates.

Yes. Let's take a larger look at this picture as Brenda suggests. A cellphone means a lot to a student and sometimes is the only asset they possess. It is policy in most school districts that if you're caught using a cellphone in class, it is confiscated, you are disciplined and written up, and parents have to be called in to pick it up. A cellphone is a 21st century communication device (sorta like those notes we used to use in class) and often are distractions in school. Cellphones give a person a sense of power - to be connected to the world. If not for cellphones in classrooms, some violent incidents would not have been reported. 

Some kids show such an affinity to this communication tool that they sleep, eat, and bath with it. Adults are also attached to their cellphones. That's why you see corporate executives checking them constantly, even during important conventions and meetings. Just because you don't turn off your cellphone in a movie theater and it rings during the film shouldn't mean you're lifted out of your seat by security!

In my view, if cellphones are a problem in classrooms (I'd like to see the stats on this if school districts would release the data), then cellphone companies need to become involved with this issue. This conversation needs to include why and how cellphones in the classroom can be beneficial to students and used as tools just like laptops. A cellphone is a device, not a threat to learning. Thank God that those brave students capture Officer Fields on video... We learned a lot from Rodney King!!!

As far as respect goes, I learned years ago from my niece that respect is earned, not freely given. Respect has a trust dimension to it and involves good communication. Respect is a mutual endeavor and is not one-sided. The family, classroom, and community are places which breed respect, and if young people are disrespected by poor healthcare, inadequate moral training, poor parenting and job opportunities, disrespect can grow like cancer and invades the classroom.

I believe that people who are loved, trusted, and respected don't need to be powerfully prodded into authoritative submission. When rules are clearly mandated and agreed to by both parties, they can easily be followed. Kids, however, like adults are not perfect, but minors are not to be abused, especially by systems of power. Anarchy can result from this type of power struggle in an age when every student has a cellphone. The school to prison pipeline is in force and leads to a stripped community.

Officer Fields was a resource officer at Spring Valley High School, and he was wearing a badge and some equipment which may have included a gun. I don't know anything about the student, whether she had a disciplinary record, was from a single parent home, or whether she was an A student. News reports say she was a 16-year old in an Algebra I classroom who didn't want to give up a possession prized by many - a cellphone.

If Brenda wants to see what precipitated Officer Fields' encounter, she should suggest that teachers record situations themselves when disrespectful disruptions go down in classrooms.

Brenda talks about school discipline being a major issue in big city schools. This school cannot be compared to "a big city public school" because it is a county school in a Columbia, S.C. suburb. The school has just under 2,000 students, and the racial makeup of the school is 50.8% black, 34.1% White, and 6.8% Hispanic, with 35.8% receiving free or discounted lunch. In the U.S., "The largest regular school...was the 7,693-student Vick Early Childhood and Family the City of Chicago..." ---U.S. Dept. Of Education

"Sometimes we forget where many of these students come from and the situations that they deal with on a daily basis. School should be a safe haven and kids should trust all of their administrators, teachers, and staff members." Derrick Meador, Teaching Expert

I must admit, I decided not to continue my assignment at one middle school because after I wrote a student up for class disruption, he came back to my classroom and threatened me. Also, I learned that a student who had major discipline issues was a victim that I couldn't turn around. From talking to the child's grandmother, I found out that discipline at home was difficult because her mother was dead and both her father and brother were incarcerated. She was sexually active, and acting out in the classroom gave her a sense of power in front of peers. 

Another student dropped a box of condoms in front of me in the hallway and was later transferred to another school when they found razor blades in his book bag. These were all issues that should have been addressed by the school counselor, not a supply teacher who had no access to student files. Also, I noticed that many students with discipline problems were eating only French Fries and downing Cokes at lunch. When I mentioned it to the principal, he said students were free to make their own eating choices. Many of them were on free or reduced fee lunch programs.

I felt helpless to improve their situations. Personally, I was working up to three hours a day after school on lesson plans, grading papers, and designing tests and extra hours on weekends inputting student data into the system. I felt I wasn't being paid enough money and had no benefits, and my own kids increasingly needed me to help them with their homework.

My mind is a camera, but I wish I could have videoed horror stories of power I saw inflected by middle school and elementary teachers. I remember seeing a teacher grading papers during lunch. She was slashing through a color-printed assignment that must have taken the student hours and a lot of expensive ink to generate.  "He didn't follow directions," she said as she slashed through each page with a red X. She gave the student an F. I could imagine that student not wanting to try again least of all respecting himself or the teacher.

Then there was the time I saw a special needs student being tackled to the floor for trying to verbally defend another student. There was the time I saw a student in a similar classroom straight jacketed and placed behind a screen. Similarly, a teacher from another classroom came in and seeing a student working quietly on the computer wrestled him to the ground where he embarrassingly peed on himself.

I remember my daughter coming home from kindergarten one day complaining about her face hurting because the teacher had squeezed her cheeks for talking too much. The teacher denied it, of course. My daughter also told me she was bitten in the neck by a teacher walking down the hall from the bathroom, but I had no video to prove it. I don't believe my child made that up!

This Officer Fields episode reminds me of a cringing "before cellphone moment" when I saw a nun break her cane over my elementary school comrade's back for not sitting down.

Yes, Virginia, teachers are humans, too... Nothing human is alien to them! But respect comes along with the territory. With the Internet, anyone can take classes and learn, even from Harvard, so the physical classroom isn't the only learning vacuum but is a non-virtual social environment. This is the battlefield Brenda alluded to. Yes, hold the powerful accountable - the community and the school- and don't side with perpetrators!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What we're learning about South Carolina

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Tranquil South Carolina before the 2015 flooding tears hit
My maternal great grandparents were from Rock Hill, S.C., so I've always wanted to visit that town but haven't had the opportunity. But now, after much violence being reported and the state being hit with major flooding, I may never visit Rock Hill. Just left South Carolina in August, visited Hilton Head's Harbour Island where I had a terrible dinner at the Crab Shack. My last memory of S.C. is watching an alligator swimming in the resort pond.

What's up with S.C.? As an African American, has it replaced Mississippi as the state I never want to be caught living in?

If you know American History, South Carolina was a major slave state with the black population outnumbering the white population at some point which is probably why white supremacy/racism abounds there - a means of power and control. Even though they've removed the 'ole Confederate Battle Flag from state grounds after Dylann Roof went into a black church bible study and murdered nine people, now comes the fact that cellphones have documented a black man being shot in the back and a 16-year old female student being violently removed from her desk.

Then there's the rain and flooding that continue to impact the state, making it a wasteland.  It could be a beautiful place, but tears are falling there. May God have mercy on its residents.

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South Carolina is a beautiful place with painful memories. (Honey Hill Plantation, Hilton Head Island, S. C.)
To read more news on what's happening in S.C., go to:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Contemplating healing in a technological age

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Instead of preaching to birds, we have to use technology to reach humans who will listen.
As I've gotten older, my ideas have changed but never my basic beliefs and ideals. 

My moral training started out in the all black Christian Methodist Episcopal Church that my parents attended, but I never went to Sunday school there because my parents deemed the one hour daily Catholic Catechism class I was receiving at St. Joseph's School over eight years enough religious indoctrination. 

Now, when I get sick and can't sleep, I revert to my meditative standby: repeating the Lord's Prayer over and over again while listening to soothing music on my IPad and the pronouncements of Dr. Deepak Chopra. When I feel my breathing labored, I pull out my knitting needles and yarn, something I learned as a Girl Scout many years ago, my fingers now concentrating on stitches and how I might give away scarves as Christmas presents.

Last night and way until the morning hours, after taking antibiotics for an infection, I watched a video on the life and death of St. Francis of Assisi. Born into wealth and luxury, he had everything in life going for him until he was imprisoned after a Civil War. Languishing in a dark, damp dungeon for a year until a ransom could be paid, St. Francis contracted malaria. 

After returning to his family and visiting a dilapidated church, he felt called to serve the poor. Despite all odds, he wanted to become a preacher and was granted his wish of becoming a friar by Pope Innocent. He first began preaching to birds depicted as the poor in medieval iconography. He cared for lepers and contacted the dreaded disease. He left the religious ministry he founded because of organization disputes. He died poor and ill at age 44, reciting Psalms with only his closest friends around. 

Such a life could have been lived differently, and many thought he had thrown his life away, but he felt called by God. May God have mercy on us and lead us to a greater understanding of His Will.