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Christmas Is About Belonging to the ‘We of Me’

Published by EducationNews.org — Sadly, in our fragmented society, adults often find families optional.  Not the kids.

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In one of my favorite plays, Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, 12-year-old Frankie is frantic with loneliness.  She calls herself “unjoined.”  Her mother died in her childbirth; her father has little attention for her.  She craves membership in a clique of older girls who shun tomboys like Frankie.  The play aches with longing to belong.

Not only was my own coming of age plagued with such pains, but I felt them later in life too, when yearning for friends and a place to fit in at college, or in a new town.  The holiday season can also kindle loneliness with images of other people’s warm loving hearthsides.  Belonging to others is a basic biological requirement of our mammalian brains.  Detachment hurts, or when sustained, it numbs.  So this longing to attach is often McCullers’ theme.

Frankie’s companions are her 6-year-old cousin, John Henry, and Bernice Brown, their African-American caretaker. John Henry inhabits the childhood Frankie now wants to outgrow.  And while Bernice has been her de facto mother, she’s not a peer.  The story revolves around Frankie’s clueless fantasy that after her beloved older brother and his girlfriend are married, she can belong to them.  In words that have haunted me for decades, Frankie declares that they will become “the we of me.”  Along with Bernice, we sigh, knowing what’s coming.

Frankie packs her clothes and installs herself in the honeymoon car.  So when the wedding ceremony is over, her father and uncle have to drag her from the car kicking and screaming.  Without the “we” she imagined, she runs into the night with her father’s pilfered pistol.  She doesn’t kill herself, but scares the daylights out of everyone, and returns home more humiliated and alone than ever.

But Frankie has attachments.  In the last scene of the play, months later, Frankie’s looking forward to her family moving in with Dad’s relatives.  And she’s made a friend named Mary.

Lizzie didn’t get so lucky.

A modern-day urban teen, whom we’ll call Lizzie, has those same yearnings, but lacks McCullers’ articulate dialogue.  Lizzie’s language is acting out.  Her maddening behavior is a perverted effort to connect, but it’s off-putting, to say the least.  At 14 she’s over-aged for her grade, having been held back once or twice while shifting among various relatives and various schools.  Like so many highly-mobile kids, her educational foundation is like Swiss cheese.  And no one’s stopped the assembly line to fill in the holes.

Frankie’s complaints were legitimate, but she did have consistent adults in her life.  Lizzie does not.  Lizzie has a bed of her own, but chooses to sleep on a mat next to her current guardian’s bed, in a seemingly desperate gesture of belonging to someone.  The guardian is a distant relation, now old and quite sick.  Lizzie’s next step will be into the public child-protection system, where she’ll have slim odds of ever trusting that she belongs anywhere, to anyone.

Like Frankie, Lizzie wants to be accepted by kids much older than she.  But Lizzie has found some who will take her, and give her drugs, a place to hang out, and promises of future “employment.”  Hey, if it were me, I’d be thrilled to have enough freedom and choice to find my own “we.”  God knows none other has presented itself.

We empathize with Frankie’s desperation.  But no one feels warm and fuzzy about Lizzie’s aggressive language or disruptive antics.  She gets in the way of traditional schooling.  Public institutions are not designed to address her biological need to connect and stay connected.  Through no fault of her own, she is truly unjoined.

Christmas raises questions about belonging.

Every year the press and dinner-party conversationalists bemoan the materialistic orgasm that our Christmas mornings have become.  Now a major driver of the economy, the gift-giving originated from the ancient practice of leaving practical things for the baby’s newly-expanded household.  Christmas fused that custom to the idea of light and love coming into a dark world via the baby Jesus.  It’s a sweet tradition gone bananas, to be sure.  But I don’t think the gifts are what make kids so nuts around this time, however much parents and charities try to ensure that poor kids get stuff just like the comfortable kids.

No, it’s about belonging.  Some of the poorest families I know happily gather in numbers inappropriate to their small homes.  Sure, kids like the stuff.  But when asked what they look forward to, they enthuse about cousins coming, or that the clan is going to so-and-so’s house.  It’s not the stuff; it’s the belonging.  Sadly, in our fragmented society, adults often find families optional.  They’re inconvenient, sometimes maddening.  The kids don’t care.  They’ll take the belonging, almost whatever the cost.  That ache that Frankie articulates might seem subtle to adults.  But if we’re honest, we have it too.

It might be inconvenient, but all kids deserve a “we of me.”

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Why the Every Student Succeeds Act Will Never Work

Published by EducationNews.org — Can we really expect education to improve while the mental health of the students continues to deteriorate?

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Given the battlefield that is our current Congress, congratulations to them are in order for agreeing on anything.  Together, miraculously, they revamped the old 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  NCLB was loathed from the get-go.  It was a set-up for failure, since it was and is still statistically impossible to have all children proficient by 2014 or any other date.  NCLB’s set of increasing threats and punishments for under-performing schools produced widespread cheating scandals.  Art and hands-on projects were cut in order to devote time and resources to improving test scores instead of actual learning.  The hostile “accountability” measures backfired so strongly that many states got waiver agreements from the feds to pull the law’s punitive punches.

NCLB’s recently-passed replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), does two things of note.  First, it devolves to the states the power to design their own accountability systems.  This is an improvement, but we’ve been here before.  Some states set such absurdly low thresholds that nearly all of their kids are “proficient,” while simultaneously bombing on the national NAEPs.  Like grade inflation, deeming all kids proficient when they’re not is a kind lie, with unkind consequences.  States will need several years to create and then impose their own systems so everyone will have time to figure out how to spin their kids’ achievement results.  But getting the feds out of the naming-and-shaming game is a big plus.

Secondly, the ESSA removes the mandate that teachers be evaluated according to the kids’ test scores — another statistically absurd idea.  Surely scores will still be used for some evaluations, in some fashion.  But it was outright funny watching states twist themselves into pretzels to assess gym and art teachers’ performance on standardized reading tests, for example.

See here for a side-by-side summary of the old and new laws; just scroll down a bit.

But what’s in it for the kids?

Sadly, not much.

The law has only minor changes to how it allocates dollars — for better or worse.  But for consistency’s sake, the fed money will flow as it has in the past, without interruption and with fewer strings.

And officially removing the nastiness of the “sanctions,” which were punishments for under-performance, might help everyone to relax a bit.  Hopefully some kindness will trickle down to the kids.

However… the law hardly reflects that any of its authors had in mind the actual warm-bodied kids who are involved in education.  The way to improve education is to improve the conditions in which it takes place.  What would nourish curious kids so they can soak up more learning than they did before?  Kids are organic beings.  The fields or flower beds where their minds are being cultivated need rich curricular and strategic nutrients with more access to sunshine and refreshing waters.  As it is, achievement levels will likely remain stagnant or even recede.

The assumption of education is that the acquisition of skills and content is built on a solid foundation of mental health.  Schools are designed to respond to kids who arrive with a reasonable amount of attention that they can give to the business of learning.  In reality, many kids arrive quite distracted for a whole host of reasons, from too much video gaming to full-on trauma.  I resent the people who blame school performance on parents and poverty, but get real.  Struggling families tend to have struggling kids.  Struggling kids act out, withdraw, or see little point in school.  Since 2001 the poverty level among public school children has risen from 38.3% to 49.6% in 2012.  It’s likely that they’ve passed the 50% threshold by now, so more than half of all kids in public schools are living in families where deprivation is the norm.

That’s the tip of the iceberg.  The U.S. has absurdly negative stats showing high rates of premature pregnancy, drug use and disengagement.  In brief:  a huge proportion of U.S. kids are not okay.  And in many cases the troubles at home are then compounded at troubled, overwhelmed schools.

You would think that if you were re-writing the federal education act, the plight of the kids and families might spark a conversation.  Because here we are, once again, going down a road that is statistically impossible.  Education will never improve while the mental health of the students continues to deteriorate.  This doesn’t let the schools off the hook at all.  Like the feds themselves, it’s their job to advocate for the health, well-being and prosperous future of the children under their watch.  No, they don’t think of it as their role, but it’s high time they start if they hope to get anything accomplished.

The Congressional happy-dancing about the Every Child Succeeds Act shows zero political appetite for taking on improving the welfare of the kids.  Once again, this will never work.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Restore Kindergarten to Boost Social Skills

Published by EducationNews.org — What’s most fun for young kids is also what best prepares them for success.  So why are schools eliminating playtime?

kindergarten

Picture wriggly, shrieky, busy 5-year-olds exploring the kindergarten play yard’s treasures.  The sandbox brims with budding builders, diggers, landscape designers.  Some kids need mostly to run and scream.  Others settle into swinging, climbing and kicking balls to each other.  The luckiest kids have a bit a nature where they can make fairy houses for a community of imaginary beings living through dramatic, magical adventures.  They learn the arts of taking turns, helping one another on projects and solving their own problems.

Maria Montessori said that “Play is the work of childhood.”

Picture a wise adult or two, standing at a distance, perhaps out of earshot, eyeing the elements of the kids’ evolving social world.  The adults respond when asked to admire an accomplishment or play a role, but stay out of disputes unless it gets out of control.  A new kid or loner needs adult help connecting to others.  Grown-ups might redirect the aggressive impulses of a little bully and try to help her develop empathy by walking in her classmates’ shoes somehow.

But those were the kindergartens of yesteryear. 

These days kids spend precious little time playing at all in school.  Play and socializing might happen during short breaks between academic instruction, but many schools did away with recess altogether.  Now kindergarten teachers teach first-grade skills and have no mandate to help 5-year-olds develop the social skills that will serve them for life.  The Alliance for Childhood’s Crisis in the Kindergarten says, “Skepticism about the value of play is compounded by the widespread assumption that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school.”  That assumption is wrong.

And recently yet more research shows how wrong the assumption is.  In “Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health:  The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness,” Drs. Jones, Greenberg and Crowly examine the value of what they call the “non-cognitive” skills, or those skills not associated with IQ or achievement.  They argue that these playing-nicely-in-the-sandbox skills actually support the “cognitive,” or academic, abilities of the child.  The researchers mined the rich longitudinal data from the “Fast Track” study of low-income neighborhoods which collected teacher descriptions of a large sample of kindergartners starting in 1991 and then followed those kids’ outcomes 13 to 19 years later — until 2000.

Their studies reveal that when kindergarteners develop strong social skills, they have significantly higher odds of future success in a range of domains from physical health to academics.  Little kids who cannot manage feelings or negotiate well with others are more likely, statistically, to become young adults who use drugs, struggle in school, get involved in the justice system, be unemployed, and so on.

“Kindergarten” means “child’s garden,” where kids grow organically.

Common Core, while marvelous in some ways, is only the most recent instrument of pushing academic instruction into kindergarten.  In the 1990s, when computer-scored testing became cost-effective, states and their schools became obsessed with boosting their public image and value by increasing their scores.  I’m all for testing as a way of checking on the equity and quality of certain academic efforts, but schools became all about testing, needlessly squeezing everything else out.  Many early childhood experts are aghast about it.  Losing supervised play as the best and most natural way for young kids to learn cripples curiosity.  Developing self-control, cooperation and solving their own problems will produce the desired academic results, but only in good time.

Pre-literacy and play are not mutually exclusive. 

By all means, steep kindergartners in rich literature and intriguing stories.  Nourish the curiosity of those yearning to unlock the mysteries of reading.  Build out their vocabularies at every opportunity.  But mostly, let them love being at school — socializing, exploring.  That will do far more to boost 3rd-grade reading than un-fun reading instruction.

Kindergarten teachers wouldn’t mind teaching social skills if they weren’t also saddled with the pain of pushing instruction that many argue is inappropriately premature.  Harder, faster, younger isn’t working out.  And oh what a turn-off it is for so many kids.

So restore play in kindergarten.  Play is how children learn and how adults relax, recreate and restore well-being.  It’s the ultimate restorative practice.  In a world gone mad with aggression, you’d think we could agree that giving the kids a rich year of supervised play, learning empathy, would set them up with a higher quality of life.

Indeed, research strongly argues it will.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Thanks to My Sons, Who Got Me Involved in Schools

Published by EducationNews.org — Thanksgiving, another basic Restorative Practice.thanksgiving

Per tradition, this year at Thanksgiving dinner we’ll go around the table and say what we’re grateful for this year.  Likely many families do this, driven by the mom or whoever is feeling under-appreciated, or wanting to call out the brats for being spoiled.

Giving thanks is a fabulous habit.  It’s as proactively healthy as brushing your teeth or exercising.  Therapists recommend it for battling bad moods and minor depressions.  C’mon, what was lovely for you this year?  Be positive.  Whatever your troubles at the moment, what stands out as a bright spot in your life?

My sons have long refused to participate in the other home-grown traditions of their younger lives.  But circling up at Thanksgiving has persisted even through teenage eye-rolling and despite the superior attitudes my now-grown sons can occasionally adopt towards Mom.  Hearing a personal thought from everyone — young, old and middling, be it earnest, snarky or frank — is a fundamental restorative practice.  What I now call a circle began decades ago.  Who knew what was to come?

My kids got me into education, and later Restorative Practices.

I did get some fancy degrees early on when I was training for life as an artist.  My father would say I was a crashing failure at it.  True, trying to become a playwright/director/dramaturge was a tough nickel.  And most of the handful who do make money at it don’t make much.  Of course motherhood doesn’t pay a dime.  And on its bad days it gives new meaning to thankless.

Still, being a mom, and only that credential, opened a door for me into an Alice’s wonderland of school politics.  Through an insane fluke years ago, I was appointed to the Providence School Board.  My twins were in kindergarten.  It was the year the infamous Buddy Cianci took office as Mayor for the second time.  He later went to prison on RICO charges (racketeering).  But he was hardly the only one playing fast-and-loose with the resources intended for the City’s public education system.

I was appointed by the previous lame-duck Mayor, whom I thought I’d impressed with my vast reading about schools, and most specifically my understanding of the Providence teachers contract, which I’d studied with a group of parents.  Eventually I realized I’d only been appointed to be a mild pain in the butt to the new Mayor.  School Boards and Committees are often stepping stones to more prestigious political offices, so mere moms are generally just place-holders.  I was a political nobody, a rank novice who would be deservedly ignored.  Limp handshakes were all the welcome I got at my first meeting.  The School Board secretary pulled me aside and gave me a great piece of advice I’ll pass on to you:  “Shut up for six months until you know where you are.”  And I did.  I watched and learned.

I learned that the System wasn’t very concerned about kids.

Yes, some people on the Board were well meaning.  But they were afraid to speak up or felt paralyzed by the brick walls of regulations, laws and contract provisions.  Most painful was realizing that adults were collecting gobs of taxpayer money and passing it around to one another.  I was blown away.  Winning and losing political clout seemed the principal purpose of the educational bureaucracy.  We virtually never discussed students, except for those who needed us to vote to expel them.  The kids were getting a super-raw deal.

Rather suddenly my phone was ringing itself off the hook.  Can you get my kid a bus pass?  They keep saying she’s eligible, but I don’t have a car and the pass never comes.  Or: My kid’s Spanish class has no textbooks.  The teacher speaks little English, so the students are lost.  And this was common:  My kid had a great teacher — young, energetic, enthused.  But that teacher got “bumped” out by a more senior teacher, who for some reason had the right to take that position.  The new teacher is wasting my kid’s time, but the administration tells me that there is nothing they can do.

And oh, by the way, most of the students are low-income and kids of color.  My own kids had their struggles, learning alongside the rest of the public school kids.  But their problems were a window into some of their pals’ far more serious issues.  In time I had no choice but to do everything I could to make a difference in those kids’ lives.  I can’t say I’ve been terribly successful, but giving it my all every day has been a healthy, if sometimes frustrating habit.

I never would have taken up the task if my boys hadn’t put me on the path.  Who knows what I’ll say during the go-round on the night of Thanksgiving?  But in the spirit of giving thanks, here’s to Soren, Nick and Felix — and Conrad, their dad.  They don’t need me any more, except as a sounding board and dinner companion.  But oh did I need them.  So, thanks.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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A Small Gesture Toward Spreading Higher Ed Wealth

Published by EducationNews.org — As the richest universities get richer, taxpayers subsidize the inequity

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Consider for a moment that almost 90 colleges and universities have endowments of a billion – that’s with a “B” — dollars or more. At 5% interest, a billion earns $50 million a year. Harvard, of course, is the big winner at nearly $37 billion, an amount so large that others have noted that the institution could stop charging tuition altogether and still be raking in dough.

I knew that part. But what I hadn’t considered is that when donors make a charitable donation to a billionaire college, they write the money off on their taxes. Therefore, as the rich colleges get richer, the taxpayers subsidize the inequity.

Higher ed and student debt are topics I generally leave to others, but I’ve been haunted by what seems like a doable, easily defended idea. To wit: end tax deductions for donations to rich universities. It’s brilliantly simple. The IRS has the data easily at hand, so a single regulation could disallow those institutions above the billion-dollar mark. Donors can still give money; they just can’t take it off their tax returns. No biggie. Any hue and cry against such a measure would be embarrassing to those protesting. The reg would hurt no one. Not even the rich universities. It would be a little drop of reason and kindness in a harsh and unfair world.

I got this idea from Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and prolific writer. His recent opinion piece for USA Today, called “To reduce inequality, abolish Ivy League, went a little off the deep end. No one’s going to close Yale, or dictate any college’s admissions policies for the sake of social engineering or equality, as he suggests. But his push to end that tax break seems irrefutable.

A terrific education isn’t nearly as valuable as the networking.

Those in the know understand that it’s not the quality of education at Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton that prepares students to walk among the powerful. It’s the contacts they make, the friends cultivated for future deal-making, allies and lucrative marriages. It’s a rigged game. Very rich schools serve a disproportionately large number of very rich kids on their way to fame and fortune. If your kid got “C”s in high school while getting high with their romantic attachment, but you have the means to endow a wing on the art complex or a professorial chair, voila! The kid still gets the fat acceptance envelope at what is for everyone else one of the most competitive universities in the country.

A smart kid can get a terrific education at any number of less prestigious colleges, including excellent public institutions. She just won’t be rubbing elbows with the First Families.

Public colleges tend to have very small endowments at best. Their support comes mainly from state budgets, tuition and some donations. Because of the recent recession, states have been cash-strapped and skimping on support to higher education.

A deserving charity?

In his article, Professor Reynolds uses some of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s research. Reich says, “Private university endowments are now around $550 billion, centered in a handful of prestigious institutions. Harvard’s endowment is over $32 billion, followed by Yale at $20.8 billion, Stanford at $18.6 billion, and Princeton at $18.2 billion. Each of these endowments increased last year by more than $1 billion, and these universities are actively seeking additional support. Last year, Harvard launched a capital campaign for another $6.5 billion. Because of the charitable tax deduction, the amount of government subsidy to these institutions in the form of tax deductions is about one out of every $3 contributed.”

This means, therefore, that each kid at Princeton, say, is publicly subsidized, through tax deductions, roughly to the tune of $54,000. Their undergraduate population is about 5,000, so do the math. Likely a good number of the donors would still give money even without the write-off. Alternative, if knocking down a tax bill via donations is important to them, certain donors would give to a more worthy cause. One can always hope.

Granted, ending this tax subsidy would not so flood the federal coffers that Pell grants would overflow. Nor would the dynastic succession of certain powerful families stop. But the simplicity of the fix, which appeals to me, would make the rich universities work just a little harder at financial invincibility. It might provoke a conversation about how far higher education has strayed from the Horace Mann ideal of a leveled playing field for an educated citizenry. And how much it has become an ugly rigged game for those who have the upper hand in the first place.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Dominic Barter: Respect Means to Look Again

Published by EducationNews.org — We live in a super-aggressive world.  Those who want peace must be able to walk towards the conflict.

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I have hated the word “respect.”  What does it mean?  It grates constantly as it’s overused in political discourse, the media, discipline conversations and among co-workers.  Especially annoying are those posters in school hallways demanding “Respect,” either by itself or along with other abstract nouns like “responsibility.”  Is the mandate only directed at kids?  If so, who teaches what it means and how to do it?

So if the word came up, I would often stop to ask what it meant to the speaker.  Kids say they were “disrespected” to explain why they mouthed off at a teacher, walked out of class or otherwise disrupted.  They were triggered into misbehaving, to be sure, but by what, exactly?  Adults are little better, complaining about lack of respect from students, co-workers, bosses and underlings.  When I ask kids or adults what “respect” means, the first look I get says, “What a stupid question.”  Then the look morphs into mild confusion because they don’t have an answer.  What, I pursue, might respect look like or feel like?  The answer might get me closer to the true nature of the complaint, but not to a definition.

Recently, Dominic Barter solved my problem.  “Respect,” he says, means to look twice. “Re” means that something will happen again or will return.  “Spect” means to see.  “Spectator” and “spectacular” also come from the Latin spectare which means to see, view, watch or behold.

Respect means to look again.

For decades, Barter worked in the shanty towns or favellas of Brazil learning how to ease the violence.  In effect, he engaged many people in a protocol for his own Truth and Reconciliation effort, much like the South African Commission.  First he’d find safe ways to get everyone’s truth on the table, however hideous or enraged.  Then, with everyone having been heard, the group would work on how to live together in peace henceforth.

Barter’s story began with his inability to give up on helping those neighborhoods which were the murder capital of the world.  Others certainly had.  He asked officials and locals what he could do and was told by all that he could do nothing.  People living in the favellas themselves considered the situation hopeless.

So he listened, mainly to the kids hanging around the streets, but also to whomever wanted to talk.  And in this way he figured out his own version of Restorative Justice. The concepts of Truth and Reconciliation help explain the two-step process of looking.

The first look sees the obvious. 

“When we listen respectfully, we see everything that distinguishes us from the other person.  We see the gender, ethnicity, social class, where you live, how you behave.  We see the crimes, or I tell myself, perhaps, about the crimes you have committed.”

He goes on to say, “But when we listen respectfully, I listen again without denying anything I’ve seen the first time.  But I listen with a question.  Is there also shared humanity?  Is there something that we have in common?  Is there something that connects us?  I’m not defining who you are by what my thoughts tell me.”

So “respect” includes the ability to talk with people who may have done quite horrific things.  More commonly it’s the ability to walk towards the conflict with those who have offended, angered or shamed us, for whatever reason.  And in their presence and in full recognition of what they’ve done, or what we think they’ve done, to ask more questions.  To listen carefully.  To see if there isn’t some commonality that makes it possible to let the conflict be just a conflict, not a fight.  There’s no room in a fight to allow for either truth or reconciliation.

We live in a super-aggressive world, bullied by prejudice, social-media slander and viciousness resulting from easily-taken offense.  Anyone who wants peace needs to look again.  I no longer need to be annoyed by the word “respect” because I know now just to go back to the moment and look again.

Because, as Barter says, “We behave differently according to what we see.”

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Can Schools Teach What Kids Don’t Learn At Home?

Published by EducationNews.org — Kids are often switching between two different value systems — the middle-class values of school and whatever their culture is at home.

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Back in the early 1990s, Margaret Thorsborne was among the original group of Australians exploring restorative justice and its applications.  Eminent criminologist John Braithwaite was among them.  At this point, her international experience in workplaces, communities and schools has made her something of a rock star in the field, so she gave the keynote at the recent Skidmore College Restorative Practices Symposium.

She started as a high school biology teacher in a school on the east coast of Australia.  Then, as she put it in her charming Aussie way, she “went sideways” into school counseling.  It was there, in the course of honing counseling skills, that she discovered “the Restoration stuff.  It grabbed me by the throat.”

She began her address with an adaptation of a John Herner quote:

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we… punish?

It is completely weird when you think about it.

Both parents and teachers teach their children how to do things by having kids repeat and practice what they’re trying to learn.  Thorsborne says that somehow it has gotten into our DNA that that when it comes to behavior, having a child suffer will be the deterrent to future misdeeds.  “I’ve discovered that schools are the same all over the world.  There’s always the worry that if kids don’t experience consequences, the sky will fall.”

Rules are “dreadfully important,” of course. 

But breaking a rule is not like getting a math problem wrong, because broken social rules have an adverse effect on the people around the child, on the classroom, friends or family.  But social rules aren’t universal.  Each neighborhood, faith-based community and family develops a culture with values from which rules emerge.

And that’s the rub for schools, according to Thorsborne: those cultures vary enormously.  In fact, more often than not, modern kids are switching between two radically different value systems — the distinctly middle-class values of school and whatever the culture is at home.  “Kids aren’t lining up for anything at home.”  Similarly, they aren’t sitting still for longer than 20 minutes.  Adolescents who swear a blue streak likely live in a home or among friends where such language is normal.  A kid’s non-school world has a wealth of norms, which they learn by imitation.  The chasm between the expectations of home and school can be huge.

Schools, on the other hand, are very articulate about their rules and consequences, setting them forth in lengthy handbooks, as if that settles the matter.  Posters that adorn hallways and classrooms trumpet values that are usually about “respect, responsibility and achievement.”  But, Thorsborne says, “a value is of no value to anyone unless you can see its value in others’ behavior.  They need to see the value in the adult behavior.  You can’t expect to see a behavior you haven’t taught.”

“This business is really about relationship management.”

Relationships shape kids’ values.  “Kids can’t do things right because we said it once or they read our minds.  They need focused repetition,” guided by caring adults, “to understand how to behave appropriately according to their social context.”

Thorsborne suggests that an effective way of shaping school-appropriate behavior is to bring the parents in and brainstorm with them about responding to behavior issues.  If their child has been bullied, teased or pushed, what would they like to happen?  Often those answers are harsh.  Okay, but what if their child is the person doing the harm, as the thief, instigator or aggressor?  Suddenly the adults want understanding, empathy, and a stronger emphasis on getting to the motivation for unwanted behavior.  No one wants their own child humiliated, ostracized, or hurt.  They want compassionate responses — unless the offender is someone else’s kid.

What matters most to kids is that they have a sense of belonging and that people care about them.  Thornsborne says, “A wee chat with the kid will probably nudge the child back on the path of righteousness.  But not if the kid doesn’t care about you.”  Probably the biggest problem with punishment is how deeply it alienates and shuts children down at home as well as at school.

As such — and I thought this was brilliant — she urges that we quit thinking about “behavior systems,” and think instead about “relationship systems.”  A narrow focus on an individual kid’s behavior essentially blames the kid and leaves out all other factors and people.  Unless problematic relationships are restored, among peers and teachers alike, teaching and learning will surely be undermined.  Too often we have student behavior systems which leave the adults’ behavior entirely out of the equation.  So the kid never feels invited into the fold.  That just won’t work among modern kids.

So, as Thorsborne says, “This business is really about relationship management.”

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The Long Overdue Death of 19th-Century Education

Published by EducationNews.org — If all the information is becoming accessible on-line, let’s shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills.

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The recent Greg Whiteley film Most Likely to Succeed looks deeply into the workings of a school that has turned its back on traditional education.  Gone are the rows of desks, the “cells and bells” (the prison of the 6, 7-period day), “drill and kill” test prep, and the glazed look in the eyes of passive learners.  Instead we see high school students in groups wrestling with design problems, and individuals riveted to the product they’re producing on the rich array of machinery the school makes accessible to them.  Kids are busy, engaged.  The school didn’t tinker around the edges, but built with a new strategy from the ground up.

It’s a refreshing welcome departure from education that seems more interested in teaching compliance and obedience than a love of learning.

The film focuses on High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, California.  The filmmakers concede that it’s not the only radical school experiment that’s now in full flower.  But they shot footage there for a year because it shows a clear image of what else education might be.  Ed revolutionaries like Sal Khan of Khan Academy and Sir Ken Robinson, a guru of creativity, talk about how the current education system came about in the 19th century and how badly outmoded it’s become.  For example, if a job can be automated, it will be, and soon.  So the ability to be compliant to repetitive-task jobs that depend on an unchanging knowledge base is a fast-fading reality.  Far more important are creativity, collaboration and self-starting, characteristics highly valued by HTH.

Theoretically, education maintains a balance between content and skills.

Contrary to its name, High Tech High (HTH) is not a vocational school steeped in computer and software technology – like the excellent Advanced Math and Science Academy in Massachusetts.  Instead, HTH’s idea of “tech” is that young people now grow up in a world where all information is accessible through the internet.  The key, then, is to shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills, including knowing how to dig content out of cyberspace and make good sense of it.

So HTH is entirely “project-based.”  Student groups design the project and then divvy up the work among leaders of sub-teams responsible for, say, the costumes, set, or lighting.  On “Project Night” at the end of each semester, they present their work to friends, family and community.  One grade immersed itself in 5th century Greece and a group of them took on the task of interpreting Euripides’ Trojan Women in the contemporary setting of modern Pakistan.

The HTH teachers’ role is to inform, suggest, set broad expectations, and keep the projects from going off the rails.  Content-area teachers seem to pair off in odd couplings, like history and engineering (Physics).  One teacher pair charged their group with digesting certain documents, politics, arts, and social history into a theory of the rise and fall of civilizations — an intellectual reach to say the least.  Having created their theory, backed by historical research, each group then worked with the engineering teacher to build a device that will represent their theory.  I didn’t understand the connection, but the finished device in motion was gorgeous.

Larry Rosen, the school’s CEO (principal) says, there’s just nothing like “making something that wasn’t there before.”

Does High Tech High school “work?”

Despite the film’s competitive title, that question runs through the minds of everyone committed to the experiment.  But what does “work” mean?

HTH’s teachers and especially the parents worry that the school might fail at getting kids into college.  They might stumble on career paths that still depend on credentialing.   A HTH math teacher concedes that his students learn perhaps 40% of the content taught in a conventional math course.  Will that be okay?  The film’s experts argue that higher education needs an overhaul at least as badly as K-12 to accommodate the values of the new workplace.  Probably so, but good luck with that.

If “work” means that the school beats the expectations the education industry currently obsesses over, HTH students test about 10% higher and graduate 10% more seniors than state average.  This is not a soaring achievement, but it does show that engagement gets more content into the kids’ heads than the California average.  And is that important?  National test-score evidence shows that traditional schools aren’t making much headway on basic skills either, so do those schools “work?”  Those metrics might only measure the percent of kids with supportive families or a high tolerance to sitting.

The time has come to rethink what we want from education and to recalibrate the metrics when we know.  In the meantime it’s horrible to watch schooling dim the curiosity and engagement every baby is born with.  The people in the film do not claim to have the answer.  New school experiments haven’t been around long enough to produce long-term outcomes.  Likely we’re only at the very beginning of the journey out of the 19th century legacy of teaching and learning.

But it’s about time.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Students Curb Classroom Misbehavior with ‘Shirt of Shame’

Published by EducationNews.org — What can happen when a group makes up its own rules and consequences.

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At the beginning of this school year, chemistry teacher Brandon Haggerty facilitated a negotiation among his “Crew” students to agree on group norms for themselves.  Haggerty’s school, the Greene Charter School in rural, leafy Exeter, RI, is an Expeditionary Learning school where what would otherwise be an advisory program group are “Crews.”  Crews are like advisories, but they also have responsibilities they must accomplish as a team, like tending the vegetable garden.  Of course, creating group norms is a good idea for any work team, youth or adult.  People collaborate best if they have clear expectations of one another.  And it’s good experience for successful careers.

So these 12th-grade Crew members developed a solid set of mutual rules that govern issues like confidentiality, consensus decision-making, and my favorite: “keep it light and positive, avoid drama and vindictiveness.”  Articulating their own rules gives kids a say in the matter and an understanding of why they need rules.

But this year was a little different.  The year before, Greene had begun the work of implementing Restorative Practices, which build strong communities that include everyone, including the “bad” kids.  So this fall, Haggerty’s group went a step beyond setting mutual expectations and also mapped out a set of consequences for not adhering to their own rules.  The group — Haggerty himself represents only one of the voices — will decide which of the consequences fit the norm violation.  They brainstormed and settled on four “fallouts,” as they called them.  Which are:

*  Give two compliments — in the event of a thoughtless criticism, for example;

*  Put a nickel in a money jar — for things like a mindless swear;

*  Give up their phone to Mr. Haggerty for Crew period — and surely you know what a sacrifice this is;

*  Wear the shirt of shame for as long as the group decides — for serious offenses.

This kind of accountability is about being responsible. 

As of this writing, the specific shirt had not been chosen.  They have several contenders.  It’s clearly fun to think about.  Furthermore, the kids proudly announced that the shirt would not be washed, although you could see a startled Dean of Students, Alex Edelmann, considering pushing back on this feature.  Not that she did.  Yet.  Let the kids figure it out.

Student Jessica says, “This kind of accountability is about being responsible.  You own up to your actions to yourself and whoever you offended or hurt.  I’m thinking that this will probably keep certain people who disrupt from doing that.  I know it wouldn’t be worth it to me to have to wear the dirty shirt just to interrupt and be disruptive.”

And there you have it.  This Crew is creating their own social control system.  We all resist other people’s rules and regulations when we don’t see what’s in it for us.  When these teens get drivers’ licenses, for example, hopefully they’ll have a deeper understanding that traffic laws are there to keep them safer on the roads.

Teens are naturally narcissistic, invincible, and not fully mindful of the consequences of their own actions.  By creating consequences along with norms, they teach each other that order in their own classroom is up to them to maintain, not someone else’s work.

Granted, a shirt of shame sounds like born-again Puritanism.

It’s a little like putting people in stocks.  But this is not a sentence imposed by an adult or anyone but themselves.  Youth would naturally devise “fallouts” that are more real to them and more socially expensive than anything they can just dismiss as “the teacher doesn’t like me.”  Suspensions don’t work well as deterrents.  Instead, as Jessica points out, that shirt would seriously discourage the kinds of behavior the kids themselves dislike most.

A restorative culture helps kids and adults own their community’s health and happiness.  Everyone, adults and kids, can expect to be called on to account for their actions, and therefore learn to verbalize what they were thinking, feeling, or hoping to get from their behavior.  (Sometimes the behavior makes a lot more sense than you would have guessed.)  Restorative justice/practices often get a bad rap for being “soft,” but many students would far rather be suspended than have to stand there and explain their thinking, or lack of it – never mind wear that shirt.

Another Greene teacher, Meg Dutton, had also gotten her Crew to agree to their own restorative consequences.  And in fact, one of her students misbehaved.  But he took responsibility for his actions, and per their class consequences, he dutifully sang a song for 30 seconds.  Since that incident, the class has endured zero misbehavior.

Nope, it’s just not worth it.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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How Dominic Barter Developed Restorative Justice in Brazil

Published by EducationNews.org — “How do you sit with people in their pain, without producing solutions, without brainstorming?”

Dominic_Barter

Decades ago, Dominic Barter fell for a beautiful Brazilian.  He’s English; they met in Europe.  Alas, in time she had to return home.

They could only afford one phone call a month.  But after about 6 months, they realized that the cost of those calls was about the same as an airplane ticket.  So in 1992, Barter went to Rio de Janeiro, believing he’d be going to “that place that you see in all the photographs, with all those beautiful beaches and mountains and forests.”  And it was that — “the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, with the most beautiful people.”

But he was shocked to find that Brazil was embroiled in a violent civil war and had been for centuries.  He might have expected such civil division in Johannesburg.  But who knew that Brazil has 2.8% of the world’s population and 13.9% of the world’s murders?  “It’s more dangerous to be young in Rio than in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Uganda together.”  (He was speaking at a restorative justice conference last June, so Syria’s stats might have changed since then.)

Just beyond Rio’s stunning tourist destinations are the favelas, or slums, on the city’s outskirts.  Barter wandered from his girlfriend’s apartment to a nearby shantytown, one of the most densely populated square miles in South America.  There, gang members use military grade weapons.  The Red Cross trains doctors in Brazilian favelas to give them experience with the kinds of wounds inflicted by military weapons.

Barter badly wanted to respond to Brazil’s situation.  

So he asked people what he could do to help.  To a person they said — carefully, kindly — that he could do nothing.  He was a gringo who could not understand the context of the strife.  Besides, he didn’t speak the language, and had no relevant skills.  Eventually, he couldn’t “bear it any longer” and went back to Europe.

While home, he remembered an incident he’d seen in Amsterdam years before.  He was bicycling on a narrow path along a canal and had to stop for a couple ahead of him who were having a fight.  He watched and noticed that the less they understood one another, they more they raised their voices.  “It was as if their bodies were confused, thinking that the distance in understanding is a geographical distance. If one was on the other side of the canal, it would make sense for the other to raise their voice to be heard.”  But they were next to each other.  When they finished their argument, he was on his way and forgot about it.

But in mulling over this memory he realized he had a useful tool in hand: listening.  He could go back and listen to the people in the shantytowns and elsewhere.  He no longer felt helpless.  Perhaps all the killing, the fences, the paramilitary activities, the atrocities — perhaps all that was “the volume being raised on something which people have been saying for years and still hasn’t been heard.”

So Barter went back to Brazil.

He learned the language and went back to the shantytown.  During the mornings, he and the kids had the streets to themselves.  The women were off at work, many cleaning houses.  The men were sleeping since they’d spent all night fighting.  Police only came around to buy back the guns they’d lost the night before.  The kids were suspicious of him since the only reason a gringo would be there was to buy drugs, but they softened since he came with no answers, only dialogue.  He learned to be patient about getting responses.  “Don’t work in this field [restorative justice] if you don’t like silence.”

His command of the language and his connections to the kids grew a little bit stronger all the time.  But “it was challenging when they said something painful.  How do you sit with people in their pain, without producing solutions, without brainstorming?”  He listened.

“I had been trained that conflict is dangerous.  When conflict is painful, you move away as far as you can.  Conflict needs to be resolved.  It’s threatening.”  Both the people having conflict and the conflict itself need to be suppressed, silenced in a way that gives emotional storm and fury no outlet.  So conflict grows into cyclical retribution — I hurt you; you hurt me; I hurt your mother.

“Now my challenge was to walk towards conflict.”

Over time, he, the kids and those adults who drew near to their conversation began meeting in circles in which each person is seen and heard.  Together, led by Barter, they figured out what simple techniques and mutual agreements worked best to allow the speaking and hearing of painful, heartfelt information.  Barter says, “we didn’t realize we were doing Restorative Justice.”  Ultimately, though, the protocols were collected and disseminated by Restorative Circles.

Now, decades later, Dominic Barter is a sought-after speaker and a rock star in the small but growing universe of restorative justice.  First drawn by love, Brazil had nearly defeated him with its atrocious brutality.  But he managed to be an effective reformer — with nothing fancier than listening.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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