Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"We Could Have Done More." It's What Teachers Think When Kids Fail in Life and in School

The  Slice of Life Story Challenge is sponsored each Tuesday by the good folks at Two Writing Teachers who support that community as a labor of love. 

Teachers naturally wonder, "What more could I have done? when we see a student fail in life or in school. We are caregivers. We want to save our students. We hope for health and happiness for each one.

Thus, when tragedy strikes, we desire to comfort the grieving. We look for words that uplift and aide the  grieving parents and friends. We never imagine our words will be used  as a way to denigrate and blame our school or our student body. We just want to give comfort, to say something that will lesson the grief. Especially the grief of mothers and fathers, of brothers and sisters. 

Four years ago I attended a memorial service for a student who committed suicide in January, 2011. . In one of my earliest blog posts on this site I shared my own grief about Ryan's tragic death and what having him as a student meant to me: Good Night Sweet Prince. It was a sad time for all Ryan's friends, teachers, acquaintances.

Ryan's mom continues to mourn, as one would expect. She has a mission to give Ryan's life and legacy meaning. To that end, she champions the cause of students who suffer from bullying. She champions LGBTQ rights. She has tirelessly lobbied our political leaders for policy change. I admire her mission and her love of kids, especially those suffering. 

In doing so, however, the words of one well-meaning individual have been used to denigrate and malign an entire school, an entire faculty, an entire student body--even years after Ryan's suicide, even years after Ryan's school days. Ryan had not attended our school for over two years when he committed suicide. Ours was not his only high school. 

At his memorial service, an administrator said to Ryan's mom: "Highland High School failed your son. We could have done more for him...."

Comforting words to a grieving mom, words meant to ease her pain, words meant to salve her soul, words since interpreted as an admission of guilt, words shared with the state legislature, with audiences across multiple states and in various venues. These words have taken on the metaphorical life of a smoking gun, as though the one who spoke them was confessing to a crime implicating over twelve hundred other people, none of whom have been called as witnesses in their own defense.

When I see the words "We could have done more" used to castigate an entire school, I get upset. FERPA laws prohibit teachers from sharing personal information about students; even the things Ryan told me about his life shortly before his death--long after he left HHS--remain locked in my brain. Consequently, the telling of his story remains flat and one-dimensional. And even though FERPA may no longer apply after a student's death, it still does for those students still living.

Ryan's time at Highland was not idyllic. Our school has the same problems one finds in many schools, but Ryan had friends and teachers who loved him and who demonstrated that care and love in numerous ways. Unfortunately, Ryan also experienced bullying, although I never witnessed it.

Our student government and administration work tirelessly to create a safe environment for our student body. Our district has a mission of providing a safe learning environment.

Now, Ryan's mom is contemplating writing a book, a book telling Ryan's story and her story, a book for the purpose of showing others that they are not alone, that even years later they may experience residual effects from bullying in school and bad experiences in life, a book that calls for more mental health care for the suffering. As recently as Monday morning, I was reminded that she still recalls those well-meaning words: "We could have done more...We failed your son." We do not share the same interpretation of these words. 

Years after Ryan's suicide,"We could have done more" now stand as a reminder that reticence is preferable to uttering comforting words that might return to haunt the one offering comfort.

As the school year draws to a close, I contemplate what more I could have and can do for struggling students. Yet as I reminisce about Ryan, I also want to ask, "What more would you have had me do?"

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#SOL Story: My Husband Read a Book--Almost!

Slice of Life is sponsored by Two Writing Teachers. Check out other slices here: 

My husband is a self-professed non-reader--in the English teacher, book lover, bibliophile sense of the word reader. 

In the nineteen years we've known each other, he has read only a few books. A couple of years ago his doctor recommend he read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I ordered the book, and Ken is still reading it--periodically and reluctantly. It is taking him a very long time to read Bryson's Short History. I've tried to get Ken to abandon the book because I know he's not enjoying it. He has repeatedly refused. 

When I left for Europe last month, I handed Ken a copy of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.  Ken has one chapter left in the book as I write this. I'm sure he'll finish reading this evening. 

Throughout his reading journey, Ken has adopted some of my reading habits: He stops to tell me something interesting, to share his thoughts about the story, to comment on important moments in history that matter to him. 

Last night I asked Ken what about the book appeals to him:

"The underdog story. There's one guy who was kicked out of his home when he was 15 and his father remarried. Specifically, it's about one member and how they work together as a team. It's interesting because you see how hard a couple of these kids work to get their education. One guy is living in a room at the YMCA and barely has enough money to pay for his education. Some have summer jobs and get paid very little for working very hard." 

When a reporter bumped a hole in the boat with his head right before the Olympic trials, Ken was outraged. I'll not repeat his string of expletives, but his response was as passionate as any I've heard. 

Ken will reach the end of The Boys in the Boat today, and even though he thinks of himself as a non-reader, I know there's a reader of professional literature, trade publications, reports, newspapers, etc. living inside my intelligent, perfectionist husband; he just needs to find the right reading journeys that lead him to the finish line. 

*The next book I have for Ken to read is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I think he's ready for this epic reading journey. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Calling Interference: What Happens When Academics Collide with Extra-Whatever?

"You have the distinction of being the least-prepared class in my 34 years teaching." 

I swallowed tears, my voice cracking a little as I uttered those words to a classroom full of excellent students. Students whose over-scheduled lives collided with their academic obligations. Obligations in an Early College Program class in which 21 of 26 students are enrolled for college credit. College credit that the state helps fund and for which students pay reduced fees and receive access to amenities on the university's campus. 

As I shared the sad story of my kind, generous, smart students with a colleague this afternoon, we began discussing our love of teaching but our dismay about the myriad priorities among our students and in our district that overshadow our priority: teaching, instilling academic excellence and responsibility in our students. 

Simply, students have been taught that academics, that is, classes in school can and should subordinate to all the other extra whatever in a student's life. I've contemplated the "why?" for many years. Here's what I think: 

  • How can a sporting event be postponed to accommodate schoolwork of team members? 
  • How can a business change its business paradigm or hours to accommodate a student's class schedule? 
  • How can parents take a discounted family cruise at the height of vacation season when teachers can simply do whatever it takes to help a child who falls behind in school catch up?
  • How can assemblies and fundraisers happen when students responsible for organizing and running them do their homework first and their social justice and service activities as they find time? 
Too much of what goes on in a school day has little to do with academic learning. Our society, including many in education, rationalize these intrusions by saying that kids learn social skills, learn teamwork, etc. when they participate in extracurricular activities and sports, when they have an after-school job. 

My students have very busy lives. They have jobs. They play sports. They take AP, honors, and early college program classes. They serve their churches, their community, their families, and their school in myriad ways. 

My students, and countless others, live lives in which every minute of their waking lives is scheduled. 

Students today must take every opportunity they can to get ahead, and for the students in my dual credit Communication class this means earning as many college credits as they can earn. The exorbitant cost of college demands they do this. 

But taking a college-level speech class in high school also means meeting the deadlines outlined on the syllabus. It's both the students' and my legal obligation. Listening to speeches takes time. I'm charged with teaching the class as though students are on campus. It's a delicate balancing act,one in which students often teeter-totter in two worlds--the world of high school and the world of college. 

Complicating the tight schedule is the incursion of the SAT test all juniors in Idaho will take on Wednesday. This gives us one less day for speeches. The lack of preparedness also means students will have less time to prepare for the next speech. 

As we talked about what went sideways today, I tried to reassure students that I'm very fond of them, that having to assess consequences for their lack of preparedness breaks my heart. I told them a story about a competition when I was in college and had not allotted myself enough time to memorize my speech. I was embarrassed. I suffered through that competition. I learned from it, and they will learn from this experience, too. 

Today all the extras in their lives collided with their academic obligations. Today I called interference. If only the academic interference were a momentary blip. 

Unfortunately, interference commonly encroaches on students' learning and teachers' teaching. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

#SOL Tuesday: Somebody's Son--Mine and Thine

It's Tuesday so I'm continuing the Slice of Life Story Challenge by posting a Tuesday slice. Thanks for the reminder, Two Writing Teachers. Check out other slices here. 

I spent most of today worrying about my baby boy Corey. He's not much of a baby anymore as he will turn 30 tomorrow. Still, he's my baby, and I can't help but worry sometimes. Today my worry was prompted by not finding a "Happy Easter" message posted on his Facebook page and by his not responding to a text, actually two, I sent. 

Of course, my husband thinks I'm silly to worry, but Corey understands. He finally responded with a message detailing his work schedule and school obligations. He's at the end of a Veterinary Tech program and has been working with large animals in addition to his other job obligations. 

As Corey says,  It's "human nature" to worry about those we love. 

Sometimes I forget this. 

I forget the mom's tendency to worry when dealing with a student with a self-diagnosed case of "senioritis," whatever that fantom illness is and however it manifests itself. 

When I began teaching, I vowed to do all I can to be the kind of teacher I'd want for my own children. I think about that often. 

I think about how these young men who sit in my classroom are sons of moms. 

Moms just like me. 
Moms who worry. 
Moms who see their baby boys as their baby boys. 
Moms with the natural, human tendency to worry. 
Moms of seniors who will one day be men on the cusp of thirty. 

Since it's National Poetry Month, here is one of my favorite poems about a son, and although my son is a grown man, we moms feel a sense of loss when our sons leave the nest; thus, the theme of loss seems appropriate as I think about my youngest son and fleeting time: 

"On My First Son" by Ben Johnson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.