Friday, December 14, 2007

When The Teacher's Away

In the season of flus, family vacations, and fearless weather-related commuting, substitute teachers tend to get some extra work. That was the case last week in my Peace Games class.

Given all of the variables that a substitute teacher introduces into a classroom - new routines, unknown names or personalities, a lesson plan that may be too much or not nearly enough - the day can quickly descend into six hours of crowd control. It was certainly the case when I was in school and not much has changed in the years since. I'm used to this, and so when the students were a little rowdier than usual I took it in stride. I saw it as an opportunity to let some of their true selves rise to the surface. I saw that Caroline is the not-so-subtle leader - the real "Queen Bee" - in this class, as she gathered friends around her and excluded others. I tried to console Lebron through his suddenly unpredictable mood swings, as he went from coloring quietly to tossing his marker across the room to nursing his bruised ego. And I couldn't help but see that Zhade stayed remarkably calm through all of the chaos. I just tried to take it all in and make it a learning experience, more for me than for them but I thought that was pretty good considering. I mean, we got through a lesson plan and no one was seriously injured, egos aside, so I called that a success.

My co-teacher, a graduate student originally from Eastern Europe, saw the scene very differently. She was mortified. And when I told her that it was really pretty good in comparison to some I'd seen, she was in shock. I wondered whether maybe I'd just become immune - or worse, insensitive. The more people she spoke to, however, the more normalized it seemed to become: this is just the way things are, at least in this country. She seemed disinclined to settle for this oversimplification, and her perspective got me thinking a little bit about substitute teachers and what they inspire.

I picked over in my head some of the more memorable substitute teachers I'd had in my lifetime and some of the things that we'd done to them, and it occured to me: being a student in a substitute teacher's classroom is quite possibly the closest I've ever come to being in a mob. It really was like a mob mentality. I remembered one day with particular horror. I think it was fifth grade and by the end of the day students were literally lifting their desks and chairs over their head and carrying them out of the building. They wanted to sit outside, they explained, and out they went. And meanwhile, inside, it was a free-for-all - running, falling over each other, scribbling on each other's notebooks, using colored chalk on the board - and I was right in there. And it's not like we didn't know how to behave - or didn't expect to be reprimanded as severely as we were (and as we surely deserved to be) - but it felt out of our hands. We were looking for leadership, and when we couldn't find it at the front of the classroom (from this poor woman who'd never been to our class, who didn't know the first thing about us, who was wholly ill-equipped for what we threw her way, both literally and figuratively) we looked to each other. The loud voices rose to the top, by their words and their actions, and pretty soon we were all maurauding with the best of them. A righteous, directionless mob of 10 year-olds.

In the aftermath - the day after - we took a real verbal thrashing from our teacher (who, in fairness to us, had been very transparent about her "Irish temper" on the first day of school, so we really should've known better). I'd never seen her so mad. And when she asked - no, demanded - that we explain ourselves, there wasn't one person who could do it adequately. After all, what excuses could we give? There were none. We couldn't understand what we'd done. It was as if we had been in a trance - or at least, that's how I felt.

So, what to do. After all, despite best intentions and hopes to the contrary, most every teacher needs to take a sick day once in awhile - and it's in these situations that we, as the adults, look to students to be the leaders. And there's no question that this is exactly what they become. The question is, what kind of leadership will they show? The true test determinant in whether we have prepared them adequately to be peacemakers is what happens when a fight breaks out and no adult is there to be the deterrent or arbitrator. What instincts win out in a vacuum?

Of course, our class last week was just one mile marker on the road to peacemaking. It wasn't the worst case scenario, but when we were confronted with conflicts we tended to juggle them rather than manage them. It's what most teachers do all day long, out of necessity. Because of that - and because a week has passed and because I'd become acclimated to craziness around substitute teachers, unlike my co-teacher - I'd been inclined just to let it all go, to go in next week and leave the "baggage" at the door and start over. It's not an entirely bad idea, necessarily, but it lacks a little creativity and a lot of courage.

It takes courage to confront conflict and be willing to acknowledge it, to say unambiguously, There was a problem here and here's how it made me feel. It's a not-so-tacit way of saying that actions have reactions and consequences, and it uses a real and non-abstract example. It doesn't need to be finger-wagging and scolding, but if done well and to the point it could create a new set of expectations for the next time we're on our own, expectations rooted not just in "rules" but in relationships.

And that, really, is at the heart of this peacemaking thing.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

From Kindergarten to the Campaign Trail

I remember writing a "short story" in fifth grade, in which I was the President of the United States. As I recall, the plot was either unconventional or uninteresting, depending on your point of view: I stopped at a McDonald's and wound up being mobbed by the adoring crowds before sneaking back to the White House with tattered clothes and a half-eaten cheeseburger. Another report came out this week that suggests that my story - or even the remote possibility that my teacher, Ms. McNamee, remembers reading it - may come back to haunt me, should I ever decide to run for public office.

Kids, be careful what you write about wanting to be president. Those refrigerator gems are now fair game. As reported in the Chicago Tribune this weekend, the rhetoric between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama has turned into something resembling a recess spat. This weekend, Clinton's campaign issued a press release that cited these alarming anecdotes:
  • In third grade, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want To Be a President.' His third grade teacher: Fermina Katarina Sinaga "asked her class to write an essay titled 'My dream: What I want to be in the future.' Senator Obama wrote 'I want to be a President,' she said." [The Los Angeles Times, 3/15/07]
  • In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want to Become President.’ "Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama's kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, 'I Want To Become President,' the teacher said." [AP, 1/25/07 ]
They were part of her rebuttal to Obama's claims that, unlike himself, "others" in the field have been priming their careers and angling for the presidency for decades. Sure showed him, I'd say.

This new strategy notwithstanding, I have no regrets about that fifth grade story. I've since become a vegetarian, tend to shun suit-wearing whenever possible, and feel okay with not being president - but there is something affirming about having been able, encouraged even, to write a story like that. In fact, I'd suspect that Little Hillary has a few of these in her past, too. They are hallmarks of hopeful childhoods that have had at least some modicum of encouragement, whether that be from a family member or from someone like either Ms. Darmawan or Ms. Sinaga (in Obama's past) or Ms. McNamee (in mine).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Enseñando La Paz en Colombia

"[Peace Games] changed the way I look at my students."
- first grade teacher, Norte de Santander, Colombia

Those who attended the Second Annual Peace Games Network Conference this past June are already acquainted with Juegos de Paz.

Peace Games in Colombia has its roots in relationships, happy accidents, and the uncompromising commitment of some brave and thoughtful individuals. In 2002, a young Colombian woman studying English in Boston walked into our offices and asked if she could be an intern. Thankfully, our Director of the Peace Games Institute, Steven Brion-Meisels, had the foresight to say yes. This young woman taught a weekly Peace Games class at the Kenny School in Dorchester and did some rudimentary translation work.

Her name is Silvia Diazgranados Ferráns.

When Silvia returned to Colombia, she began working with former guerrilla soldiers, helping them to reintegrate into society. At about this same time, the new administration in Colombia launched a drive to create national citizenship competencies and invited colleagues from around the world to present at the First National Forum on Citizenship Education in Bogotá in October 2004, including Silvia and our own Steven Brion-Meisels.

The citizenship competencies that were developed as a result of the forum were thorough, thoughtful, and a reflection of the collective wisdom and commitment of their authors. The comptencies were organized in three strands: convivencia en paz (living together in peace), participación democratica (democratic participation), and pluralidad (plurality or diversity). That peace is a central tenet of their citizenship education is surely a reflection of a culture in which more than 20,000 people still lose their lives to homicide each year, but it also reflects a deep and abiding commitment to peacemaking that perhaps only those who have lived with war can appreciate.

Putting Peace Games to the Test
Attending the forum were teachers from the rural department of Norte de Santander, an expansive province in the northeastern part of the country and a "hot zone" for paramilitary activity. The local Department of Education in Norte de Santander had received money from the World Bank to pilot programs aimed toward teaching the new citizenship standards, and they asked if they could use a portion of the funding to teach Peace Games - in Spanish, Juegos de Paz.

What made Peace Games in Colombia possible was Silvia's unassailable drive to have the curriculum translated, published, and adapted for Colombian schools. Almost single-handedly, she brought people together who could make it possible: Steven and other Peace Games staff, representatives from the Ministry of Education, and the founder and publisher of Magisterio, a non-profit publishing company based in Bogotá. When an agreement was made, Silvia and her mother immediately began translating the curriculum. She enlisted an incredibly gifted painter and family friend (Elvira Rico Grillo, who taught herself how to use new graphics design software specifically for the project) to provide the original illustrations. And she wrote new Colombia-specific material, compiled new booklists pertinent for Latin America, and personally oversaw the layout and final proofs of all eight books (one book each for kindergarten through fifth grade, one for our community service learning curriculum, and the games book).

With the books available, the Ministry of Education enlisted Silvia and a team she assembled from Universidad de Los Andes to administer a pilot program for Juegos de Paz. The pilot would be six months long and would enlist five "educative centers," including three escuelas nuevas. Escuelas nuevas are schools adapted for a rural setting. They have a central administration building and several remote classrooms that operate as one-room schoolhouses.

With the schools chosen, the pilot began in January 2006. A team of three trainers from Peace Games in the United States and the Los Andes team met in Bogotá and traveled to Bochalema, a small town in Norte de Santander, where they spent five days training 45 teachers and administrators. Following the training, teachers spent four months teaching the Peace Games curriculum, including Peacemaker Projects - mostly in 90-minute blocks. At the conclusion of the pilot, the entire group reconvened in Bochalema in June 2006 to evaluate and celebrate their work.

Drawing on pre- and post-surveys as well as interviews with teachers, students, and administrators, the Los Andes team wrote an exhaustive 80-page report on the pilot and submitted it to the Ministry of Education, which determined that "Juegos de Paz" was a viable and compelling program for Colombia. But perhaps more compelling than the report were the words of one of the teachers who took aside one of the U.S. trainers at the conclusion of the second training and said, "You're helping to bring peace to my country."

Continuing to Grow
At the June 2006 training in Bochalema, teachers and administrators at each school agreed enthusiastically that they wanted to continue using Peace Games - and in fact that they wanted to expand the reach of Peace Games in their communities. In the summer of 2007, the teachers' cooperative in Norte de Santander, in partnership with the Los Andes team from the pilot, applied for and received funding from the European Union Laboratorio de Paz to bring Peace Games to additional schools and to build a local network of Peace Games schools. Thanks to this support, Peace Games is now being taught in six additional schools in Norte de Santander, bringing the total of sites to 23.

In addition, funding from the Interamerican Development Bank is going to be used to implement and evaluate seven programs for teaching citzenship in medium-sized cities in Colombia. Peace Games is one of only two international programs chosen and will most likely be taught in schools in Barrancabermeja, a city in central Colombia, beginning in January 2009. This project will be led by Freddy Velandia, a former social studies teacher working on the competencias ciudadanas program at the Ministry and who attended the Peace Games National Conference in June 2007.

Another important way that Peace Games continues to reach committed educators is through Magisterio, which has to date sold more than 5,000 copies of its Colección Juegos de Paz books throughout Colombia, including 300 sets to the Department of Education in Bogotá (as well as Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, and who knows where else).

Beyond these projects, the future of "Juegos de Paz" is still being forged. In many ways, it continues in much the same way that it began: it remains rooted in relationships. Silvia, Lina, Berta, and Marcela - the Los Andes team that has managed the pilot and the Peace Lab work - continues to respond to requests for Peace Games on our behalf. Alfredo and his family at Magisterio continues to cultivate relationships with schools buying the curriculum. And allies at the Ministry continue to be strong supporters committed to making sure that Peace Games is "more than a set of books on a shelf."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Moose, Elephant, What?

It's hard to learn cooperative games just by reading about them. For a lot of us, especially us experiential learners, we need to see or play a game in order for us to be able to play it with others.

Two years ago, thanks to the help of two undergraduate students at Emerson College, Peace Games gathered middle school students from the Tobin School and spent an afternoon playing and debriefing games. Now the full video - in five parts - is available on YouTube.

Here's Part Three:

Monday, November 26, 2007

Standing Still and Learning to Be Astonished

I feel like I've been moving too fast - and there are too many astonishing things that happen everyday. And as a former English teacher - and on-going poetry junkie - I found some comfort and inspiration in this poem from one of Mary Oliver's most recent collections. Mary Oliver is perhaps one of this country's greatest treasures, and while she appears to write most often about the natural world I always find fodder in her words for my more cerebral self.

by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Getting to the "Us": Peacemaking in the Inclusive Classroom

I remember the "resource room" stigma.

In my elementary school, it was the five or six students who used to be taught in what were essentially closets, who used to eat at a separate table in the cafeteria with their teachers, who seemed completely in their element with each other but who when one of them would board my school bus in the afternoon seemed suddenly isolated and ostracized (probably because she was, probably because we ostracized her). My reaction to my classmates then seemed one of contradictions: I remember feeling occasionally envious of their bond with each other but never so envious that I wanted to befriend them myself. I never really felt able to be friends with them; I felt like I had too much not in common, that we were fundamentally different. Mostly, I regarded them with curiosity, when I regarded them at all.

The more I write, the more troubled I am that I keep using one word: them. That I saw a Them at all is really where the problem lies. I mean, I'm not naive enough to think that we should be "colorblind" to differences between students, but I am struck by how institutions can reinforce and stigmatize differences. (After some thought, I am comforted - or at least, less shamed - that I can at least remember one name: Dolly. She was the girl who rode my bus and who would join us for gym but nothing else. Better to have names instead of them's. It's the meagerest but most tangible sign of respect.)

And all of this was eight years after Congress passed what would become known as Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the landmark law that sought to ensure that all children with disabilities have access to free and appropriate public education in the "least restrictive environment," legalese that means that students should be educated in a regular classroom with their peers whenever possible.

It wasn't until this week that I took three steps back far enough to notice just how much things have changed in the decades since Dolly and I shared a twice-a-day bus ride. While students are still occasionally pulled out for special services, these days the majority of the 6.3 million students enrolled in special education - more than half of whom have learning disabilities - learn alongside their peers in inclusion classrooms.

I am teaching Peace Games this year in an "inclusion school." More than half of the students have IEP's. The class size is smaller than I'm used to. Each grade has the help of a paraprofessional - and I'm told that additional reading and "inclusion specialists" are available to work one-on-one or in small groups with students. On the surface, it's a very welcoming, very promising, very hopeful place. The hallways are colorful. The teachers are skilled. And the students are charming.

I suspect that it won't stray that far from most schools I've been lucky enough to see these last five years, but I am suddenly more tuned into what it will mean to teach, talk about, and practice peacemaking in an "inclusive" environment. I look back on my own experience, and I am struck by just how much subtle, unconscious exclusion I was a party to and how much of it was because students whose disabilities would be considered mild were separated from me. And how prone I was to misunderstanding them, to judging them "different" or "less than," as a result. There was never a chance that we might be friends - or even friendly, for that matter.

Early elementary school is prime ground for children's social development. And friendship - what it means, how it shifts, how it gets mended - is at the vanguard of peacemaking for an eight year-old. That all of the students will share the same space may not be the solution, but it's an essential step in the right direction.

At least with all of the students sharing the same classroom, we can rightfully call ourselves "us."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Making It All A Game

Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Freakonomics (and current NY Times blogger), recently marveled at the methods of his son's first grade teacher, who designed a unit in which students would systematically assess the merits of the Central Park playgrounds. It is the kind of experiential education that we tend to think of as the foundation of any effective lesson plan, especially in Peace Games.

It made me think about how I try to re-cast the less glamorous aspects of a Peace Games lesson, like yet another brainstorm, as a "game." Instead of asking my third grade students what feelings they know, I unveil a piece of posterboard with "FEELING WORDS" written in colorful marker at the center and lots of different colors at my disposal. I challenge them to see if they can think of twenty feeling words. It's a game, I tell them - or perhaps more accurately, a challenge.

Remarkably, they treat it as such. They all clamor to add another word to the list. The old standards are first - happy, mad, sad - but after awhile, even their teacher is amazed at how many words they know: tired, hungry, surprised, frustrated, furious, bored, thankful. Some students ask if they can add words in Spanish: enojado, in addition to the standard feliz or triste. We get to twenty words easily, and I challenge them to get to thirty. There is certainly no paucity. I try to prompt them with acting out some feelings, previewing an activity that they'll do in a future lesson.

We keep the list in the classroom for the entire semester, referring back to it often. I remind them, to the delight of the teacher, that using lots of "feeling words" (a less stilted and more direct way of referring to adjectives) is important not just for peacemaking but for good writing.

On the surface, playing a game and brainstorming feeling words have little to do with each other, but to me the common denominator of both is the level to which we are able to engage students in the activity. It's part creativity, part enthusiasm, and part semantics. Brainstorms are tiresome; games are exciting.

As we begin another year, remember to make those lesson plans come to life. And don't forget to share that wisdom with the rest of us.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The First Day

For years, I have associated the First Day of School with a sleepless night - or possibly a sleepless weekend.

Thinking about it now, I wish that I had kept a better journal about my days in a classroom. I was going to be teaching high school juniors and seniors - American Literature and Expository Writing (whatever that was). I was not that far removed from being an adolescent myself, in my early 20's but just barely. I approached the First Day with a mix of mild anxiety and narcissism. Yes, I was nervous. Of course I was. But still, I harbored a perception - now identified as an acutely savvy coping strategy - that, as a recent adolescent myself, I understood them. I even clung to a small dose of contempt for the older, more seasoned teachers in the building, thinking that they were most likely out of step with their students and that only someone with my credibility would be able to truly reach them.

In the end, it was all a harmless but revealing naivite, but it got me through those first few days. I had to be somewhat arrogant and overly self-confident to think that the definition of the word supercilious or bivouac, or the interpersonal dynamics of Janie and Teacake in Their Eyes Were Watching God, or figuring out when to use a semi-colon were somehow relevant to their lives. But I convinced myself that they were, that in fact they could not possibly leave the classroom without knowing these things.

I remember feeling like the only thing that kept me going was the adrenaline. I remember toasting a bagel for breakfast and finding the mere thought of food nauseating. I remember sleeping for three hours and then tossing and turning for the rest of the night, just waiting for the alarm. I remember the fluorescent lights of the windowless classroom, four rows of contemptuous and skeptical 17 year-olds, the way that Robert refused to take notes and how charming Elizabeth thought that was, the sound of Shondra sucking her teeth at me when I tried to set some "ground rules" for our class, how grateful (and shocked) I was that Gillian at least seemed to be paying attention, thinking that my multi-colored chalk and inspirational quote were just props and made me look even more foolish than I felt, the realization that tomorrow's lesson plan was going to have to look a lot different from today's.

And yet, I also remember feeling energized and hopeful and determined. I came back the next day. Every morning, I used my colored chalk to put a new quote on the board. Every night, I read more and wrote more notes. And within weeks, I was sleeping all the way through the night (except on Sundays).

For those of us new to teaching and schools, these are among the most trying - and most invigorating days - of what we hope is a career. What are the things going through your head these days? What questions do you have that seem unanswerable? What are the things preoccupying your thoughts these days?

And for those of us who have been there before, what wisdom can you share? What was your First Day like? How did you approach it - your first relationships with your students and your colleagues - and how did your approach evolve over the year? What would you do differently? How did you sustain yourself?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Leaving It On The Ballfield

Here's a post written initially at the end of June. This is the problem with being your own editor: you think that there's always more to write and so you wait to finish it, when suddenly you look up and realize that you've already said it all and it's too late. But here's the benefit of being your own editor: you can say, What the heck, and post it anyway. (~JN, 9.6.07)

It's summer. Officially.

In many urban corners, we greet its arrival with a combination of excitement (especially in those places that have a winter to compare it to) and trepidation. Violent crime rates, homicide especially and especially among young people, tend to tick upwards in the summer.

I live in a building on the corner of Fitzhenry Square, an otherwise unexceptional part of Revere Beach. Revere is a city just to the north of Boston, in the flight path to the airport. Revere Beach, in addition to the self-proclaimed distinction as "the first public beach" in the United States, is also zoned as a low-income neighborhood. Further inland, where you'll find City Hall, you'll also find all of the older, lifelong residents, many descended from Italian immigrants but long since assimilated into charming curmudgeons with American flags on their front doors. Revere Beach, on the other hand, is a curious brew. On the four block walk from my front door to the T, I hear Brazilian music coming from an apartment next door, walk by an El Salvadoran flag draped across a window like a curtain, glance at the musical cursive of Arabic on the Moroccan market on the corner (just opposite the Brazilian corner store with a basket of Colombian and Venezuelan flags at the front door), pass a Cambodian family walking their children to school, and gawk admiringly at the garish lawn ornaments of the old Irish-Italian family. Somehow, it works.

But that's not what I meant to write about. It's just background.

In the middle of Fitzhenry Square is a small triangle of grass, about the size of a softball infield, with a few trees. When I first moved three years ago, this plot of land was mostly used for dropping trash on and pretty much ignoring. Last year, the city put up a small chain-link fence around the edge and people started bringing their dogs, which I thought was a better alternative. And then, a couple of weeks ago, I came home and saw a full-on game of kickball on our little plot of grass. What made it significant to me was that there were a dozen children - ranging in age from probably about four or five up to twelve or thirteen, boys and girls, and a range of race and ethnicity that would make a census-taker proud (and not that unlike our neighborhood, in general).

It reminded me of a childhood that I did not think existed anymore - and one that I'm very aware does not exist in far too many neighborhoods. Children do not play outside much these days. In the suburbs, the excuses are largely something like laziness, video games, computers, and scheduled intramural activities like soccer and dance classes. In the city, all of these apply, compounded by a very real fear that parks and neighborhoods are not safe.

And here - right on my corner - were a dozen children, some of whom I'd seen before but many more that were new to me, playing kickball. My work has taught me to be generally disdainful of competitive games. The win-lose mentality can be perilous and counterproductive to lessons in peacemaking - or so I've convinced myself. In order to blunt its more deleterious effects, competitive games need supervision or, more accurately, re-direction. At least, this is what I've told myself, but I realize that I have just fallen into an old trap, one that sees children as less than capable, as requiring my worldliness and wisdom rather than letting them discover their own.

The lessons being learned on that patch of grass, aside from the obvious benefits of exercise, are myriad: inclusion, trust, friendship, communication, assertiveness, self-reliance, empowerment, teamwork, compromise, empathy, motivation, among many others. There is, of course, a place for teaching children the lessons we think they ought to learn, but sometimes we would do well to stand back and let our children teach themselves.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Child Rights

I thought this poem might fit well into this blog. I was inspired amidst projects, assessments, graduate classes, and of course the children. Despite the visceral nature of the subject matter I always maintain Hope. Yup, "hope" with an uppercase "H"! Please enjoy.

Child Rights
Eric G.

Advanced learning rubrics. Learning styles—students choose it
Excess—expensive feelings. Raise the bar or ceilings. Scar tissue healing amidst Free-World wheeling and dealings.

In the face of adversity: recognize cognitive diversity. University. Multiplicity. Country bumpkins & city people amidst pitter-patter longevity realities. Malice, violence—tyrants' incompliance to Science. Defiance for alliance to try finance.

Pre-panned assessment-driven committees prod/push or nurture pity, mechanics and curricula nitty- gritty. Scientific, specific tricks nifty. Thrifty. Reach bottom, middle and gifted students quickly. Stay away from the shady and shifty.

Student autonomy… dead center. Cohesion/harmony. Lesson-planning—touch them all for understanding. Compliments over reprimanding handling or dismantling of hurtful bantering. Holistic answering to bubble-sheet rampaging. Scampering not hampering authentic champions.

Socio-political factors: lunchrooms and back-packers—economics, profits. Late shift offer job-picked. Section 8 stuck or pocket-rocket, esoteric dropkick-lawsuit conglomerate. Yet, still teach rich topics whether in deserts, oases, or tropics.

Siphon those slipped through cracks. Cerebral maps blessed destiny in authentic facts. Find Truth in different tracks if lethargy attacks.

Reflect Day & Night with standards in sight. Everyday joy over everyday plight. No blights just insights for the levels of new Heights. Battle ignorance and recalcitrance with chicken-soup flavored significance. Magnificent caring, declaring, and daring—repairing shrapnel-shattered despair.

Emancipation =

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Time of Year to Concentrate on the Little Things Big Time!

The end of the school year is nigh!

That one sobering sentence serves as a harbinger for finishing up Community Service Learning projects, preparing for last report cards, end of semester events, graduations, final parent/teacher meetings, grading the final papers, getting evaluations done and maybe, just maybe, taking time to smell some of the flowers. Whew!

We started the school year with the best of intentions and with lofty goals. Before we assess our development with these goals, how about an appraisal on the very simple, very basic yet very important "mini-goals" we also established? Here's a simple evaluative list for just today:
  • Did I say thanks for a kindness shown to me?
  • Did I smile at someone who was having a rougher day than I?
  • Did I put things in perspective before reacting?
  • Did I count to 10?
  • Did I do something nice for myself?
  • Did I laugh?

We live in a "test-centric" enviroment. Measurable standards are our basis for promotion/demotion, success/failure, achievement/room for improvement. So how about "setting ourselves up" for success by using the standards mentioned above to measure our accomplishments?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reaching Learners Beyond Primary Grades


Reaching Learners Beyond Primary Grades

Americans killing Americans is always a tragedy. Children murdering children is heart-wrenching. The heartbreaking truth is that such aforementioned atrocities are plastered on the covers of our papers and television newsflashes daily—many citizens have become jaded and simple change the channel or turn to the next page. I honestly feel we involved with this blog (and the greater mission of Peace Games) realize this truth and fight everyday for positive change. A quick reference to a popular song, dance, or chant may be all it takes to initially hook a young learner so hope should never be lost.

These days, the message culled from the streets is one ridden with a deep, dark oppression—a suppression of the mind as well as the body. It is not always cool, down, ill, ‘hood, or “real” to be an active learner— a lifetime of first hand experience coupled with observations in classroom settings has ingrained this reality into my consciousness.

The art/craftsmanship of the professional educator is to dig beneath the “shell of socialization” that may pose as a stalwart in this process of cultivation. Many current students within my school community are heavily influenced by the local street culture surrounding them. As a member of the community, I am very familiar with the realities of street violence, socio-economic plights, and “un-traditional” family situations.

The culture-to-content connections facilitated through literature, music, social issues, scientific endeavors, dance, and physical activities within the classroom are no longer “enrichment” or supplemental. On the contrary, across this land teachers must consider these activities as avenues or pathways necessary to reach our youth.

Engage your students with what children know and understand: entertainment. For example, conduct a puppet show, MC a poetry slam, assign a poetry or songwriting task, or allow a traditional or "street/popular" dance to count towards a social studies grade. By no means is this list definitive so be creative! With academic integrity always in mind these "hooks" can snag even the most recalcitrant learner. Good luck!

Cultivating a Love of Learning


Cultivating a Love of Learning

The zealous, seemingly exaggerated pitter-patter and scampering gait of the average kindergartner traipsing through my classroom threshold each day is truly a breath of fresh air for me as an educator. I am able to almost breathe in the excitement of the forthcoming school day that is stewing inside the four walls of my classroom!

When a child has only been on this green earth for five or six years everything around her is illuminated; nearly any seemingly mundane aspect of everyday life could yield a fruitful discussion or mini-lesson. The natural curiously wrought by our youngest scholars is truly a gift—a gift for the students as well as their teachers.

Throughout my years of experience working with our youngest learners (in and outside of classroom settings) has proven to me that no matter where you are geographically speaking children will be there waiting (and always wanting) to learn. From the countryside to suburbs to the heart of the inner city I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous passion for education America’s children edify.

Too often we as teachers look at "areas needing improvement". However, the innate passion of our little ones can always be channeled into a positive learning outcome. Keep hope alive!

Continue the Kindergarten Traditions

Continue the Kindergarten Traditions

As a kindergarten teacher I am able to sing songs, dance, rhyme, draw with crayons, and sketch with markers, chant, and conduct puppet shows while always connecting these activities to daily learning objectives and state/national curriculum standards. I mention this fact because I feel that too often educators are leery to continue to cultivate these types of tactile/kinesthetic activities for our upper grades (middle school, high school, beyond…).

I challenge educators to keep the “kindergarten traditions” alive. All of the aforementioned learning activities can be tweaked, tailored, or altered to fit the needs of older learners. What worked? What did not work?

I can almost guarantee that all learners will find singing, dancing, illustrating, and chanting a breath of fresh air amidst the perpetual grind of assessments, projects, and the like. Let us all know how it went!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Keepin' It Real: An Homage to Kurt Vonnegut

It’s May of 1981, and I’m teaching a developmental English Class (that’s code for “last chance to graduate”) to New York City inner city high school seniors. That year, my second of teaching ever, I was juggling five preps, moderating student council, coaching the track team, running Friday night Bingo and taking evening classes at Columbia University for my Master's.

Sunday mornings after morning prayers, I would get out and walk to fool myself into thinking that I was taking care of me. On one particularly cold February morning, I am walking on the deserted streets of the Upper East Side and Kurt Vonnegut passes me! Eyes down, smoking a cigarette, he was probably coming out of the corner deli from buying his Sunday Times. Just that very week, I was teaching his short story, “Who Am I This Time?” to my seniors. It’s a quirky story about a small town community theatre group that selects shows and casts in the role of the leading man, an introverted, socially maladjusted bumpkin. He transforms and truly becomes the character; Romeo, Stanley Kowalski, Henry IV, etc. It’s a great story (made into a short movie with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken).
So after reversing direction and stalking Vonnegut for about 7 blocks, I finally get up enough guts to stop him.

“Mr. Vonnegut, I’m a teacher in Harlem and I’m trying to make your short story 'Who Am I this Time?' relevant to my students. Can you give me some pointers?”

I’m fully ready for him to invite me into his house for a pedantic review of plot and character development. I’m fully ready to invite him into the nearest diner for discussions of theme and overarching social implications of the piece. He stops, looks at me as if I am truly a nut, then smiles. He shifts the newspaper under his other arm and puts a hand on my shoulder and says: “Tell them it’s a real story, because it is. Now start to figure out what real means and you’ll do a great job teaching that and everything else you might end up teaching.” And he walks away, touching the wallet in his back pocket to make sure it’s still there.

And that really has been the touchstone of so much of my pedagogy and classroom planning; trying to figure out what’s “real” from the students’ perspective and teaching accordingly.

That’s a real story, whatever “real” means.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Irksome Behaviors

I co-facilitated a training last week for staff in an afterschool program for middle school students. The stated topic of the training was about using classroom meetings to facilitate a more "democratic" classroom, the kind of space in which students have a voice and can exercise some control over their environment. Creating this kind of a classroom, of course, can lead to an increase in the potential for chaos. After all, choices and voices can make for a very clamorous classroom.

Our way of addressing this was first to highlight those things that students do that "irk" us the most - snapping gum, sucking their teeth, telling us how boooooooring we are - and then take a closer look at ways that we can address these behaviors effectively by sharing some best practices.

We explained the activity, put up a piece of posterboard, and handed out post-its to everyone and had them write one "irk" per post-it. For three minutes, the room was completely silent while everyone rushed to fill their post-its. There was no hesitating to think about it whatsoever, and when time was up the poster was filled with yellow post-its. And the range and specificity of things listed was remarkable:
  • clustering together when I ask them to stand in a circle
  • audible sighing
  • slumping down in their chairs
  • "...But I wasn't talking!"
  • accidentally on purpose bumping into each other
  • slam-dunking the door or ceiling beams
  • mysteriously not understanding what a circle is supposed to look like

And many, many, many more. I read them out loud and told people that if they heard one they forgot - or that really resonated with them - to feel free to go ahead and shout out an, "Amen!" Of which there were several, mixed in with a healthy dose of knowing laughter. The whole experience was so liberating.

To an outsider, it might have seemed like we were trash-talking our students, but it was actually more like a catharsis and renewal. Afterwards, one of the women in the training explained that it was the most enjoyable part of the afternoon, because it was a chance to give voice to the things that they all go through in a room full of people who understand each other and each other's jobs. And that even though they can list their students' most irritating behaviors without hesitation and with lots of gusto, that does not mean that they love those students any less.

The practical what-to-do-and-when section of the workshop turned out to be a good discussion, but it was most likely less important than the collective release and shared laughter that prompted it.

So, accepting that it does not make you any less of a teacher for saying so, what are those most "irksome" behaviors that get under your skin most? And how do you prepare yourself for or respond to them? What advice do you have for your peers?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Sharing Power in the Classroom

Starting a classroom meeting means making space for student voices in a way that we cannot always control and that may lead us in some surprising directions. Some years ago, I offered a workshop on starting classroom meetings with a group of teachers who were largely reluctant. What turned the tide for one teacher was a lesson on adjectives - or "describing words" - with her second graders.

She had a posterboard with several different categories of describing words - colors, size, shape, character traits, and so on - and she asked her students to generate a frenzy of examples in each category. When they got to character traits, the ideas came easily: happy, sad, angry, tired, bored, surprised, excited, and on and on. It was an intoxicating kind of momentum that can generate lots of free associations and new ideas. So when one student offered "bossy," another was quick to chime in, "That's you, Ms. P!"

Children are more honest than adults give them credit for, often brutally so, and for the teacher this turned out to be a bit of a wake-up call. She smiled and dutifully added "bossy" to the poster and finished the lesson, but her student's assessment lingered. Later that day, we spoke about it. She explained that she wanted her students to see her as someone they could trust, someone who did not wield control so unilaterally. She wanted to learn how to share some of her power and let her students make some of the day-to-day decisions. We agree to start a weekly classroom meeting the following week and see how it goes.

Many wonderful references exist for starting classroom meetings. Start with this article about morning meetings by Roxann Kriete.

Monday, March 26, 2007

This Day in Peace and Justice History

This website lists historical peace and justice events that occurred. There is an entry for each day of the year! This calender is a great supplement to the peacemaking you might already be doing in you classroom as well as an opportunity for students to see peace and justice events that happened on their birthday. The website also lists additional classroom activities you can do. The link is below:

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cross Cultural Connections: Peace Games and Seeds of Peace

Peace Games has the opportunity to collaborate with Seeds of Peace, a non-governmental organization that brings young people from conflict areas together for dialogue and trust-building activities each summer. In addition to working with young people Seeds of Peace also strives to provide education and support to the adults in their lives.

As we continue to design Peacemaker Projects, Seeds of Peace staff expressed an interest in helping to set up one-to-one partnerships between elementary, middle, or high school teachers in either Israel or the West Bank and teachers in the Peace Games Network. Together, you can decide how best to learn from and support each other; we'd just make the introductions. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, contact us. To learn more about Seeds of Peace, visit their website or watch this trailer of a documentary about the camp ("Seeds"), made by an internationally diverse team of filmmakers in 2003.

Monday, March 19, 2007

That Time of Year

A few years ago, I stood in my regular spot to say good morning - at the top of the first flight of stairs, prime real estate for watching students come up from breakfast - and made sure to wish a good luck to the fourth and fifth graders on the first day of MCAS. As he walked by, Brendon, a fourth grader, said, "We're gonna need it!" Then, pulling a prayer card out of his pocket, he added, "That's why I got my Jesus!"

It's Testing Season, again.

During Testing Season, the air inside a school gets noticeably thicker and the anticipation gradually builds. Personally, I am not all that opposed to the idea of setting high standards, but I find that sometimes hard to reconcile with the anxiety - real or vicarious - that some students are saddled with.

It can be easy to think that games or "extras" have no place during Testing Season, but I disagree. I think that a well-placed cooperative game can do a lot to ease anxiety, build community, and strengthen the peacemaking skills of our students. Tests can help us assess students' strengths and areas for growth and may even help teachers improve their teaching, but they also measure students against one another, elevating some at the expense of others, which can be toxic to a classroom community. It is critical, therefore, to make space for community (re-)building.


After having Peace Games pre-empted by MCAS one week, a fourth grade teacher and I are eager to get back to it. We spend time on our Peacemaker Project, but as always leave time for a game at the end. "After all," the teacher reminds me. "It's Peace Games. We have to have a game every week."

This week, we choose Count Up. There are 22 students, and I challenge them to count from one to twenty-two. Everyone must count exactly once, and they must keep their eyes closed. If two of them call out the same number at the same time, then the entire group must start again. To make it easier, I randomly assign Byron to be number one. They go through several failed attempts, enduring some aggressive finger-pointing and blaming and occasionally helpful suggestions drowned out by a half-dozen voices all competing for dominance. The teacher and I are wathcing, with a mix of amusement and concern, when he says to me with mock-seriousness, "You know, I really don't think they can do it."

I play along. "I don't know. They're having a hard time, but I think they can."

"Well," he says. "I'm willing to bet extra recess that they can't." This is unexpected. The students immediately refocus, understanding exactly what this means: if they succeed, extra recess. It is a clear challenge, but the urgency (and aggressiveness) increase. This could unify them or tear them apart, and I am unsure of which will prevail.

Acutely tuned into the in-fighting all around him, Byron is steadfast. Each time two people call out the same number, he no longer waits for me to say, "Start over." Instead, with his eyes shut tightly and his usually soft-spoken voice taking on a powerfully confident cadence, he yells out, "One!" After which, as if falling in line, Keon says "two." And Brendon, "three." And with less than a minute left until dismissal, it clicks. By the time Leona says eighteen, both Brendon and William are clenching their teeth and fists, as if willing the class to finish. And when Maia squeaks out, "Twenty-two," the class erupts. They leap from the rug, screaming and hugging each other and chanting, over and over and over, "We did it! We did it! We did it!" Several push their way through the crowd to wag their fingers in the teacher's face.

And through the chaos, he and I look at each other with enormous smiles. I am quite certain that the noise is disturbing the fifth graders next door and the third graders downstairs, but neither the teacher nor I stop the celebration. When we finally have a chance to talk about it at dismissal, we are ecstatic. "That was pure joy," we agree.

And the perfect antidote to Testing Season.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Fragile Evolution

Shaun, a fifth grader, stops me in the hall one morning and tells that he almost got in a fight.

"Almost?" I ask.

Shaun has a younger sister, Ashley, who is in third grade. He explains that Tamika, a fourth grader who more than makes up for her small stature with a larger-than-life temper, started taunting Ashely about being poor on the playground that morning. Not surprisingly, pushes were exchanged. Tamika's younger brother, Mark, is in second grade and leapt to her defense and Shaun to Ashley's. Defending family, no matter how much they bother you some days, is a no-brainer. Mark is no ordinary second grader, either. He was kept back last year, and he is already bigger than most boys three or four years older than him. He began cussing at Shaun, determined to fight, but Shaun refused. He tells me that the lunch monitor told him he did the right thing by not fighting, and I tell him I agree. He seems to want the affirmation.

That Shaun did not fight could by turns seem like an easy decision or a courageous one. After all, his sister - and by extension, his whole family - had been insulted. On the other hand, it seems like it would be easier to walk away from an instigator who is smaller than you, even if just barely. The more I think about it, the more complex a decision it is and the more impressed I am that he made it so effortlessly.

A few minutes later, I pass Tamika and Ashley outside the office, waiting to be reprimanded, when I overhear Tamika. "You just made me so mad," she says to Ashley. "I didn't mean to start a fight."

Without knowing the full story - and accepting that everyone involved probably felt both hurt and vindicated - I am astonished by her words. Two years ago, her temper and defensiveness would just absorb her to the point of paralysis. It alienated friends and in fact made her a lot of enemies. I acknowledge that she still made some bad choices this morning, but hearing her now it is apparent that she wants so much to do the right thing, to be accepted for trying and encouraged for each baby step she makes. I remind myself to tell her so.

The whole episode is a reminder that conflict is not just something that happens between people - using words or fists - but something that happens inside people, too. We need allies to tell us that we're making the right choices - or that they are proud of us for trying, even when we struggle.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Standing On The Shoulders

Ask the question "Have you ever had a teacher who inspired you?" - especially to a roomful of teachers - and the response is largely predictable: immediate and unmistakably wide grins of nostalgic recognition.

Chris Hobson, my fourth grade teacher, was the first male teacher I had and one of of only three at my elementary school. It is hard to pinpoint what makes him so memorable in a way that does not sound ambiguous or clichéd, but I think what stands out most is his enthusiasm. He would bounce around the classroom in a way that made me believe that there was something truly compelling - almost magical - about diagramming sentences. In truth, there is nothing at all compelling about diagramming sentences (at least, not to me), but he approached it like a mystery to be solved. And we all signed on without reservation.

I am not a science guy, not even remotely, but our science unit that year centered around meteorology, of all things. We learned the different names of the clouds - and what they signified. We set up weather-predicting instruments in the schoolyard. And we filmed "weather reports" that were taped and played on a loop on the public access channel. It's one of those units that you remember for years, and it isn't until I sit down now to think about Mr. Hobson that I realize that there is no reason I'd know what cumulus, stratus, or cirrus clouds mean if it weren't for him. Would it matter, if I didn't know these things? Probably not, but I'm grateful for it. Learning something I did not need to know makes me a better learner now.

After a mediocre third grade experience - and during some trying times at home - Mr. Hobson was a steadying influence in my life. He was someone who I knew I could count on, who was steadfastly optimistic and unconditionally encouraging. I have not diagrammed a sentence or checked an altimeter in more than 20 years, but since I started working in schools I think about Chris Hobson a lot.

So, as we think about how to develop a network of educators across the country, it is perhaps useful to consider those who came before us, on whose shoulders we stand every morning.

Which teachers have inspired you?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Debriefing Peace Games

A game is successful when players make the connection between the game and their own life experience. Playing games is a fun way to laugh together and build community, but the larger connections are equally--if not more--important.

Engaging particiants in a discussion about the game itself invites a self-awareness that extends beyond the game and into everyday interactions. How to process a game depends on the context; however, it is always a good idea to take a few minutes between games to ask some questions.

To debrief a game ask these three simple questions:

WHAT? Questions that help players think about what they learned.

Examples: What happened during the game? How did it make you feel? What was hard about this game? What was easy? What did you like or dislike about the game?

SO WHAT? Questions that help participants to think about why they played the game.

Examples: So what does this teach us? Why would be play this game? Why is it important to practice teambuilding, communication, or inclusion?

NOW WHAT? Questions that help players to think about how the game applies to the real world.

Examples: How can you use what you learned in real life? What did you learn about yourself and your fellow players? How can we use these skills in other situations?

Have you had success in debriefing games? What has worked in your classroom? What are the challenges that you have faced in debriefing games?

Share your ideas and get feedback from others on our Peace Games Network Message Board here

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Common Sense Strategies for Conflict Management

When faced with a conflict there are many effective ways to handle the situation. Some choose to confront it head-on, while others prefer to step back and seek compromise. Different situations call for different techniques, but here is a short list of some simple strategies for de-escalating most conflicts to a point where they are manageable.

  • Watch your tone of voice. It is often not what you say, but how you say it, and just as an aggressive tone of voice can escalate a conflict, a conciliatory one can help to de-escalate.
  • Watch your posture. Avoid a defensive or aggressive body posture. Try to keep your arms uncrossed. Demonstrate that you are listening by looking at the person. If you are talking with a child, get down on their level.
  • Stay calm. Many times, this feels virtually impossible, but try methods for keeping your cool--like counting backwards from five, taking three deep breaths, or just walking away until later.
  • Choose the right time and place. Sometimes waiting until some time has passed and people have cooled down in the best choice. In addition, keep aggressive conflicts away from large groups of people whenever possible.
  • Empathy works. Letting the other person know that you recognize the volatility of the situation indicates that you take their feelings seriously. Even a simple statement like, "I know that you're feeling angry, but..." will often help to diffuse a difficult situation.
  • Focus on yourself. Make as many "I" statements as possible, like "I feel hurt when you talk about me to other people," rather than making assumptions, accusations, or threats like "Don't talk about me behind my back!"
  • Ask questions. "Why?" or "Why do you feel that way?" or "Tell me more."
  • Know your limits. Be aware of what pushes your buttons or what will trigger your anger, and be prepared to handle them. Resist "seeing it through" if it will only make the conflict worse by continuing.

© 2005 Peace Games, Inc. Common Sense Strategies for Conflict Management

Do you have a strategy for Conflict Management that's not on this list? What has been your experience with these methods? What has worked? What have you found challenging? Post your responses on our Network Message Board here.