Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Interrupt and Instruct

I was asked by my friend Carmen Urbina to be part of a think tank regarding school harassment to talk about sharing with other teachers how to interrupt harrassment. This morning I woke from one of those dreams that start something that you have to finish. It must have been connected to an invitation by my friend Carmen. In my dream, I was dealing with a situation of harassment so real it woke me up thinking. My mind was busy as I went step by step and wouldn't let me go back to sleep; rather I slogged down the hall in my slippers to get on the computer to blog my thoughts as they revealed themselves to me. So if this rambles, I blame it on my dreamlike state.

To get to my dream incident which I will describe later, there are steps, beginning from the first day of school. On the very first day, the only time all year where I will draw from my great authority as a teacher, I do spend time talking about the class and setting up the environment. These are the points I always share:

*I welcome them

*I call roll with attention to pronunciation and remind students that, I believe it was George Bernard Shaw said that there is no sound more beautiful than your name said correctly.

*I convey my excitement being their teacher for what I will learn, and we will accomplish together. I let them know my credentials and what we will be learning and that I am enthusiastic that they will be adding to the body of knowledge we call English or History or Literature.

*I invite them to the adventure of learning English, writing and history

*I introduce Rhode Island Plantation’s founder, Roger Williams and his description of democracy which was different from the New York Dutch colony’s Governor Stuyvesant’s view. He said, "In a democracy each person will be able to share their deepest differences with civility." Williams had definite strong opinions and would travel miles on a river just to have a respectful and passionate conversation with someone who completely disagreed with him. It is said the first boatload of Jews who came to America in the 17th century came to New York colony. Stuyvesant pointed out an area “over there” and told them they could set up their homes but they would not vote or run for office. They were free, of course, to practice their religion in their own homes without harassment.

The second boatload of Jews came that century to Rhode Island Plantation and were told by Roger Williams they could build their homes and there was land for their temple also. They could vote and hold office. The first temple still stands in Newport, Rhode Island. Like all temples there was a trap door right behind the alter for quick escapes should the temple be attacked. And to this day, that trap door has never ever had to be opened. That is the kind of democracy we will be training for in this classroom where each person can come in bringing in their whole self and express their deepest and differing ideas in civil conversation because ours is a nation made up of people of the whole world, all faiths and cultures, and differing points of view, and the respectful sharing always gives rise to creative, powerful exciting ideas, solutions and projects.

I tell the students right on day one that we are going to BE democracy because without training for it, we can't keep it, that the great scholars and experts of democracy and history say that the public school is the key for maintaining a democracy. It's an important charge for teachers AND students. In this class we will share our deepest differences with civility and create a place where each one will be part of the learning AND part of the teaching. My job, I will insist on it, will include coaching for respect and democracy. We will make sure any thought and behavior which would interfere will be addressed.

I will share with them this truism. If a person is teased about what they wore that day to school, what bump popped up on their face, what is their favorite music, their race, language, religion,
culture, do you think they're going to share an idea? join a conversation? If people witnessed teasing over differences, will they dare to raise their hand to speak? You see how disrespect for any reason will kill learning. The study of literature and history is about the human stories and would not be too fun if I as the teacher carried the full load of imparting ideas by myself, in front of this room and students only listened and wrote answers to questions so I knew they are listening. I prefer we grapple with the ideas together, learn the facts and turn them this way and that and really understand them through doing and share our stories, and we come up with projects which I have learned by the way, springs from my students rather than from me. Students have the greatest ideas about what projects this community needs.

Then I will share how we will look at any topic, issue, theme. We will use the metaphor of the 5-corner intersection, and study multiple perspectives. I've already posted the five basic principles of multicultural learning, copyright Bettie Sing Luke, on “TBAsian.” And I use the 5 corner intersection in the first days of teaching. I have put “Columbus’ voyage to the Americas” at the hub of the intersection and defined five different perspectives of the voyage:
1) perspective of Columbus and the monarchs; 2) the Taino peoples who were enslaved and forced to gather gold; 3) Bishop of Spain de Casas (who criticized the voyages as inhuman)’ 4) the people of Africa (the voyage set began the slave trade); 5) the indigenous point of view that this was the beginning of worldwide invasions and colonization.

But as my mind whirred on this morning, I thought what could the math teacher say about multiple perspectives, using the 5 corner intersection. I don't know math very well having avoided math requirements my whole college career. But I'll share one story.

Tony Brown's journal had a guest who was a scholar of Dapo. He told us about an African nation contemporary with the Greek Empire which developed a language system from which math is derived. The Greeks took only a piece of this system, which the world knows as mathematics, but in actuality it served as a special language used to explain how things should be, a code of behavior. For example, the Pythagorean Theory, A2 plus B2 equals C2* becomes teaches about what it takes to raise a strong family if we were to see the whole picture created by the original Africans who created the language of math to discuss a code of behavior. A is the father who is the backbone of the family represented by a vertical line. B is the mother who is the foundation of the family represented by a horizontal lined which joins A. Where they join and the angle they form is the family. C is the children represented by a diagonal line touching the free ends of the vertical and horizontal line.

A strong family is formed if the father learned from a father how to be a father A2, and a mother learned from a mother how to be a mother B2. If this is the case, children will grow to be strong children C2.

Of course, we already know, that this idea can also make a strong table. Applied to things, as math can help us do, the Pythagorean Triangle instructs us how to build anything strong. But the whole story is such a fundamental truth that no one can forget it. I shared this story with my language arts students just because it was so interesting. I still remember Lindsey Durant, confident, blond bangs covering her bright eyes, her posture absolutely erect blurting out "Wow! I could have really understood math if I heard it that way!!" It made me think, I wonder how true that would be for other students, like myself. Other students spoke up, many females. That gave me the insight that maybe if some of these stories could be shared in math, and by sharing interesting facts and stories about math, maybe some students who struggled with math might respond. If I were a math teacher, I would bring up these stories from many ways of thought throughout the curriculum. I understand the burden that math teachers have, needing to stay on schedule, but it takes just a little time to warm up the audience with a story.

Science teachers? My secret ambition is to have been an English literature and writing/history/science teacher. How I would love to teach science within a “relationship” framework. In my life, mainly from the Winnemem, I have learned another way to look at biology. For example, what about water? How do we look at water?
As a biology student in public school I learned how to categorize living things. I learned about the earth in a separate class from biology which was plants and animals. I learned something, I grant you that. But I also learned a point of view which was too limiting for me in my adult lifeway.

When I listen to my Chief and Spiritual Leader talk about Nature there is a dimension of intimacy about it which is so different from the scientific objectivity which is cultivated. We are part of water and water is part of us. That is not a romantic idea. That is real. We human beings are mostly water. And we have great impact on water with our actions and choices. The question is framed differently. The Winnemem biology is "how does one preserve the earth since the earth takes care of all life and what role do all living things play in this reciprocal earth relationship?" I have learned how everything works together how all the waterlife serve to purify water, how the fish purifies water, how the ancient big trees and their root systems draw the water level up, how everything which lives in water and around water serves a purpose so fresh water can be preserved. An environmental scientist also has a point of view of water. From the perspective from space we can see how much of the earth is water -- but of that water, how much is drinkable? All of life which depends on river, stream and spring water is limited to the tiny capillaries, and only a small percentage of these small capillaries is drinkable. In other words, these perspectives can be brought together, many perspectives, to teach science students who for the most part are raised to think about living things and their usefulness to human beings. What do the children need to know if they live in a culture where water pours out of a faucet anytime you turn it on? Yes, water can be captured and harvested but science can teach how does one preserve it to children have never visited a spring as a water source to see how vulnerable they have become they -- the spring and the human being -- have become.

*within the first two weeks, I will ask the students to do a project which is really about sharing their family and themselves. First of all, this project invites each student to bring their whole self in. Also, I coach them on respect and the correct way to share self, and learn about others, how to present confidently and listen respectfully, how to acquire knowledge about another by listening well rather than by questioning relentlessly.

The whole school has done cultural fairs, which is this exercise on a grand scale inviting parents and community, a school showcase. But this can be done in a small way. One way I have used is a discovery box which goes along with a book in which a youth discovers their own family stories and cultures through an adventure and learns to accept themselves. I’ve used Jane Yolen’s “Devil’s Arithmetic” or Laurence Yep’s “Child of the Owl” as the book. And I invite everyone to do a bit of discovery about their own culture and family heritage by bringing a box of things which stand for stories and feelings. Everyone wants to see what’s in a box. So in a circle, when we share these many and diverse boxes of all shapes and sizes, everyone is ready to listen and learn. Every time we do this exercise, there are people in the circle who are descendents of long ago enemies. We’ve had in the same circle, a descendent of the Red Baron, and an US veteran of WWII, a descendent of Jesse James, and a descendent of a law officer, a descendent of both sides of a war in Turkey. It’s interesting to see right in front of our eyes that war/hate/enmity is a temporary circumstance.

If I were a science teacher I would do which I learned in a workshop, an exercise which opens our eyes to our "green neighborhood" no matter where we live -- in a suburb, on a farm, in the city, in a metropolis.

I would ask students to draw their neighborhood and home to share with one another tomorrow. I would coach respect of home, to become a person who enters a home with respect rather than narrow viewed judgment. Everyone’s home, even the palatial homes, can be judged lacking. It is up to each human being how they enter any place. After they’ve been busy drawing for a few minutes, I ask for their attention again and demonstrate sharing my drawing.

I hold up a picture of my house and natural neighborhood. I would be a little more than midway up a hill. A river courses to the north of us going toward the wetlands close by. I would draw in the giant fir trees, the ferns and bushes indigenous to the area, the camas, all which grown in our backyard and front yard. The squirrels, both brown and grey squirrels, the raccoon family, the flicker, jays, sparrows, finch, all there, and the invading starling. The bees are there, and white butterflies. A doe and two fawns/yearlings hang out in the backyard. I would draw in the small stand of incense cedar to the west of us and the north of us. I would draw the stream which goes to the river and lies just due north.

Where do I live? I ask holding up my drawing. Some will guess, in a woods, in the country.

I will tell them that I live on Jefferson Street. The freeway literally dumps onto Jefferson. It is a relatively busy street lined with houses, and close to city center. Of course, they are surprised. I tell them I want them to look at their neighborhood and home through other lens to draw their home within an earth centered concept. They will need to discard their first drawings and walk their neighborhood tonight and notice, where is the waterway coming from which is captured in pipes and buried underground? what trees grow? what animals share the space? what direction is the river from my home? and come to share it.

Now this leads up to my dream. In my dream this tall boisterous student snickered and made a comment of “little brown people.” In my dream, I stopped the class and said, remember on the first day when I talked about this class as being a safe place to share ideas to add to the great body of knowledge about history and literature. This comment does not add, it detracts because it trivializes a people. Do you understand? . . . . Great! The moment is a teachable one for all of us, not just one person. One does not need to nail the person each time.

If the comment is directed toward another person in the class, “Stop! Show respect, please.”

If the comment is racist, homophobic, sexist, “Stop! I’ll see you after class. Language of that sort is not allowed here. It’s wrong.”
When we are by ourselves, I would tell the person how that comment made me feel. I would ask “Do you have problems about _________?” They will deny they have issues and say they were just saying it because of something else. I will say “you need to be clear about your message because otherwise people will think you are ______ist. Just be clear and tell the truth, that makes me angry, that’s not fair, but don’t use a ____________ist word.”

If the person says instead that he believes he has a right to be _______ist, I will say, “that may be the case, but in this class and in this school there is a basic expectation of civility.” ___________ism is not ok. Just like any other quirk or style, there are things you can do at home but you can’t bring it to work or church, the synagogue, or to your grandparent’s house. You cannot bring ________ist attitudes to school. It’s a good skill to learn. At the same time, you should know that you will be judged by those who witness this and you might consider if you really want to lose the respect of others who might not say anything to you, but are thinking that you don’t know enough to do the right thing.

If the student shows remorse immediately, I will praise the person by saying, I respect, just as much as I respect the person who stands up to those who harass him/her well, and I respect those who stand up when others. I also respect the same degree the person who may have stumbled but gets up to do the right thing. I’m proud of you. How will you show by action your true thoughts next time?

In my dream I asked if there were others who would like to share this young man how his words made them feel and several came up and formed a circle to do so. In my dream, I knew some were people who were doing it just to impress the teacher, but it didn’t matter what the reason because it is what they do which counts. Practice makes perfect.

As a teacher, I have used a circle of peers for serious incidents in another room. In fact, I wrote about it in my post titled “David.”
Unlike the dream, the peer circle comes later on, after the environment is established, after respect is made to be an expectation, after everyone brings their family into the circle, after practice and coaching of how to interrupt harassment, when students are ready to speak and know the words to speak to demand respect and stand up to harassment. The goal is to interrupt harassment AND, I would add, instruct. To instruct is to make it not one student’s problem but a class opportunity to learn -- why we don’t harass and disrespect, what to do if it happens. The perspective is “we are in the same boat and we’re working on this together, helping each other out bad day or good.” Interrupt AND instruct.

*Thank you, Steve Wake!

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.