The Holiday Season Brings Fear and Resentment for Many Students

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“I hate Christmas.”

 

Teachers hear that with surprising regularity around this time of year.

 

I hate Christmas. I hate Thanksgiving. I hate every holiday.

 

America’s public school students are living under tremendous pressure.

 

The social safety net is full of holes. And our children are left to fall through the ripped and torn fabric.

 

The sad fact is that one in four students in America’s classrooms have experienced a traumatic event.

 

So if your classroom is typical, 25% of your students have witnessed violence or been subject to a deeply distressing experience.

 

That could be drug or alcohol abuse, food insecurity, severe beatings, absent caregivers or neglect.

 

These figures, provided by Neena McConnico, Director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project, are indicative of a truth about this country that we don’t want to see.

 

Our Darwinian public policies leave many children to suffer the effects of poverty – and our society doesn’t want to deal with it.

 

In impoverished communities, these percentages are even higher and the results more devastating.

 

The Center for Disease Control’s comprehensive Adverse Childhood Experiences study links the toxic stress of unaddressed trauma to heart disease, liver disease, and mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

 

Young children exposed to more than five adverse experiences in the first three years of life face a 75 percent likelihood of having delays in language, emotional, or brain development, according to McConnico.

 

This translates directly to negative behaviors in the classroom.

 

Children who witness violence often have trouble in school because they suffer from post-traumatic stress, which can manifest as inattention, distractibility, hyperactivity, insomnia, aggression, and emotional outbursts.

 

Or, alternately, these children can sometimes withdraw and appear to be unfazed by their experiences. In some ways, that’s even more dangerous because while they avoid negative attention, they often get no attention at all.

 

It’s bad enough in the everyday. But it gets worse around the holidays.

 

Some of it is due to the structure and safety of school being removed. During holiday breaks, children are left to the mercy of sometimes chaotic and uncertain home lives.

 

Some of it is due to unrealistic expectations inevitably conjured up by the holiday season, itself. Even grown adults have trouble with depression around this time of year. But when you’re a troubled child, the unrealistic expectations and disappointments can be doubly impactful.

 

Loved ones are missing due to incarceration, divorce, abandonment, health issues, or death. Talk of family gatherings or a special meal can trigger hurt feelings for children who know their caregivers can’t or won’t provide them.

 

And it’s not always neglect. Sometimes there just isn’t the money for these things. We live in a gig economy where many people work multiple jobs just to survive. All it takes is missing one paycheck or one illness to disrupt holiday celebrations.

 

Even when parents have enough money, some just don’t bother to buy their kids anything. Sometimes families get to a better financial point but children have had to live through a period of food insecurity and are haunted by it. So even though the household is stable now, kids eat all their treats on the way to school because they always are fearful that the food will run out.

 

When kids have these sorts of fears, the ubiquitous holiday movies, TV shows, Christmas songs and commercials can set them off further.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of year for some, but not for all. For many students, the holidays are a time of dread and resentment.

 

That’s why it’s so important for teachers to be aware of what’s happening to their students.

 

For the quarter of American children who experience trauma at home, school may be their only safe harbor in a world of storms. Teachers may be the only people they see all day who offer a safe place, a stable environment and a friendly word.

 

For some kids, teachers are the only adults in their lives who make them feel valuable and supported.

 

We offer our students so much more than reading, writing and math. We’re allies, mentors, protectors and role models.

 

I wish we could save them from all the terrors of this world, but we can’t.

 

Let me be clear – I am in no way a super teacher.

 

But here are a few things I do in my classroom to help alleviate some of the stresses of the season – and often year round.

 

1)  Prioritize Relationships

 

Let your kids know you care. The student-teacher relationship is sacred. Nourish it. Be reliable, honest, and dependable.

 

As Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

2)  Listen to Them

 
Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is just listen to students’ problems. You don’t always have to offer a solution. Our kids are dealing with so many adult pressures. Offering them the ability to get it all out in the presence of a caring adult can be a treasured gift.

 

“It’s really that simple,” McConnico says. “Listen, reflect back to them that they have been heard, validate the child’s feelings without judgment, and thank the child for sharing with you.”

 

3)  Create Opportunities to be Successful

Some people see teaching as essentially an act of evaluation and assessment. We observe students and then tell them what they did wrong.

This is extremely narrow-minded. When you get to know your students, you can offer them tasks in which you expect they’ll succeed. It’s the kind of thing we do all the time – differentiating instruction and offering choice so that students can achieve the goal in the manner best suited to them.

Sometimes you really have to work at it. If a child has extreme behavior issues, you can observe closely to find the one thing he or she does right and then praise them for it. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, it pays off tremendously!

Positive experiences lead to more positive experiences. It’s like putting training wheels on a bike. It scaffolds learning by supporting kids emotional needs before their academic ones.

4)  Routines

I am a huge fan of routine. Kids know exactly what we’re going to do in my class everyday – or at least they have a clear conception of the normal outline of what happens there.

I try to have very clear expectations, timelines and consequences. For kids who live in chaotic homes, this is especially comforting. It’s just another way of creating a safe place where all can learn.

 

5)  There’s Nothing Wrong With Downtime

I know. Teachers are under enormous pressure from administrators to fill every second of the day. But sometimes the best use of class time is giving students a break.

 

Let students finish assignments in class, read for pleasure, draw, even just daydream and relax. You can overdo it, but everyone can benefit from a little R & R.

 

This is especially true for traumatized children. Give them time to regroup from the mental and emotional stress. I find that it actually helps motivate kids to work harder when assignments are given.

 

The holidays can be a stressful time in school.

 

Kids get overexcited, they can’t concentrate, they’re torn left and right by the various emotions of the season.

 

As teachers, it’s our job to understand the full scope of what’s going on with our kids and make our classes as nourishing and safe as possible.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

I am a Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got!

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Come into my classroom any day of the week and you’ll see refugees.

That little Iraqi boy slumped over a book written in Arabic while the rest of the class reads the same story in English. Those twin girls blinking back memories of the Bosnian War as they try to underline possessive nouns on an English worksheet. That brown-skinned boy compulsively rocking back-and-forth in his seat fighting back tears wondering when his dad is going to come home from prison.

Every day, every hour, every minute our public schools are places of refuge for children seeking asylum, fugitives, emigres, exiles, the lost, the displaced, dear hearts seeking a kind word and a caring glance.

Some may shudder or sneer at the prospect of giving shelter to people in need, but that is the reality in our public schools. In the lives of many, many children we provide the only stability, the only safety, the only love they get all day.

And, yes, I do mean love. I love my students. Each and every one of them. Sometimes they are far from lovable. Sometimes they look at me with distrust. They bristle at assignments. They jump when redirected. But those are the ones I try to love the most, because they are the ones most in need.

I told a friend once that I had a student who had escaped from Iraq. His parents had collaborated with the U.S. military and received death threats for their efforts. So he and his family fled to my hometown so far away from his humid desert heartland.

I told her how difficult it was trying to communicate with a student who spoke hardly any English. I complained about budget cuts that made it next to impossible to get an English Language Learner (ELL) instructor to help me more than once a week. And her response was, “Do you feel safe teaching this kid?”

Do I feel safe? The question had never occurred to me. Why wouldn’t I feel safe? I don’t expect ISIS to track him down across the Atlantic Ocean to my class. Nor do I expect this sweet little guy is going to do anything to me except practice his English.

In one of my first classrooms, I had a dozen refugees from Yugoslavia. They had escaped from Slobadan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing. Yet you’d never know unless they told you. They were some of the most well-behaved, thoughtful, intelligent children I’ve had the pleasure to teach. They were always smiling, so happy to be here. They approached every assignment with a seriousness well beyond their years.

But sometimes you’d see a shadow cross their faces. Rarely you’d hear them whispering among themselves. I was so new I didn’t know any better but to come down on them. But later they told me what they had been talking about, what they had been thinking about – how Henry V’s military campaign brought back memories. They taught me that day. Every year I learn so much from my children.

My high poverty school doesn’t get a lot of refugees from overseas these days. But we’re overwhelmed with exiles from our own neighborhood. I can’t tell you how many children I’ve had in class who start off the year at one house and then move to another. I can’t tell you how many come to school bruised and beaten. I can’t tell you how many ask a moment of my time between classes, during my planning period or after school just to talk.

Last week one of my students walked up to me and said, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

Class had just been dismissed. I had a desk filled to the ceiling with ungraded essays. I still had to make copies for tomorrow’s parent-teacher conferences. I had gotten to none of it earlier because I had to cover another class during my planning period. But I pushed all of that aside and talked with my student for over an hour.

And I’m not alone. On those few days I get to leave close to on time, I see other teachers doing just like me conferencing and tutoring kids after school.

It was a hard conversation. I had to show him he was worth something. I had to make him feel that he was important to other people, that people cared about him. I hope I was successful. He left with a handshake and a smile.

He may not be from far away climes, but he’s a refugee, too. He’s seeking a safe place, a willing ear, a kind word.

So you’ll forgive me if I sigh impatiently when some in the media and in the government complain about the United States accepting more refugees. What a bunch of cowards!

They act as if it’s a burden. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a privilege.

When I see that iconic picture of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi drowned in Turkey as his family tried to escape the conflict, I find it impossible that anyone could actually refuse these people help. Just imagine! There are a host of others just like this family seeking asylum and we can give it! We have a chance to raise them up, to provide them a place to live, to shelter them from the storm. What an honor! What a privilege! What a chance to be a beacon of light on a day of dark skies!

I’m an American middle class white male. My life hasn’t been trouble free, but I know that I’ve won the lottery of circumstances. Through none of my own doing, I sit atop the social ladder. It is my responsibility to offer a helping hand in every way I can to those on the lower rungs. It is my joy to be able to do it.

It’s what I do everyday at school. When I trudge to my car in the evening dark, I’m exhausted to the marrow of my bones. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s not uncommon for a student or two to see me on the way to my car, shout out my name with glee and give me an impromptu hug. At the end of the day, I know I’ve made a difference. I love being a teacher.

So if we’re considering letting in more refugees, don’t worry about me. Send them all my way. I’ll take all you’ve got. That’s what public schools do.


NOTE: This article also was published in Everyday Feminism, the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also quoted extensively in an interview the National Education Association did with the author.