Tag Archive for: education

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear
evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in
place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are
protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun
violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school
student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple
times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and
turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still
Unknown” is shocking to me.
am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening,
not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am
saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting
until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions
instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout
their lives.
vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally
wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to
emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that
portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling
strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are
simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To
expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply
unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to
acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we
expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and
we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to
apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in
history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be
human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within
family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional
challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that
learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor,
we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported
within a wider community, that they are not alone.
second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection.
People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling
with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an
individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more
likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through
that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is
much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have
demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and
competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’
both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education
that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the
context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We
may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy,
but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and
rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a
dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with
an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion
and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about
individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is
about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing
physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional
development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention.
What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?

Trends in education come and go, like anything else. Letter grades, number grades, no grades, “old” math, “new” math, multi-age classrooms, inclusive classrooms, AP classrooms. It’s hard to keep up, but one trend that has been around for my girls’ generation is the STEM focused curriculum and while I understand it, it does give me some pause.  Mostly because I think that doing anything in a vacuum, for the sake of doing it or jumping on that moving train is not necessarily a good idea.  It seems that the United States has fully embraced the notion that we can all live better lives if we pursue jobs in math or engineering or science fields. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid that tells us that technology is the saviour of the future and those individuals who understand it and shape it will be kings and queens.

Within this push for STEM education, there is a mini-movement that is focused on girls. It is true that women are very poorly represented in the fields that rely heavily on STEM education. These also tend to be the jobs that offer more flexibility and opportunity and higher pay.  And while I am absolutely not opposed to the emphasis on STEM (or, as they put it at Lola’s school, STEAM with an A for the arts), I hope that these students are also learning just as much about the application of this knowledge and the ethics involved as they are about how to build a better robot.  I hope that they aren’t being seduced by the possibilities of this knowledge without considering the ramifications of it. When Albert Einstein helped spur the development of the atomic bomb, he had some inkling of what he might be unleashing, but it wasn’t until many years later that he said, “I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.”  He defended his involvement by noting that the research was available and, if it hadn’t been built and used by the United States, he was certain that the Nazis would have developed the technology, but this is precisely what I think of when I imagine legions of scientifically-literate students graduating from American high schools without any sort of ethical framework for the work they are suddenly capable of doing.

One of the phrases I use with Lola and Eve that drives them batty goes like this, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” I hope that I haven’t said it so many times that they tune it out, but just often enough that it echoes in their heads from time to time and encourages them to ask, “Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I making this decision now? What will come of it?”  I honestly believe that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves, and often the most difficult to answer.  I think that as a culture we could save boatloads of money and time and effort if we stopped to inquire about why we choose to do certain things in particular ways.  Technology and science, engineering and math have certainly changed our lives for the better in multitudes of ways, but there are also egregious examples of STEM-gone-wrong, used for exploitation or corporate financial gain, and turning out an entire generation of students who blindly believe that STEM is the way to job security and financial success without any ability to question their own motives or morality is a frightening prospect.

I remember taking a bioethics course in college and wondering why it wasn’t required for pre-med students (I was pre-med, but I took it as credit toward my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, not biology). I was lucky enough to sit on the ethics committee at a local hospital for one term and see how large institutions debate questions of morality when it comes to research and equity for all patients and I was shocked at how many physicians never bothered to ask those questions in their daily practice unless it was required for some study or potential lawsuit. They were content to let the “experts” in ethics decide for them and dictate what they ought to do.  I am not condemning them for that. They were likely never taught to ask those kinds of questions or how to think about them.  They were taught to look critically at things that had “right” and “wrong” answers, how to perform tests to determine which was which, and move forward. If we don’t find ways to give our children a language of ethics, a way to talk about the choices we make and understand the effect those choices have on others, we are sorely mistaken.  If we don’t attempt to focus on the application and consequences of our scientific discoveries, have honest conversations about the reasons for engaging in the work we’re doing (beyond making money or ‘to see if we can,’) we are missing a vital piece of educating our kids.  I am much more interested in my children becoming thoughtful citizens of a community who can envision and work toward some common goal than I am in seeing them get advanced degrees in STEM fields and go on to create the next genetically-modified food product that could wreak havoc on our ecosystems beyond anything we can imagine. And while I do think that some of the responsibility for teaching that lies with parents, to have our educational system acknowledge the necessity and importance of it is vital. I’m not advocating for schools to provide any sort of absolute ethical framework (although some religious schools do that). Rather, I think they would do better to teach students to ask “why” at each important juncture, to flex that ethical muscle, to keep them examining the reasons and ramifications of their actions when it comes to all of their learning.

One of the things I love best about the middle school my girls attend is their focus on service and community. They are encouraged to find something they are passionate about, big or small, and use that energy to connect with others and make a difference in the world.

Three years ago, Eve partnered with a friend of hers who started an organization focused on kids with serious illnesses who were spending large chunks of time in the hospital or places like the Ronald McDonald House.  The group is called That Lucky Bracelet and the girls put together customized “Smile Packages” for sick kids. It has been a terrific thing for Eve to be part of and the girls have a lot of fun making gifts for kids based on the things each one tells them they love. The weekend before Easter, we hosted a gathering of four of the girls in our backyard and they spent hours stuffing and decorating hundreds of plastic Easter eggs with candy and bracelets and stickers and bouncy balls that they would drop off at our local Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House for the kids and their families.  If you know of someone who would love to get a smile package from these bright, determined girls, hit their website and fill out a questionnaire. Some of the kids who have received packages continue to communicate with the founder for a long time after getting their initial package and it has been a really rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Three weeks ago, Lola was thinking about school supplies, not because she is anxious to go back to school, but because we were talking about the homeless shelter we worked in last Spring. One of the things the girls did while they were there was to volunteer in the childcare room and watch the toddlers while their moms took parenting classes or ESL classes or went to job interviews.  Ever since then, Lola has been talking about those kids and thinking about what it must be like to be homeless as a young child.  She asked me, “How do those kids get school supplies if they can’t afford food?” and I replied that I figured it was probably pretty hard.  That they probably had to look through the donated items to find what they needed.  An idea was born. She got together with her best friend to create Education Belongs 2 Everybody, a place where folks can go and donate money to help these kids buy school supplies.  We started thinking, and between backpacks and calculators and binders and all of the other things that kids really need to get for school, the cost can run into the hundreds of dollars easily. And what a great feeling it would be for these kids to get to go to the store and choose their own lunchbox or folders based on the things they love!  If you’re so inclined, go check out their website and donate a few dollars through PayPal. Each and every penny donated will go to the shelter we have worked with in the past so that these kids can be better equipped to start their school year off right.

I am writing this as a parent who is incredibly grateful that the school my girls attend teaches media literacy aggressively and early. Beginning in the 5th grade, the teachers present the students with examples of how we are barraged every day with messages that may or may not represent us, but whose sole aim is to sell us something, even if couched in the guise of “entertainment.”

And so I was not terribly surprised to see the article in this morning’s New York Times regarding the MTV reality series “16 and Pregnant.” (Disclaimer: I have never watched, nor do I anticipate ever watching this show. I cannot speak to the relative merits or pitfalls of it, and I’m more interested in the larger theme of media influence, in any case.) The Nielsen company, responsible for television ratings among other things, released a report suggesting that this show and others like it may have “prevented 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.” Don’t ask me how they did the study. I didn’t delve too deeply in to it, but I suspect some other folks will, given the voices that have been raised in opposition to shows like this since their beginning. The people in that camp believe that these shows glamorize teen motherhood by featuring the teens on television, thus rendering them celebrities, and may convince young girls to go out and get pregnant before they are ready to.  Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, at least not with regards to this particular blog post.  What strikes me is that what both sides have in common is the assertion that television shows, among other media sources, have a strong impact on their audience, so much so that they can influence major life decisions.  With that, I will agree.

Last week on the way home from school, Eve reported that the 8th graders had begun a new unit in their health class involving body image.

“We’ve had two classes on it so far and, man, there’s no way we’re ever gonna get through even fifteen minutes without someone bursting into tears. I mean, even though we know that pictures are Photoshopped and nobody looks like a Barbie doll, some of the girls in my class have such low self-esteem because they think their bodies are all wrong that they can’t stop sobbing.”

I confess to being surprised.  This is a school that has encouraged families to watch the critically acclaimed Miss Representation with their children, a school that has the 7th grade students create their own posters using images from magazines to demonstrate their understanding of media messages and how harmful they can be, a school that embraces and holds up diversity as a source of power. And yet, there are girls who are still so divided in their loyalties to themselves versus someone else’s idea of what they ought to look like that they can’t make it through a class on body image without feeling awful.

Let us not underestimate the power of both the media and the perpetuation of those messages among our youth. Let us continue to talk to our children about what is truly important and worthy. Let us help them to think critically about what they see and hear and decipher which messages are there to lift them up and which ones are there to tear them down and open their wallets.  As Stephen Colbert once said:

“But if girls feel good about themselves, how can we sell them things they don’t need?”

I was asked today how I think my daughters’ school views failure and I cringed.  I hate that word. It is so full of rot and worms and gut-wrenching stink.  The first thing I did was to reframe the conversation in terms of mistakes, and then I dug in deeper.

I don’t know where we as a society got the notion that mistakes aren’t allowed, or at least that only mistakes of a certain type are allowed.  I remember teachers handing papers back to me with a final grade written on them in red ink at the top and feeling either defeated or elated depending on the score (which I rapidly translated from a number score to a letter grade in my head, don’t you know).  I remember accepting that this was the way it was. You get one chance to take that test or write that essay and the grade you get is the grade you get.  But that isn’t real life, is it?  And it certainly isn’t a reasonable expectation. I think if we asked, no parent or school official or teacher would say that they expect their students to come in, sit through a lecture, absorb everything the teacher says, and perform perfectly on an exam. Desire? Yes. Expect? No. Schools are for learning, and learning simply can’t happen without missteps.

Last year, Eve had a math teacher who expected the girls to turn in corrections on their math homework.  If it was clear to him that they hadn’t quite understood or mastered the content by the looks of their math papers, he would return them to the girls and ask them to rework the problems they had answered incorrectly.  He offered to stay in at lunch or after school to pore over the papers with students who just hadn’t quite figured it out yet because his goal was that each of his students truly learn the material he was teaching. He didn’t have a bell curve he was working toward.  He wasn’t compelled by some external drive to “get through” a certain amount of material. He wanted these girls to understand what he was teaching and he lived it every day.

How often do we get “corrections” in life? Everywhere, I’d say.  Just because I try out a new recipe one night and it bombs, my family doesn’t ‘fire’ me from cooking anymore.  I’m not branded a failure in the kitchen and asked not to return.  Life is about reworking problems, looking back to see where we went wrong and making it a little better next time.  Unfortunately, I think we don’t offer our kids that much slack at school.  So many students are frantic to turn in perfect papers that they stay up all night tweaking every last detail or resort to buying someone else’s work to turn in. They take round after round of pre-SAT tests in order to increase their scores as much as possible before applying to colleges.  They give up on themselves if they can’t master a particular subject, or if they can’t master school itself.  We are doing them a disservice if we continue to send them the message that there is only one way to learn and if they don’t figure it out, they’re doomed.

One of the biggest reasons I love the school my daughters attend is that the teachers embrace mistakes. They expect mistakes. They encourage the girls to step outside of their comfort zone and try things they are afraid of just to see what happens.  Yes, they have high academic standards, but those standards revolve around comprehension and utilization of the material they are taught, not regurgitating memorized material on a test or being at the top of the bell curve.  Their teachers believe that one of the biggest components of learning is not knowing. I mean, honestly, isn’t that the only prerequisite for learning? That you don’t already know?  In this equation, effort and resilience are the most important traits a student can have, and given that those characteristics are vital to the rest of their lives as well, don’t we want to instill them in our kids instead of some completely unattainable ideal of perfection?

I have written about Sex Ed before, both its importance and the fact that I believe we are doing families and students a disservice by calling it that.

Last week the girls’ school held a combined Parent/Student Education night for 7th and 8th graders and their families, led by one of the science teachers and the health/nutrition/fitness teacher.  The idea was to talk to the group as a whole to begin with, then break them up into two groups (Students and Parents) to talk for a bit and formulate a list of questions for the other group, and finally bring them all back together to discuss some of the issues.  Eve was greatly relieved that Bubba was out of town and we were unable to join the discussion at school but I was, frankly, quite disappointed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t rub my hands together in gleeful anticipation of talking to my daughters about their sexuality, especially given the fact that they both seem patently uncomfortable with the subject.  I was disappointed because, like most things, I believe that the more baby steps we can take, the easier it will get over time.  I am not a proponent of the ‘shock’ therapy that one educator I know engages in (among other tactics, she has the girls shout the word, “penis!” at the top of their lungs repeatedly to desensitize them to it).  I’m not against it, but it simply isn’t my style.

I was very happy to see an email from one of the instructors a few days after the program with an attached document containing both the student-generated and parent-generated lists of questions from that evening.  I forwarded it on to Eve and asked her to pick three questions she wanted to ask me. I would do the same and after dinner we headed out to take a walk.  She wasn’t thrilled.

The list of questions ranged from things like “Do you trust me?” and “What kind of boyfriend do you want me to have?” to the distinctly more squirm-worthy ones such as “How old were you when you first had sex?” and “What is molestation?” and “Does it smell when you ‘do it’?”  Predictably, Eve chose three pretty tame ones.  I let her start, but said we would alternate who asked and who answered.

I tend to give thesis-length answers, but I tried to be as concise as possible so she would remain interested and engaged in the conversation and it was fairly genial.  My first two questions were softballs, but the last one was more pointed.  Of course, when we were within a block of home, the real meat of the discussion came up and we were able to talk about date rape and how to determine if other people are trustworthy in certain situations.  We extended our stroll a bit to accommodate.

As we headed across the deck for the back door, I told her that I’d like us to do this twice a month or so until we’ve exhausted the questions on both lists.

“Mom! Some of those questions….I don’t want to do this all the time! Why do we have to?”

I know she’s embarrassed.  I know she thinks she knows more than she does.  I know she would probably rather get this information from her friends – despite the fact that they don’t know as much as they think they do, either.  But what I’m looking for here is to establish a rapport between us that doesn’t treat her sexuality as uncomfortable or shameful.  I don’t want to know details of her consensual experimentations with boys (when she finally has them, hopefully at a developmentally appropriate time) and I have no intention of sharing intimate details of my sex life with her. We aren’t BFFs. But I do want to make sure that if she ever has a question about whether or not it’s the right time for her to start experimenting or how to obtain reliable birth control or if she needs to tell me something difficult that she isn’t proud of, that she feels comfortable coming to me because we have proven ourselves able to talk about it calmly and with respect for each other.

So many of the questions on those lists had more to do with figuring out your own values and understanding your own boundaries and comfort zones than they did with anything else.  It is precisely for this reason that I think calling the classes “Sex Ed” unnecessarily creates the illusion that the material is all about intercourse and other intimate sex acts.  In my experience, it is so much more about knowing the mechanics of your own body, learning about how hormonal changes affect different aspects of your life, and figuring out how to make good choices that fit within your own personal comfort level.  Imagine if everyone were able to access information about how to take care of themselves in every aspect – physically, emotionally, spiritually – and to practice thinking critically about why certain choices were better or worse than others.  Don’t we want that for all our children? Spouses?  Parents? And just like with any other subject, additional perspectives can only add to understanding which is why it is important to me that my girls are able to discuss the material with me, uncomfortable or not.

If you haven’t heard about One Billion Rising yet, here is the blurb from their website that gives you a little information about what they have planned for today.

Today, on the planet, a billion women – one of every three women on the planet – will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, and friends violated. V-Day REFUSES to stand by as more than a billion women experience violence.

On February 14th, 2013, V-Day’s 15th Anniversary, we are inviting one billion women and those who love them to walk out, DANCE, RISE UP, AND DEMAND an end to this violence. One Billion Rising is a promise that we will rise up with women and men worldwide to say, “Enough! The violence ends now.”

 There are flash mobs and dance groups all over the planet joining the event to raise awareness and add their voices (and dance moves) to the growing group of people calling for an end to violence against women and girls. 

I am inspired and happy to know that, in my lifetime, the volume has been turned up. There is some heat under this skillet and the energy is fairly popping.  There are petitions being circulated to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in Congress. There are media outlets committed to highlighting horrific acts of violence against women as well as consistently investigating and reporting on issues such as wage disparity and discrimination against women with regard to their access to health care.  

But mostly I am encouraged by the young girls I see every day.  

I am not naive enough to believe that flash mobs and petitions will serve to change the deeply rooted, firmly held beliefs of many (men and women) that women and girls are less than. Weaker of mind and body. Deserving of fewer opportunities. There are cultures, countries, and entire religious communities that embrace the notion that women and girls are rightfully subservient to men and their desires.  

Last night I witnessed, yet again, a phenomenon that pours a bucket of ice water over that idea.  Lola’s fifth grade class spent two hours presenting scientific data and original art work to a room full of family and community members.  These ten-year old girls have spent countless hours exploring the natural habitat of fresh water and marine animals in our region. They have sailed the Puget Sound taking water samples and analyzing the data, stood in the pouring rain in their rubber boots to see salmon spawning and engaged in research that culminated in the preparation of Power Point presentations that were clear, concise, engaging and humorous.  

One group of girls was charged with learning about and presenting information on the Phylum Porifera, a group of organisms most of us know as sea sponges.  These creatures have no limbs, eyes, mouths or nostrils. They have no nerves to speak of and cannot move from one place to another.  And yet, these three girls dove headfirst in to exploring how they eat and reproduce, what their body structure is composed of, how they are affected by changes in their habitat and why they are important enough that we should care about them.  This is no SpongeBob Squarepants with all his attendant quirky personality. These are, by all rights, pretty invisible and boring creatures. And yet these girls talked about them with enthusiasm and knowledge.  Their portion of the evening was just as interesting as the talk on octopi and crabs.  Each of the girls knew enough about their respective phyla to stand and answer questions from the audience with poise and confidence.  

These girls are turning the tide.  They are encouraged to take up the mantle of learning and sharing their knowledge and they do it with gusto. They work in pairs and small groups to accomplish work that is challenging and frustrating and find reward in a job well done. 

Each group of girls made a mosaic of cut glass that represented one of the species in the phylum they were charged with.  There were multiple steps to the creations of these art projects and they took weeks to complete.  And yet, when asked if it was difficult to work together, they agreed that there were some creative differences along the way, but the conversation was then re-directed to the outcome. The pride they all had in their ability to work through challenges like that and create something they all had a stake in.  

It is occasions like this that encourage me more than anything else I see going on.  It is nights like that where I am reminded that investing time and energy in young women and girls to develop their own innate talents and ideas will reap benefits beyond measure. They will not simply dance in defiance. They will refuse to be subjugated because they know that they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They will have been steeped in possibility and opportunity and grace and it will not occur to them that they are any less than anyone else.  While I appreciate the importance of events such as One Billion Rising, I am made most hopeful by these girls who are cultivating open minds and open hearts and who will rise to one day become the leaders of the world.  

I am so grateful for my local public library! I have discovered so many amazing books simply by walking in empty-handed and perusing the shelves set up to highlight particular books.  I don’t know the formula the librarians use to decide which books to set out at what time (except for the obvious holiday-related ones), but I’m incredibly glad for the ones I’ve found throughout the years.

The remarkable book I discovered by ‘chance’ this summer was Walking After Midnight by Katy Hutchison.  It is the story of a journey that began with her husband’s murder one New Year’s Eve and her path to forgiveness.  It is so much more than that, but I won’t reveal more here because I would like to encourage you to read it yourself.  I will tell you that she and her husband’s killer have since forged a relationship that enriches the lives of people everywhere.  Their work focuses on the concept of restorative justice, defined on Wikipedia as

an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, “to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service”.[2]Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs. In addition, it provides help for the offender in order to avoid future offences. It is based on a theory of justice that considers crime and wrongdoing to be an offence against an individual or community, rather than the state.[3] Restorative justice that fosters dialogue between victim and offender shows the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability.[4]

Together, the two of them travel around the world telling their story and revealing how their lives were impacted by this notion of repair and restoration as opposed to strictly punishment.

I was struck by one part of the book in particular where Katy talks about several schools who have instituted restorative justice programs as a way to address bullying.  Bullying has been highlighted as a serious societal problem in the last few years and, as a result, many schools have declared so-called “Zero Tolerance” programs, meaning that punishment for bullying is swift and severe.  I was intrigued by the notion that other schools have chosen to bring the victim and the perpetrator together in a facilitated discussion to resolve issues and use these incidents as teaching moments.  Having worked at a school for several years, I have seen kids who were labeled as bullies or troublemakers and expelled or asked to leave the school.  On more than one occasion, our school received one of those children.  I often wondered what a simple change of venue was supposed to accomplish for these kids and how difficult it must be to remove that label once applied.

After finishing the book, I did a little more sleuthing and discovered this website.  Dr. Tom Cavanagh writes about a “culture of care” in schools, offers training for educators and parents in restorative justice, and critically reviews books on bullying.

We have, blessedly, not been touched by bullying at this point in our girls’ lives, but I love the idea of restorative justice when it comes to nasty disagreements just as much as “bullying.”  I have seen firsthand how much Lola squirms when asked to sit across from Eve and listen to how her bad behavior made her sister feel.  Eve has asked to simply be punished rather than facing her sister, taking responsibility for her behavior, and making things right.  It is incredibly uncomfortable to face the person you have harmed and spend a little time in their shoes, but such a powerful deterrent to further incidents.  For the victim, being heard and acknowledged is often more important than knowing that the person who hurt you is being grounded or suspended or expelled.  For the perpetrator, the emotional distance that is provided by a punishment, no matter how severe, does nothing to help them understand their actions and the natural consequences that stem from them.  And for both parties, the process of restorative justice is an opportunity to grow empathy, compassion, and a sense of community.

Restorative justice in our schools would require more time, energy and training on the part of the school personnel.  Ultimately, though, I feel certain that it would offer more opportunities for growth, dialogue and community within the schools.  Students on both ends feel cared for – their emotional needs met – by restorative justice and isn’t that what we want for our kids? To feel part of something that cares about them? To be in a place where they matter?  Maybe if we start this trend in our schools, this generation will grow up to embrace it in their adult lives, seeking to repair and restore relationships and relying on principles of humanity and forgiveness rather than punishment and revenge.

… at Eve’s middle school. Those words are enough to strike fear (or frustration or boredom or eye-rolling) into most adults I know. One friend, confiding to me that she wasn’t going to her daughter’s Curriculum Night, explained that it is essentially an open house where the parents travel from room to room, following the path that their child takes during the day. Not much time for in-depth conversations with teachers or parents of other students. Not all that illuminating.

So why did I bend over backwards to go? Because Eve’s school is different than any other school I’ve ever encountered. For examples of how, you can read this which has two other examples embedded within it. Suffice it to say that I LOVE THIS SCHOOL. So I was interested in what this year would look like for Eve and I moved Heaven and Earth to make sure I could get there.
And while I fully expected a happy ending, I still managed to be surprised at the depth of the presentation. Eve’s 6th grade team has got it together! They have designed a curriculum that is integrated across all subjects (yes, music, art, physical education, math, humanities and science included) and speaks to the developmental phase that these girls are in right now. They have taken into account the brain research that shows how 11 and 12 year old girls’ brains work, what they are interested in (themselves, mostly), and how best to engage them in the learning process. Each of these instructors stood up and talked about how excited they are about what they are charged with teaching to the girls this year and how important it is that each and every one of the students feels connected and supported and empowered within this community.
Now I understand that cynics’ eyes are rolling at this point. Rhetoric. I’ll believe it when I see it. But let me tell you that I do believe it. Because I’ve seen it. Last Thursday, the entire class embarked on a camping trip that was designed for team building. The girls did a ROPES course, rock climbed, and challenged each other and themselves physically, emotionally and mentally, sharing information about their hopes and fears for this school year. Last year, the 5th graders in Eve’s class did similar exercises and came together so solidly as a group that when spring basketball signups rolled around, despite the fact that only two of the girls in the class had ever played basketball before, nearly the entire class went out for the team. Despite the fact that they looked more like the Harlem Globetrotters after a couple of bottles of tequila out there on the court, nobody worried about looking silly. They were simply a group of girls having fun playing together. As. A. Team. Let me repeat that: 5th-grade girls not worried about other girls making fun of them for looking silly. Because they trusted each other.
This school year is designed to be all about the girls. Because they are all about themselves right now. The first third of the year is spent exploring how they got to this point. In Art, they are looking at aboriginal art, basic techniques and building blocks. The Humanities teacher has them reading the book “Nation” by Terry Pratchett in an effort to get them to understand society-building. The Music teacher is exploring rhythm and the Science teacher has them building simple machines out of Lego blocks. The Math teacher is making sure everyone has basic skills in mathematical operations and the PE teacher is helping them tell their own stories, physically and verbally. How did I get here? To this point?
The second third of the year asks “Who am I?” Again, each teacher has his or her own way of exploring that question with the girls. For example, the girls will be sketching self-portraits in Art and breaking down the human body into operational systems (digestion, circulation, etc.) in Science.
The last portion of their studies focuses on development. Where are we going from here? They will all work together toward the end of the year for their final culmination ceremony which is a three day bike ride and camping trip on a nearby island. They will push themselves farther emotionally and physically than they ever thought they could, all while using simple machines (bicycles), examining this tribe they have created over the past nine months, and feeling supported.
I caught up with one new parent on our way out last night and she turned to me and exclaimed, “The teachers are all so dynamic! So different from my middle school experience. I wish I could go back to school like this!” I couldn’t agree more. I wish every child had the opportunity to be a part of an educational experience like this. I love that Eve’s school supports a diverse array of families through scholarships and opens up to kids who wouldn’t otherwise get this opportunity, but it still isn’t enough. Until we as a society begin demanding this kind of thoughtful, deliberate approach to education, involving the teachers in curriculum creation that excites them and empowers them and giving them the flexibility to utilize things like brain research and outside-the-box thinking, most kids won’t ever experience this kind of education. I feel pretty damn lucky that Eve and Lola will and I can only hope that they will find a way to work toward making sure more kids get it, too.

Eve is a stubborn girl. Has been from the moment she was conceived, I’m certain. And yet, she is loathsome of conflict and confrontation. As a toddler, she didn’t like to be touched or hugged by those other two-year-olds who long for physical contact. You know – the ones who hug every other kid they see? Eve hated that and would often see them coming a mile away and make her way to me as fast as her chubby, drunken little legs could carry her to hide behind my legs in fear. She had one friend in particular – her dearest, most cherished friend – who was very physical. And from time to time, as kids of that age are prone to, they would both covet the same toy. Miss Flower would see Eve playing with something she wanted and head on over. Eve, anticipating the conflict, would close her eyes, stretch her arm out in Miss Flower’s direction and turn her head away in mute acceptance. You want what I’ve got and it’s just not worth it to me to fight for it. Here, take it.

Now, that’s not to say that Eve can’t put up a fight if there’s something she wants. But if something isn’t going her way in a social situation, it is pretty rare for her to speak up. I’m trying to change that.
A few weeks ago I had coffee with a friend who was talking about her distaste for confrontation of any kind. She described a housemate who never does her own dishes and, while it was clear that it makes her crazy, she doesn’t feel that it is worth it to have the difficult conversation it would take to change the situation. So she goes on doing this person’s dishes and fuming about it, looking forward to the day when her housemate moves out. Since then, I’ve been noticing so many other instances like this in the lives of people around me.
Why are we all so afraid of conflict?
There are times when we all just lose our ability to contain our frustration and an argument or nasty fight ensues. But how often could those major issues have been avoided if we had spoken up sooner?
As a child of the 70s, I was taught not to make waves. Be polite. Accept what you’re given. If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your trap shut. Don’t hurt anyone else’s feelings. I took it all to heart. It got me into a lot of trouble. I found myself in places I ought not to be, in relationships with people I didn’t want to be with, all because I was too shy or fearful to speak up. And I wonder, looking at both sides of the equation, if I didn’t do more harm than good.
A few weeks ago, Eve was having trouble sleeping. She had been working hard on her final project for school and was stressed that she wouldn’t be able to finish in time. She tiptoed downstairs when she should have been fast asleep to snuggle in my lap and tell me that she felt like she was doing more than her share of the work on this project. That some of the others in her group were letting her take all the responsibility and it was weighing heavily on her shoulders. She agreed to talk to her teacher about it if I came with her. And, to her credit, she did. In front of the other members of her group. Not in a mean, spiteful way that accused others. Not with tears or whining. She simply said that she felt overwhelmed with the amount of work she was doing and wanted the others to pitch in some more. A few of the other girls acknowledged that they were letting Eve do most of the work and the teacher agreed to sit down with them and outline equal responsibilities for the remainder of the work.
Last week, after the girls presented their final project to their peers and family members, I pulled the teacher aside and thanked her. Since that discussion, Eve had not said a word about the issue, and had clearly been able to relax and complete the project without further anxiety. I was thrilled that the girls had been able to have this conversation without anger or hurt feelings.
“I think Eve learned a little something about herself, too,” her teacher confided. “One of the girls spoke up to say that the reason they let her take over was because she seems to want to be in control. She is vocal, has good ideas, and volunteers to take on a lot of responsibility. When confronted with that, Eve responded that she feels panicky if she isn’t in control and we were able to talk about how she can deal with that without it becoming a problem.”
Hmmm. That apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe with examples of frank, honest discourse like this under her belt, Eve will begin to get more comfortable with confronting difficult issues. My suspicion is that, had she let this simmer a bit, she would have ended up feeling resentful and angry with her group members instead of relieved that the problem had a good resolution. In the end, the girls did some amazing work and Eve was able to articulate out loud her need to be in control.
I know that it was hard for her to talk to her teacher and her group members. I imagine her heart was racing and her palms were sweaty. But, for all of them, this was the best possible outcome, and I hope that the lesson here is that sometimes you’ve gotta make a few waves to rinse some of the junk off.