“There is no one student who is similar to the other. And no one student behaves the same everyday,” so she said to me.
I cannot agree more! Picture being in any classroom of Students with Special Needs. Whatever special need you can think of: Autistic Support, Post-Hospitalization, Life Skills, Early Intervention or Multiple Disability Support. Or so you may believe! Turns out, that is not always the case.
Even when a class is categorically labelled as “Autistic Support”, the students come in “Different Shades of Special Needs”. Each with own disability, no uniformity, and with varying needs that a class teacher who has not one, but possibly eight or ten students is expected to ably manage every single day. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any one of the children will display consistent behavior and attitude on every other day, or throughout a single day. Happy in the morning, sad by mid-morning, and erratic, violence and explosive in the afternoon. Happy one minute, crying the next, then bouts of laughter!
I, for one, had no clue what “Austin support” entailed before I ventured into a classroom of elementary autistic support students. I imagined that they are similar to students with Multiple Disabilities, till I found out about a special category called – Multiple Disability Support (MDS). Still, I wanted to experience dealing with and teaching autistic children. My fears and initial reservations were not in vain! Challenging, scary, traumatizing and soul searching, are among the many thoughts that come to my mind reflecting on my experience in two separate classrooms of K-4th grade students with autism.
No! The kids did not throw stones at their teachers, although they were capable of hurting with the same zeal as they were loving in the same instant. Like any other humans, they hurt the people they love and care for! They pinched, scratched and punched their teachers, then smiled and asked for special favors with barefaced shame. They screamed, cried and ignored authority, but expecting the teachers’ attention and kind heart to give in to their demands.
In one classroom, I experienced different shades of autistic children. One boy scratched me (and other teachers) several times with his blackened nails. Yet, he obeyed when told to sit down on the ‘calming chair’, until he was asked to stand. When he was asked to eat, or when the TV showed scenes he did not like, he yelled. He became distraught, restless and cried repeatedly when he saw school buses pulling up in the parking lot an hour before official close of school. To calm him down, we told him to put to put on his jacket and prepare to go home, or just ignored him.
Then this kid with a beautiful smile, picked up his mess whenever he was told, and agreed to sit down but after persistent reminders and supervision. Yet, every after lunch, he became erratic, rolled himself on the floor, took off his pants and underwear, put his hand in his pants, threw books off the shelves, ripped the classroom apart, spewed out plenty of obscenity and stormed out of the classroom, running and screaming down the hallways. A minute later, he was a calm lovely boy, apologized for his nastiness, and said he wanted to see mommy! Another kid, generally calm and obedient, responded to instructions quickly, did great one-on-one class activities, and excelled in his academics. Except when he was not engaged in classwork, and every after lunch, he was unsettled.
The room teachers did a great job managing their classrooms and responding to the needs of their students, especially in comparison to: a) my prior experience in other special needs classrooms; and b) with the insurmountable challenges they had to deal with. Only two teachers, one permanent and her Associate – for eight autistic students! Yet, they used various activities and techniques to engage their students in learning as much as possible, as a group and one-on-one at individualized level. They taught their students to work for special privileges, counseled them when they were acting up, and rewarded them for good behavior. Still, that did not deter the explosive students from going off, or the cool ones from staying calm.
I wonder if after the experiences, thus far, my expectations of transformative teaching are dwindling following my in-class observations and interaction with the teachers and students?
I know for sure that each student is different from another, and from each time of the day. For many kids, adjusting their program to half-day and returning home in the early afternoon, might be helpful for both the kids and the teachers. After all, many are restless after lunch and hard to keep interested or attentive within the same classroom environment, even when teacher substitutes rigorous academics with age-appropriate infotainment, TV programs, internet videos, iPad and hands-on learning. For some kids, their medication seems to wane down by lunchtime, making them more agitated and uncomfortable for the rest of the afternoon.
Beside the dire need for human resource enhancement for classrooms with autistic children, introducing half-day programs for some kids might be. They could return home after lunch to their parents, breaking the monotony of staying for a longtime in one physical, human and learning space. With additional human resource, the teachers would afford to split roles, and take the kids with capacity to participate in mainstream classroom special activities.
Or more exercise and stretch routines should be added into the classroom schedule, to reduce the length of disposable time. Plus, a little one-on-one massage might also do the magic. Though, it is a heavy task engaging students one-on-one, given all the work required of the teachers in a day to fill out daily paperwork on each students, plan the next day, clean up, cater to students with extra-special care needs, and prepare student for pick-up or drop-off at the end of the day. Sustaining transformative learning is a challenge without parental cooperation and participation of parents in reinforcing the skills learned and taught at school.
How does a teacher manage a student with special needs?
How does a teacher stabilize student with emotional and behavioral needs?
How does a teacher nurture a centered-focus for a student with attention difficulties?
How does a teacher manage a classroom of student with behavior, reading, physical, attention and life challenges?
I bet you will say all that is covered in the Teacher Training curriculum for Special Education. After all, teacher training seeks to produce a whole person, who can manage a classroom environment with all its multifaceted complicatedness. There are smart and dull students, calm and restless, slow and fast, participatory and inactive, distracted and attentive, young and not so young. Not to forget that twenty-first century classrooms are multinational, multiabilties, multi-sexual, multi-origin and multi-races, multi-everything. Everything goes, everything is expected, and everything is planned for.
Moreover, today more than ever before, the topic of Special Needs Education for Students with Disabilities has been mainstreamed into the classroom environment. Gone are the days when children who acted and looked “different” were hospitalized or restrained in mental asylums, deemed dangerous on a ‘regular’ school campus. While it is still true that in many parts of the world, schooling opportunities for students with special needs, separately or as part of the ‘regular’ school environment barely exist.
Here in the United States, special academies are set up to cater for students with special needs, staffed with teachers trained in Special Ed. Even the seemingly most challenging behavioral students now have a place in the main school education system. If not at designated academy, special classrooms exist within the regular school complex for the education of students with autistic needs, life skills, emotional and behavioral needs, post-hospitalization, as well as early intervention. The focus is not always on academic excellence, in programs such as post-hospitalization, but could range for therapy to behavioral transformation and emotional stabilization. As a parent, I applaud and cherish the availability of such opportunities for students who would otherwise be excluded from the pipeline of ‘a ‘regular’ schooling system. High accolades for those selfless souls called Special Ed teachers and their associates, who have agreed to partake on the insurmountable task of ‘baby-sitting’ big kids.
Though, one wonders who takes cares of the special needs of Teachers for Special Needs students? Who provides personal support to Special Education Teachers? Does the curriculum include a “how-to” training on protecting oneself as a teacher for special needs students, if attacked [repeatedly] by own special needs students? My experience in a couple of elementary, intermediate and high school special needs classrooms exposes the complexities, challenges and dangerous everyday work environment a teacher for special needs students.
I am not trained in “Special Education”, and only recently began experiencing “teaching in an American K-12 environment”. My experience is in teaching at US colleges and universities. As I have said before, never had I ever imagined willingly stepping into a classroom environment for young learners. All this changed since I had my own “young learner”, and the rest is history. I decided to experience the classroom environment to gain practical experience, exposure and understanding of what goes on in the children’s classroom, how they learn, how they interact with the learning tools, with their teachers and peers and respond to teaching and learning aides exposed to them. Particularly because I did not attend elementary education in the United States, it made sense to me to learn how my son is learning in order to better assist him with his school projects and home assignments. Beside, I am from a family or teachers, and a devoted teacher, myself!
My experience thus far, has got me scared, and in some incidences traumatized for the teachers in K-12 classrooms, especially those dealing with special needs students. I have wondered several times, at what point do students decide it is ok to beat up, scratch, curse, swear, talk back violently at their teachers! Engaging in behaviors not identified with the everyday home environment, or so I think? How can children throw tantrums that are so violent and compromise the safety of their fellow classmates, most especially for the teachers? How do these students becomes so selfish not to imagine that their erratic, aggressive and unsocial attitudes, characters and behaviors are not acceptable in public and toward any adult?
Of course, I have also taught myself OR learned, not to take what I see or experience from such students personal. I have been disrespected by 8-15 year-old students, while working one-on-one with them on their classroom assignment and during private coaching homework. Some have rudely told me off [and I obeyed] to get out of their face. “Why are you standing here looking over me? Go find someone else to help,” a 15 year old academy student ordered me. I have been scratched, beat and cursed by young learners for the crime of insisting on getting them to sit down, focus on their classwork, pick up after themselves or undertake their assignments.
While we as parents can [sometimes] raise our voices toward our children and spank them, this experience has vividly taught me, that is not a luxury available to a Special Ed/Needs Teacher. S/he has to suck up to being beat, kicked, screamed at and violated by young learners, utilizing only officially sanctioned soft interventions to calm the erratic students, however ineffective. Or as I have learned from Special Ed teachers, wear gloves, leather jackets or long sleeved shirts to protect yourself from bodily scratches from your students, and face mask to keep yourself safe of germs when your students deliberately cough in your face.
It is an absolutely traumatizing experience, feeling trapped amidst a group of 10 eight to 15 year-old students, where the ‘wise’ decision a teacher can make is, walk around on eggshells with such trepidation that s/he could get beat up anytime by her/his students, who are protected by claims of ‘partial’ or ‘full-insanity’. Sadly, as parents, we are not doing much to support the teachers efforts of educating and nurturing their children into better students. Instead, we pile all our failures at parenting our children onto the teachers, sending them to school when we have failed to control them, then subsequently accuse teachers of not doing a great job educating and catering to the special needs of their children! We blame all bad habits that our children develop on the school environment and teachers’ negligence, even when our home environment is very explosive with negative influences on our children.
Perhaps planners, programmers, managers and administrators of education programs for special needs students need to prioritize the special needs of teachers as equally important as those of the students they are enjoined to teach. Special needs teachers need as much emotional, psychological, physical, classroom and social support to ensure they stay excel in their classroom. It is mind boggling to expect two teachers, moreover female, to manage a classroom of eight autistic/post-hospitalization/emotional behavioral students, some emotionally charged and hyper-active behavior, running out of the classrooms and screaming in the hallways! Or expect a teacher to remain aloof to beatings, scratchings everyday, as a reaction from a student getting mad because s/he did not get it his way!
Special Ed teachers, especially ones dealing with emotional/behavioral needs students should be provided reinforcement in terms of security or classroom environments or permission to apply techniques to protect their lives, as well as the lives of other students in the classrooms when dealing with those students who turn violent. Moreover, special ed teachers should be provided with the human resource proportional to the needs of their classrooms to help.
I cannot recall the last time I went to church, so the order of events at my neighborhood celebration of Veterans Day 2014 caught me off guard. Not because I was unaware we were meeting on religious ground – Our Lady of Victoria Roman Catholic Church; I assumed our event would be independent of any church business. I thought we were only using the church grounds out of convenience, and because this year, the Cub Scout Pack, to which my son belongs was running a food drive benefiting the church pantry. Which reminds me of something that I recently learned at our Cub Scout meeting; the Boy Scouts of America is a Christian Organization. Yes! Our little Cubs promise all …”For GOD..” What does this non-religious mom do….?
Anyway, the blessed Father of Our Lady of Victory, our host, spoke at the opening ceremony of our Veterans Day celebration. Thereon, the activity was a Scout-Veterans affair. I attended, as a chaperone to my son, the Tiger Cub Scout. Once we got to venue, we waited for about twenty minutes before start. Most in attendance were members of the Catholic Church, and from within our local community, who appeared n-synch with the whole nine yard of church-dos. It took me back to my early days of elementary school attending Catholic school, where we started every morning with mass at the area Catholic Church, performing routine stand up, sit down, stand, then sit, then stand and sit…
That is not the gist of my writing, dedicated to how celebrating Veterans Day through my son took me to another place of personal revelation. For the first time in my life, I am increasingly proud of belong to a country [oops! did I Michelle O-that😜]. I feel a sense of belonging to a people, a community and a country more than all the years of my life living in my country of origin – Uganda and coming of age in America! Particularly since having my son, I have engaged in more Americansque activities here and abroad, as an American. I recall being in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup [Soccer/Football], and waving the American Flag at the opening of the games, supporting Team US throughout the tournament, even when they were playing another African team, to the [un]pleasant surprise of fellow African spectators!
Back in Uganda, I had an overdose of love, care and attention from my Ugandan people. I felt a higher sense of family more than all my years growing up. Not that I did not know or like my family already, but living with my family together with my son gave me a profound understanding, love and appreciation for my family. They cared for my son like he was their own, and loved him with the same zeal as I love him. They made me comfortable recalling the famous African saying, It takes a village to raise a child.” I thank you family! Yet, I felt that “I am an American” feeling, sometimes, especially perpetuated by my own family and friends, and anyone who met my or my son.
Since coming back to the US, after a short sojourner abroad, I have new-found love and appreciation for this country, discovering more America than the many years I lived here before having my child. I am increasingly “living the American dream”, enhanced through my son born in the Peach-state, and a product of two Africans continental and ‘old diaspora’. I am allowing myself to experience plenty of mainstreamed American holidays and cultural celebrations: My first Halloween experience was when I took my fifteen-month old son on “Trick-or-Treat” in the neighborhood in GA. We did it again last year in our current neighborhood, and twice this year “Trunk-or-Treat” with our Cub Scout Pack, and our with neighborhood family friends. Yes! I buy my son these exorbitantly priced Halloween costumes I would never have thought of before, and dress myself up too, as a superhero or ninja, depending on the theme my child gives me!
I have breached self-set taboos against engaging in religious festivities, becoming “Santa” at Christmas. I do this to allow my son to dream and imagine wild and free, of ‘hardworking mysterious fairies, one who rides deers with elves, and descends down the chimney on brings presents to “kids with good behavior during the year”, and another who rewards kids with $$ for dispensing out their tooth. I tell him not to bother himself that his non-magic-believing muslim cousins say santa and tooth fairy aint real! Yes, I now support Hollywood, taking him to movie theaters.
Participating in Veterans Day celebrations with my son this year gave me a more intrinsic appreciation and a feeling of belonging to a community and a country. I grew up in a country where the patriotism is owned by the generals, the self-avowed ’liberators of the nation’ from previous autocratic regimes. The same generals are still running the country, twenty-eight years and counting! They hold everyone in the country at ransom, to accept their form of national patriotism as sacrosanct, non-derogable and non-contestable. The country is theirs, independence day celebrations are ‘dispensed’ only to those who agree with them, heroes are decided by them, and rewarded on their terms, and national resources are managed and appropriated on their terms.
Our Veterans Day celebration was a community affair, conducted by men and women not identified in overt display of military regalia, except a few that wore their uniforms for the prestige of having served the nation, decorated with lapels of awards/accomplishment. The Catholic Father, retired military and the scouts and girl guides were in charge, with equal participation of ordinary citizens. We were not intimidated into thanking the men and women in military uniform who served our nation. We were not obliged to kiss the feet of generals or shut up to their pronouncements.
Instead, we Pledged Allegiance to the Flag with pride, sang Star-Spangled Banner and America The Beautiful in joy and celebration, and deeply thanked whose people who put themselves in harms way to liberate the nation, protect and uphold the spaces that we enjoy. Beautiful memories filled me about the men and women who bore arms to protect their countries, like my younger brother, who might never get real recognition for daring to put himself in harms way. On my son’s side is Grandpa Mendez and Great Grandpa Samuel Arnold (RIP), and grand-uncle [is that the American word?] Sam, all who served in the US military.
Our Veterans deserve more appreciation and protection. They deserve to return safely and admirably, and never have to lack food, shelter, clothing or paid employment, because they put their lives on the line, believing it is their duty and calling to protect the lives of all Americans!
I am re-experimenting with my mental stamina. I am sure you are surprised that I say, “I am re-testing my mental stamina!” Especially if you know me, since I am always testing oneself. After all, my running routines are always a mental test; going out for five miles, and coming back 20 miles later! Running in single digit temperatures, after a snowstorm and the hottest of summer. Even my family balancing acts are a mental test with the relations involved, the activities I engaged in, the people I am around and my commitment to super-excellence for my son [who, bless his soul!] sometimes I think I am demanding too much of him😘).
Anyway, this experiment, which is now a day old, going on two today is not exactly new in my life. Though it has been a while since I did and kept to it with perfection. That was when my child was a toddler, and I had more flexibility, and more support managing and caring for him. I did not have the daily routine of cooking, cleaning, bathing and caring for me. I had family to support (that time I lived in Uganda). I had people who really cared and supported me, and I could genuinely count on!
Right now, I am the father and mother and grandma and cousin. I am the unassisted and overwhelmed jack-of-all-trade! At a time when my geographical, economic and social spaces are completely weighing down my emotional, mental and physical stability. I am very good at shrugging off visible pains and agony in the public, trying not to hang personal linen out in the public.
For my own sanity, and to spare my son and my family’s name. I use mental health to dissuade myself from going crazy, bitter or tumble into a permanent wreck. I will go on a run to recover from a slump, to clear my mind and break anew. To remove myself from a situation or from peoples causing sadness and grief to me, and to feel good about myself. In sum, I run for fun, to feel wild, free, young, liberated and centered. I consciously avoid self-labeling as “depressed”, to avoid getting trapped into any such a situation. Yet, I cannot stop myself from self-labeling as, “flabby and nasty looking”, if that is how I feel, increasingly more and more.
I went through a]nother] life transformation last year, to live a life [again] for my son. Of course change is not always desirable or positive. Certain change is painful!, extremely painful! Particularly, one that causes loss of all safety-nets, and increases chances of dependence, vulnerability and shame. Story of my life. So, for the last year, I have transfigured, stuck in the mud and tasted lots of bitter tomatoes. All that packaged in a “nutty professor suit”, and increasingly weighing me down and under! I am trying to get myself out of the ditch, using my very best adornment – mental willpower. Hopefully, I will succeed in fighting off all the temptations.
Yesterday, Tuesday, October 28 was the first full day of the beginning of a re-experimenting on myself. Mission accomplished! I did not feel any special cravings or uncontrollable desires, surprisingly! And yes, I had to run my childcare shift: pick up from school bus, to Taekwon-do/Taekwondo class, then back home. I felt quite weak and tired throughout the day, but did not have the opportunity to take a nap. Yes! I also dosed off while typing up these notes, and fell asleep again in Taekwondo class. Good thing, I woke up in time to drive back home. Did good on that.
Homework had to be done, and dinner prepared. Too low on sugar, but mission accomplished. I literally could not stand anything or anyone. But drank water and stayed the course. Hopefully, this is doable for many more days! I wanna try 20, couple of many days. We’ll see how it goes. Otherwise, Day Two (Wednesday, October 29) is going much better. I am still going on #Teamu20days challenge.
Very often we hear these ‘words of the wise’: “Study hard and you will do good in life.”
But is it just cliché? After all, not all of us turn out the way we expect or proportional to the zeal and enthusiasm we put into our education. We have heard stories of the most intelligent and highly achieving academics turning to self-destruction, sometimes with fatal ending.
My father’s brother, a man with high intelligence and academic standing, received scholarships to the most prestigious world universities, earning a Bachelor’s Degree from University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon return to Uganda, he failed to ‘find himself’ amidst friends he left behind. Plenty with less of the education him were doing extremely well in life, with thriving families and children. Meanwhile, the wife he left behind had married another man, whom she brought into their marital home, forcing my uncle to find a one-bedroom rental somewhere in the city. With a failed marriage, and social reintegration, his sorrows sent him into alcohol to seek consolation when he was not teaching. Moreover, he often showed up to teach drunk, until that fateful day when he was fatally hit by a speeding motorist while crossing the road drunk. Similar story about my friend’s dad! Highly education, as well, with degrees from prestigious western universities, but he too succumbed to HIV/AIDS, after miserably failing to reintegrate, a broken heart and womanizing.
Yet the most high-profile case is one about our 44th President’s father. Educated at the University of Hawaii via a prestigious African American Scholarship to very promising and outstanding students from his country, and at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He later return to his Kenya and worked as a senior government economist. But frustration with his country’s national politics and drinking destroyed his professional career, driving him into a motor accidents that later claimed his life.
So, how long can we keep telling our children and learners that studying hard will yield bright futures for them? Is the glass half full, with some unfinished business that we need to add to the conversation? How well do we know the intrinsic struggles of our highly intelligent and academic superachiever personalities do we know? I suggest that perhaps, we should add the value of role models, as an additional ingredient to enrich their education experience and post-graduation success for our learners/schoolers.
It is not enough to strive for an elite education, good grades and six figure job with a highly-rated professional institution. True some people succeed in following the ‘perfect logical route’: Go to the best elementary schools; enroll in after-school programs, reinforcement classes or prep school; graduate valedictorian from high school or close to the top of their class; score high on SATs; get into the best colleges; land prestigious summer internships between study and summer abroad escapades; graduate from college and scoop job placements among the best of corporate and nonprofit America; and earn six figure salaries.
Still, their success does not come from individual effort per se, nor is it always the ultimate indicator of happiness. After all, “Happiness Research” reminds us that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, does not imply bondage in unfulfilling, underachieving and hyper-exhausting six-figure jobs. Instead, happiness correlates greatly with achievement, the thrill of creativity and discovery, and the reward and comfort from pursuing own goals and initiatives. Happiness Research also point to the role family, faith and community contribute.
Many high career achievers are guided by the successes, expectations, visions, actions and profiles of their role models, often families, guardians, friends or community, whom they seek to emulate and please. Little wonder that children of doctors often grow up to pursue medicine, children of lawyers go to law school, architects breed architects, actors make actors, models, professors, and humanitarians. Not that some apples do not end up falling far from the tree, but plenty of good/successful apples fall close to the tree.
Like anything else, there are exceptions, such as children from homeless shelters, foster homes, farmworkers and first generation college-bound, making it to Harvard. Yet, their journey is not always the same as those with parental/community role models as doctors. Their role model might be their working class parent who have never set foot into an elite classroom or attained a college degree, who struggled to beg for a $1 on the streets to buy a burger meal every night or their farm worker parent or factory production or mining dad who worked unorthodox hours just to meet ends half-way.
So, what happens when they make it to Harvard but fail to ‘fit-in’ because the new environment is far from relatable to them? Or because they cannot find anybody from their background, anyone with shared life trajectory? Or, when their new elite circles have no room for the Association of kids who grew up in a homeless shelter or the Association of kids from the projects or The weird kids alliance? The office of student career services has no support for their type, and the African Students Group is not “Africanist enough?
The feeling of being an ‘outsider’ in one’s geographical spaces, contesting and re-creating ’normality’, resisting silence, has the potential of causing career apathy. Even an upbeat scholar may sometimes doubt the value and relevance of their career pursuits, increasingly feeling no satisfaction from the ‘mainstream’ line of engagement. Resultantly, a migration of career pursuits might happen, dictated partly by disappointment from not achieving one’s career target, while all along ignoring opportunities presented but not of one’s liking. In a twist, taking on anything to offset one’s responsibilities and obligations that come with pursuing an expensive education without own or family resources to buy it.
Ultimately, the lack of strong professional and personal support, and absence of satisfactory advice and mentorship, often hinders one’s ability to stay upbeat and invested in activities that do not offer happiness. Including, among well-mentored children,with ‘shinning’ role models to look up to but perhaps not ’strategically aligned’ to their interests. Now that I am a parent, I worry if all my effort teaching, educating, engaging with, my son, and engaging him in activities to hopefully advance his learning and social interaction will not mean a thing in his future! Not because there is no value in shaping our children’s destiny, but perhaps once again, it is not so much about working so hard and obtaining good grades, but working strategically.
This past Monday, October 13, 2014, was Columbus Day, when America remembers Christopher Columbus. So, my first grader and I engaged in a learning session about why every second Monday of October is a [Columbus Day] public holiday, when government business and public schools in the fifty states take a day off. I told him that on October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed in a boat across the Atlantic from Europe, to find out about the Americas. According to official pronouncements, Columbus’ voyage instigated European settlement in the Americas. I showed him the world map on my computer, and together, we located the Americas – North and South. I asked him to point to North America, the United States and Pennsylvania where we live, which he ably located with much success and delight. I also showed him the European continent and Italy, where Columbus originated, and the big Atlantic Ocean that he crossed to come to America. I explained to him that after Columbus, many more Europeans followed to settle in America.
Yet at the back of my mind, I knew this story of Columbus Day is circulated with varying degrees of truths, controversy and contestation. So, how does one teach children about Columbus Day in an era of contested knowledge and truth formation?
Here are some versions of the “Christopher Columbus Discovery story”. The mainstream hails Columbus for ‘discovering the new world’ also known as the Americas, including North America and the United States of America where we reside. This version credits the arrival of Columbus to the official beginning of European colonialism and exploration of the America. As well as paving way for European exploitation of the Americas, the extermination of pre-existing indigenous populations commonly referred to as “Native America”, disenfranchisement of their property and land, and pushing many into reservations.
Some contest the use of ‘discovering’, arguably because it wrongly assumes there were no people living in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. Another view emphasizes that Columbus was not the first European explorer to arrive in the America; many more had come before him, but possibly never settled permanently or actively sought to colonize the Americas.
Yet, the most under-asserted version of the ‘discovery story’ profiles the arrival of Africans and black people before Christopher Columbus set foot in the Americas. Black people from present-day Africa sailed across the Atlantic as far back as 445 BC, and during the 19th century (1292 BC), engaging in trade, contributing greatly mathematical scholarship, writing, the calendar, shaping the political and religious systems, and the architectural structures of the Americas by importing their pyramid technology from Egypt. Indeed Columbus’ own writing cited by renowned American historian and linguist, Leo Weiner of Harvard University, acknowledged the pre-existence of the ‘black-skinned peoples’ in the Americas, arriving in boats in the South East to trade in gold-tipped spears. The story about the existence of black-skinned peoples in the Americas prior to Columbus seeks to refute the prevailing privileged knowledge that black presence in the Americas started with the Atlantic Slave Trade post-Columbus.
But this is all a mouthful for my First Grader! While I seek to ‘emancipate’ his learning, knowledge formation and creation, I strive to make it as simple and appropriate for his developmental stage. Here I am assuming I really know his developmental stage, although sometimes he speaks and acts way much wiser than I can fathom!
For our learning about Columbus Day, I told him how Christopher Columbus’ settlement in the Americas opened up mass migrations from Europe into the Americas, and later from other parts around the globe. Thousands of years after Columbus, I, like many Africans migrated to live in America, changing the peoples of America. United States now has people from all over the world, including Uganda, my country of origin.
While learning about Columbus Day, I showed my first grader google images of Native Americans, and asked him if he had ever seen such people – the most prominent images featured people with piercings and sticks through their mouth, nose and ear, wearing different kind of colorful clothing and some half-naked. He said he had never seen any such people! And yes! This from a child who spent the last three years and a half living around Africa [goes to tell, not all Africans are the stereotypical “Masaai, Karamojong or San” popular on many postcards and TV documentaries popular in the United States!] I explained that the reason he does not see such Americans very often is because when Christopher Columbus arrived in America, they were pushed into reservations and forced to change their clothing, culture, language and look. They were forced to speak English and other Europeans languages, dress and behave like Europeans.
I also showed my First Grader pictures of ‘The New Americans” dressed in business suits, swimsuits, shorts, jeans, t-shirts and baseball hats, and asked him if he had seen that kind of America? Yes to all, except to my surprise, not the ones dressed in business suits, not even at his school! Then he said that he had seen Captain America before, one of images on the page we googled. His focus diverted to Captain America, and he inquired more about why Columbus not Captain America saved America? I had to tell him Captain America is a fictional character, developed to allow kids and adult dream big, wild, and to entertain. We spent sometime on CA and other fictional characters.
Then he asked me why Columbus did not walk from Europe or take a plane? I told him that one cannot walk across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, and planes were not invented then. Beside, Europe is too far and would take many days to walk. We recalled our return journey from Uganda to America that took several days, stopping over in Scotland, then England, until we finally crossed to Atlanta by plane.
Talking about Scotland, we saw a picture of Scots wearing Scottish skirts, then he asked me why men wear skirts? I explained that just like women wear pants, men can wear skirts. I showed him pictures of men wear mandresses, shuka/sheets, long skirts, jeans and shorts.
“Do men dance ballet? That’s weird!” he asked upon seeing a picture of male ballet dancer. “Yes bebe, men can things women do, just like women can do things men do.” I told him there is no dance that men can dance that women cannot dance. Similarly men and women drive cars, cook, and fly a plane. Then he recalled, “In my Karate class, there are girls and boys. We all do the same things!”
Mission accomplished! Lesson learned in a very relatable style! 😀💪🙌 At the end of it all, I was proud that we had achieved the goal of the lesson: “To diversify my First Grader’s classroom learning, beyond the usual subjects of English, Maths, Science, by including current affairs, history and important national events. We learned about the world and the different peoples, different cultures, and different activities that exist. I stimulated his curiosity to seek new knowledge, and emancipated his brain to see things differently, create meaning and relate the learning to his own experiences. I let him wander off to different topics, then bring back the conversation to why school was on holiday on a Monday, which according to him is a school day.
As a global citizen, it is very important to me that my son learns beyond the little ‘country world’ in which he rotates. Most importantly, as a very open-mind person, dedicated to “love for humanity first”, I want my son to know the different peoples and experience that shape our world, controversial or not, real or make-believe. I want to allow him better prepare for a world beyond his childhood experiences and imagination. Whenever he brings me knowledge I had not introduced to him yet, like the time he asked whether, “A child can have two fathers but no mother?” as Adam [his classmates] told him, I bounce the question back to him. “What do you think?”Then we handle it according to his responses.
While I am pretty much open and tolerant, I am also conscious of the world we live in. I do not want to shape his mind with hard facts about things I do not believe or care for. I will neither knight Christopher Columbus as a “savior” nor malign him as a terrible man. I will openly explore his question whether a child can have a two fathers or two mothers, similar to how we speak about living with a single parent. And yes, he is allowed to continue thinking of mommy as chocolate, others as dark chocolate, and himself as white!
Today is Monday, October 13, 2014. It’s been thirteen days since I last logged onto my Facebook page. That means I have not been on FB since the beginning of this month of October!
Yes! I bet you cannot believe me. Especially if you know my ‘Facebook addition’. You have probably been thinking that I was earning ‘Zuckerbergers’, given my indefatigable dedication to FB. Or that I earn my living via FB social networking. Maybe you were convinced that I cannot hold to myself all the sharing and commenting on posts via friend’s FB pages. I have surprised myself as well that I can live without FB!
Granted, I have not completely ceased all FB social networking. After all, my tweets, Instagram[s] and Pins [from Pinterest] are automatically linked to my FB account. Truth be told, I have sometimes ceded to temptation, and responded to a few urgent “Messenger”, all because my FB account is automatically log in on my iPad and iPhone, whether I am active or not. That’s pretty much it, though.
But do not think I am completely keeping out of social interaction. My buddies who need me, know how and here to get hold of me outside FB. Options like voice, email, text, FaceTime, Viber and Hangout still exist outside FB. Please believe me, I have even returned to Skype a couple of times! Though the fact still remains that during these last thirteen days, I have learned that FB is and can be dispensable.
At least to me! I do not always have to suffocate to the addiction. I am stronger than I thought. I do not have to be ‘plugged into’ what’s hot off my global friends’ profiles or timelines, nor be the first to share ‘breaking news’. Yes, I might miss out on who hit the jackpot, moved, got a new hairdo, new wheels, trotted the world, got married, engaged or died. I do not get to see who commented on my posts, who visited my page and left a comment or re-shared my posting. But I am learning that is ok too.
There are plenty more avenues to find news and information and be ‘in-the-know”. I have read lots of newsletters, newspapers, books, watched TV and radio news and read people and twitter feeds. But there is so much one can tolerate or enjoy on these more ‘literate’ platforms, but no comparable match for the amusement readings about other people’s status updates, quarrels or surprise finds. And it all offers great infotainment!
You may be wondering how I am managing to cure my procrastination? Fortunately for me, there is Klondike, whenever I am stuck trying to patch together a thought or sentence. Two or three rounds of this entertaining gamble and poker card game unfreeze my brain. Then I head back to the hustle of my fingers, brain or feet. Lest we forget that Evernote allows me to note my thoughts to self, without having to blast to the world, until I am ready! Then the thought and longing for FB comes haunting me again!
Especially, when I want to share about my son’s fundraiser for his Cub Scout Pack. My largest social network is on FB, as well as my biggest cheerleaders. I have run a couple of fundraisers in the past via FB, reaching friends, family and loved ones across the globe. While they are all connected via other fundraising sites like Go Fund Me, FundRaizr, they all merge at FB.
Perhaps that is my admission that, indeed FB is a global force to reckon with! Bigger than so many alternative social networking platforms. In this case, it is right about time to break my “fb exile” and return to the home that has made me, introduced me to strangers, turned strangers into friends, and into frienemies. Some have exited, been blocked, unfollowed, or re-friendshiped as cordial mature disagreeing parties. East or West, Facebook might be indispensable, but only for a couple of days!
My friend Simon Kaheru (http://skaheru.wordpress.com) recently blogged about “the real value of time vs. the word value of time” following his business trip to Amsterdam in The Netherlands. In Amsterdam, Simon fell in love with the abundance of “the real value of time”, where business meetings start on scheduled time, phone calls happen on time, and trains also run on schedule. A two-minutes train delay would be announced by the rail station attendant! He contrasted that with “the word value of time”, typical within Ugandan society, which largely swears by “Ugandan Time”. He argues that appointments are verbally agree to, with never the intention of honoring them because time is relative, no apologies for tardiness, as one is “better later than never”, is the popular saying!
I feel for all the sentiments Simon expressed! Though my comment to Simon was, “come to America….with plenty of versions of Uganda, especially with public transportation..which is now creeping into some people’s time management skills!
I have had my share of fights with “Ugandan time”: tardiness makes me mad; time keeping makes my heart jump with happiness! I strongly believe that anyone who fails to show up per schedule appointment shows a lack of respect for their party. It is simply rude! I have walked away from meetings venues, when the other party did not show up on time. I once left my sister in the bank without notifying her, after waiting over two hours for my mother to show up to open a family bank account. I refused to return when they called me back.
I get enervated being the first to show up for meetings, or parties or other events, waiting around for thirty-minutes, one hour, three hours, five hours before more people show up and the event to ultimately start. Which is why I loathe formal events, particularly (no offense) organized by peoples of Ugandans, Africans, Blacks or colored! I remember one time while visiting my sister in Atlanta with my ex, she invited us to attend a dinner party with her at a Ugandan friend’s house. The dinner was scheduled to start at eight O’clock in the evening, but by eight, we were still at her house, an hour’s drive to destination. Ten, still at my sister’s house, as she kept picking out what to wear. She assured us that that the party had not began, so at eleven o’clock we set off. True to her word, we arrived past midnight, right about when the party had just started!
Poor time management is beyond “Ugandan time”, it is ‘conveniently’ embedded in several African countries as “African time”, among Blacks people in America as “Black People’s Time” and people of color as “Colored People’s Time” or CPT. Yes, it has even invaded our public service system here in America, where services in some public offices start sluggishly, and buses and trains in many big cities never run on time, including in the fast-and-furious “Big Apple”. Yet, we do not always get a courtesy apology or “announcement of a delay”!
On my part, I must confess that, “the real value of time” keeper was me, some six years ago, a luxury I do not seem capable of affording since becoming a soccer mother. No! I am not going to blame it on my son, but it has a lot to do with him and the society in which I live, into which I am sometimes co-opted.
So, how did I cross to “the word value of time” people? While I not permanent there, I find myself cornered in by friends or my household. Those who know me will tell you that I pretty much run my son’s life on schedule. Dinner is served at six o’clock, then comes bathroom time with reading and brushing, child off to bed at seven o’clock, latest seven-thirty after sharing a bedtime. I would like him to have as much sleep as possible!
Not anymore! My time management skills have changed since I had my child. All his birthday parties have started later than my scheduled time, with guests showing up earlier than the hostess! Until child turned one year, I arrived late at literally every scheduled appointment because he would start popping just as we were getting ready to head out of the house. He had constipation, which meant another fifteen to thirty minutes of helping him push! From the one who always left for the airport two-and-a-half hours in advance, to avoid any mishap, I missed my first flight in life on a trip to South Africa in 2009 with my then fifteen month old child. We got to the airport check-in desk shortly after the baggage desk had closed because I was packing till the last minute; six suitcases, only one of which was mine!
Lately, Simon’s detestation for “the word value of time” comes glaring at me surreal, as I go about my “soccer mom” lifestyle. Child is now six and in first grade with more activities. Going to bed at seven in the evening is increasingly a luxury, with the changing school and after-school demands. I have enrolled him in both Karate class with a three days per week commitment, and in Cub Scout five days a month. Plus, now he has homework to return to school every morning and other class projects. And he still wants to have a snack, when he comes home from school, before he sits down to do his homework, with spare playtime before dinner is served. With our new routine, after-school is: snack in the car, Karate class, dinner in the car, daily homework to be submitted the next day, dinner, bathroom time, bedtime story and goodnight!:(
Amidst all of this, adhering to my sworn commitment to “the real value of time” is a luxury I seem incapable of affording, anymore. I wish I could! Now, I plan on leaving the house not at the hour but between time periods – between 6:00p and 6:30p, leaving a margin of error so that I do not go crazy over myself. A couple of times when I am running late, I have had to call up people I am meeting to apologize and ask for extra time or reschedule. Sometimes even when it seems we are doing great with time, with a projected extra fifteen minutes before our usual time to catch the school bus, we find ourselves running out of the house three minutes to the bus arrival. Thankfully, my son loves running, helping me warm up for my morning run. Sometimes we miss the bus, like happened today, and I have to keep breathing in, to avoid berating child or mourning about missing the bus.
With all the activities lined up each week, I worry that child will get overwhelmed and won’t get enough sleep in the night. Perhaps my consolation is, yes! I still make it on time to most official appointments, to our doctor’s appointments before time, child has not been late to school, and I am getting just about the entire “to-do” list accomplished. Still I think “the real value of time”, as “standard time” for social and business etiquette was created by a man, clueless about “The Surreal Life of a Soccer Mom”.
Recently, I was at an teacher training workshop, where the speaker for a session on “Qualities of a Good Substitute Teacher” mentioned the importance of identifying and connecting one-on-one with pupils in the classroom. In explaining why a teacher should know her students by name, she mentioned Sophie, John, Jane or Matt, as the four names off-the-cuffs in her classroom example.
For me, that triggered something about the ingrained assumptions teachers might make about their students profile. Many of the assumptions reveal conceptions and misconceptions derived from one’s ‘comfort zone’ and surroundings. My assumption is the speaker comes from an ‘environment’ where most children are either Sophie, John, Jane or Matt. Or perhaps her education background was filled with students that fit such profile. That in a way creates an “illusive comfort” that knowing the profile of one’s classroom correlates with being in touch with the needs and special circumstances of each student. Yet, in a classroom environment, each child needs to be acknowledged and catered for/ included to their comfort.
How does a diversity conscious teacher make the classroom experience all inclusive for each one of these children? I asked myself the same question during a visit to the area elementary school. Of the two classrooms I observed: 1) First Grade class had one black kid, a young girl called Hannah; all the other kids were visibly white. 2) A Third Grade all-white classroom. Both classrooms had white teachers, as was the School Principal, and all the school staff I came in contact with.
I am not saying there is anything wrong with an all-white school, if that is the general population around the school district. My concern is whether and how children of other colors in the same school are included in a predominantly-white classroom. Particularly given the potential influence of the preschool experiences and home environment on shaping knowledge formation, knowledge generation, teaching aides and one’s comfort with the teaching and learning environment. In many places, the classroom environment has evolved beyond, S, J, J or M, the typical ‘blonde and blue-eyed’ and Judeo-Christian, thanks to desegregation and immigration of the Abequa, Biko, Horacios, Happy, Ijeomas, Lakisha, Özil and Muhammad into the same classroom. Our classrooms today represent children of varied backgrounds as immigrants, children of immigrants, first generation or generations of American-born or native to this country. They bring varied experiences from their homes, communities and experiences, all of which need to be represented for an enriched classroom experience.
Going back to Hannah, the only black girl in the First Grade classroom I visited. She seemed comfortable with her classroom and classmates, but had another story not visibly captured in the teaching aides and classroom environment I observed. While checking on her writing assignment, she read to me her story about her best friend, “I like playing with my best friend Usnuah!” To me, there was a different story with friendships not represented by SJJM. I wondered if her teachers take time to learn about Hannah’s friends, family and neighbors! Or whether she is offered a chance to share her ‘unique’ family and community background in a predominantly white classroom!
That is not to suggest that all white kids have the same family experience, although their differences [while paramount] are not as visible to the eye as Hannah. Moreover, when we got to engage with “disabilities”, five students with varied developmental disabilities were ‘paraded’ in front of our seminar room, so we could ask questions for ‘our learning pleasure”. Perhaps the intentions were innocent, but the scenario reminded me of times when black people were caricatures of white audiences as, ‘strange’ study subjects, ‘caged entertainers’ [Sarah Baartman aka Venus Hottentot], the “Human Zoo” [most recently replicated in Norway], entrainment at lynching picnics popular in the South. And up until now, through international aid campaigns and hollywood movies that depict “the black victim” awaiting a ‘white savior”. Interestingly as well, our diversity trainer did not find anything controversial with showing a clip from the movie “Blind Side” to make her point about ‘developmental disability.
Which brings me to another topic covered about English Language Learners (ELLs), the now politically correct replacement of “English as a Second Learning”. The change was pre-empted after realizing that while ESL focused predominantly on immigrants and immigrant children, ELL recognized that some US-born children come from households where English is not the first. The basic assumption, as stated during the seminar was that [first-generation/immigrants] children “have difficulty learning not just English but the entire school curriculum.”
Granted there is truth to it, but with misguided assumptions that: 1) Simply because one does not speak English, they therefore, do not understand anything nor have sound knowledge to contribute to their classroom experience. 2) English Language Speakers are conversant with the English Language and do not need enhancement classes, which as a writing coach is not true.
I work with full-blooded American school children, those whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents and beyond were born in America. Yet, it is appalling that they cannot spell a simple word like “Pail” in Third Grade! I have found out that their school did not teach ‘phonics’, which I believe is great language learning tool. Nor are they offered English Language ‘Enhancement Classes’ at the Charter School they attend. Yet with ‘diversity’ more focused on ‘cultural’ and ‘developmental’ differences, such cases are fall out of the cracks of ‘special needs education’.
A diversity conscious teacher should ably pay attention to the non-verbal cues from their students, cater to their different needs, reach out and appeal to them, to make each one of her/his students feel included. Perhaps it starts with diversity training, which recognizes the changing needs of a classroom beyond the ’traditional’ diversities of “black or white” in America. There are multiple layers of diversity including physical or mental abilities, race, sex, geographical origin, family background, household and cultural ancestry. Today, classrooms composition includes children of immigrants, first generation Americans or migrant workers, Native American children, Muslim children, inner-city kids.
Continued and refresher teacher training seminars would be helpful, as well as exposure to varied scenarios that stimulate “diversity awareness” and ultimately “diversity consciousness”. I thought for a minute, during my training, “Wouldn’t it be more powerful if the trainer on “diversity” were a minority? Yes, I am aware that white women in White America are included among the ‘minority groups’, but since the session focused on ‘civil rights’ and ‘disabilities’, a ‘racial minority’ or ‘personal with a disability’ as facilitator would have made a greater visible impact.
Diversity Consciousness would enable teachers and school administrators to understand that, immigrant children and children of immigrant parents might not actively engage in classroom discussions due to deferring cultural learnings about social interaction and authority. Immigrants from countries where authority is hierarchical might not engage as much with their children’s classroom teacher(s) ‘out of respect’ for the teacher or fear of challenging what in their upbringing is an ‘authority figure’ and ‘expert’ in their child[ren] education. I learned from working with Japanese graduate students as a Writing Tutor that it is not in their habit to actively participate in classroom discussions because it is considered rude to challenge ‘seniority’ in Japanese culture. One of my students settled for a lower class grade, even when he knew his response on a classroom test was correct because he did not want to challenge his professor that his response resonated with the experience of his home country. Diversity Consciousness needs starts with the school administration, selection of teacher or substitute teacher trainers, program administrators, school teaching staff and all organs in the school system in daily contact with our children.