Teaching School Children is Blissfully Rewarding!

In many ways, Child of Mine aka COM reminds me a lot about myself. He is a very popular kid, just like his mother was back in her young days. Well, she still is, for a fact [smile]. Except, my child is not the “naughty childish-type” I was. Shhh, don’t tell anyone that I used to skip compulsory school meals and church services, just because I did not want to!

My child is loved! And for that, I am so grateful.

It’s a pleasure watching a kids’ stampede, just to touch, speak, or sit next to COM. Even in his absence, kids tell me how he is the best thing ever invented! Not even sliced bread [or should we say, pizza] comes close. He’s everyone’s favorite, super nicest person, ever! “He does nothing wrong, never” as I was told by one of his former classmate.

At his elementary school, I am now known as “Biko’s Mom” —“because I do not have a name of my own,” or “Mrs. Henderson” —“because I derive my relationship from my child!”

Please believe that I had no influence in getting renamed by these child friends of COM. It is just because, most kids I now know are through my child —at his elementary school, on the school bus, martial arts school, library, birthday parties, community activities or play parks.

These are kids who know COM from the same Kindergarten, First or Second Grade class, belong to the same school Recycling Club, met him at birthday parties of their relatives and friends, through Cub Scout, Tae-Kwon-Do or Tang Soo Do. Some even recognize me from dropping him off at the school bus! They all rave to me, how amazing he is, and spoil me with outpouring attention, and free hugs!

These past couple of days, I’ve been with a Second Grade class where literally, everybody knows my child! One of the kids decided to call me, “Mommy.”

“She’s Biko’s mother!” said another.

Then, they had a change of heart, “Can we all call you Mommy?”

And just like that, I was no longer, “Ms. Lawenger,” but “Mommy!”

The change of name came with showers of favors: ushering me to comfortable sitting, “rest while we complete our work.”

They covered me with my coat to keep me warm; I became the class pet.

Two girls offered to bring him to me from his class at the end of the both school days. I completely forgot he had Recycling Club on Day Two, when I gave them a go-ahead to bring him to me. He came in, confused that I had called him, and went back in haste, “Mommy, I have Recycling Club!”

My day ended with smiles, hugs, spontaneous “Thank You cards,” colored pictures, and unwavering attention throughout the day. One brought a gift bag from home containing an assortment of candy, with a “Thank you for helping us learn and play” note.

 

At the end of day, I told COM about all the love I got, thanks to him, and the many “children I am now mommy to”. He was overjoyed to partake of his celebrity moment! No surprises, his dreams  in the night were loud and filled with laughters, which he told me was because he heard “choruses of mommy,” from the kids my class in his dreams.

 

Ready for more surprises? The next day, as Art Teacher, my first morning class was, “my kids” from the last two days! They all engulfed me in a big family hug, as their teacher looked on in astonishment. She, too, thanked me for a wonderful job! Honored, is an understatement; had to fight back teary eyes!

I love kids, and I love teaching. I am so grateful that I allowed myself to step out of my comfort zone of teaching college and graduated school level, demystifying to myself “Teaching in K-12.” Day by day, I become more comfortable in the classroom, more savvy with teaching aides, more technical following lesson plans, incorporating, or developing my own whenever need arises. I am more energized by the students in my classrooms, and more strategic navigating tough classrooms.

I now know how to command a classroom, dealing with badly behaving students, extending incentives for good behavior, and “putting the shine” on those students making great choices. My students, naughty or nice are as memorable to me, as I am to them.

I meet them at the grocery store or community events, at our local library or COM’s after-school events. Some tell me when they see me running along the streets, during morning or afternoon “bus duty,” or walking in the hallway.

As a friend once told me, “Children Bring you blessings.” Thus, my commitment to share of the blessings of education to children everywhere in the world, by mobilizing as many people to join me in giving a part of ourselves, to promote access to education.

Every change you give can make a change. To you it might be a roundtrip bus or train fare to work; to children somewhere in rural Uganda, it is a dozen of school books and writing materials.

Please join me in giving to the Fishing Communities of Ssi Bukunja in rural Uganda, through the African Social Development & Health Initiative, an organization founded and run by native-born of the area. This is my Birthday Wish and commitment 2016

https://www.crowdrise.com/celebrate-d-lwangas-b-day-with-uganda-fishing-communities

Children bring you blessing. Be Blessed!

Homeroom Teacher Knows Best!

While I pride myself in running an efficient and persistent Mommy School, I have also made peace with the notion that, “Homeroom Teacher Knows Best,” in Child of Mine’s word. No, he has not said that to me directly; he has made me aware, just about each time I labor to teach and work with him on academic learning.

I understand that Child of Mine [who I prefer to call COM] is not unique in his thinking.

My mother says, “What goes around, comes around.”

OR, as I would say, “The apple” and “the tree,” are geographical neighbors.”

Put more crudely, Every dog has its own day!

Karma is, indeed, a female dog!

Very often, while helping out with school assignments, it is not uncommon for COM to tell me, “But my teacher said….” OR “My teacher does…” I have learned not to fight it outright, but try to influence and expand his thinking and conceptualization beyond what and how he learned from his homeroom teacher.

It does not help that I did not obtain my early schooling here in the United States, but in a totally different education system in far-flung places across the big pond. Uganda, my country of origin and a former colony of Her Majesty, imitated the British education system. The formalized national education system was initiated by European missionaries, predominantly British missionaries, later supported by the British colonial government in pre-independence Uganda. Everything, including phonics and phonetics, mathematical problems and sounds, are taught and conceptualized differently from the American education system.

So, I signed up to become a Substitute Teacher in the K-12 school system, to gain a deeper practical insight into the US education system. Hitherto, my teaching experience in the US was limited to college and graduate schools. I had vehemently sworn off teaching “children,” from Pre-K to 12. I was comfortable to appear in such classrooms as a guest parent or guest instructor, but not command an entire classroom as the sole teacher.

That all changed, when COM became of school-going age, and returned to America, after three years living and studying abroad. Well, he still went to school in all three locations we lived: Norway, South Africa and Uganda, and I enthusiastically participated in his learning and academic schooling.

Perhaps not too actively, but I participated in “guest parent programs,” to read to his classmates, fundraised for donation of books and medical instruments, and never missed a parent-teacher conference, or an opportunity to share my opinions on the school curriculum or learning environment.

And just in case he forgets, “All your other teachers come and go, but mommy will always be your main teacher,” so I tell him. Yes, COM has heard me telling him a couple of times, that I was his first teacher, and will always be his most consistent teacher. Evidentially, since we part ways with teachers, whenever he moves geographically, or up another grade.

Moreover, I would like him to accept my engagement in his learning, and understand that schooling does not only belong to “structured classroom buildings”. He now knows that, Mommy School does not close, even on snow days, when there are security concerns in the school district, or on national holidays. Most importantly, Mommy School exists to reinforce what he learns at his general school, and because mommy went through elementary school.

Fortunately, signing up as a Substitute Teacher in the school district has proven strategically empowering to myself, and reassuring to COM. He realizes now that, perhaps mommy knows something about my classroom activities and assignments.

“My mom is a teacher, too,” he often boasts to his homeroom teachers.

I am cautioned, by fellow moms and friends that, he is still at that age, where he is not ashamed of his mommy teaching at his school, hugging mommy in the school lobbies or kissing mommy as he gets on and off the school bus. And I am loving it! Until the day it unravels!

Still, mommy is yet to win the battle of Who is Smarter than the Homeroom Teacher? Not that we are actively fighting to overtake the ‘super-know-it-all’ homeroom teacher(s); I am in full support and enhance the homeroom teacher(s), in true PTO spirit – Parent Teachers Organizations.

Teachers appreciate parents who are supportive, participate in their classroom activities, and engaged with their children’s homework. Not so sure whether COM feels me like his homeroom teacher(s); sometime — maybe; all the time — mommy don’t know it all!

Take for instance yesterday, when COM was doing his ELA assignment on  “Vowel Team”. The instructions required to, “Write words: sweet, sleep, meet, sheep and more — breaking them up into syllables, then underlining the phonic pattern.” COM on First in Math

He said he had to “syllable loop,” by breaking the sounds independently. I explained that the assignment required him to break words into syllables….and to me…they were all single syllable words. He got frustrated that I was using the word “break,” not “loop”,his choice word. I told him, I was reading the words, per teacher’s written instructions. Him and I went back and forth, asking him to say out the words and hear the syllables. He insisted there were more than one syllable, three in some cases!

I suggested to him, to write his way, then hand in his homework, and wait for the teacher’s feedback tomorrow. I told [bribed] him that, if I had to do his assignment, I would ‘loop’ each words into a single syllable! He became more frustrated. I suggested that we consult the online syllable dictionary. Each word had “one syllable”. Still, not fully convinced!

Thankfully, he and I come from families of teachers; both his grandmothers — my mom and his dad’s mom are teachers. Thankfully, daddy-grandma was listening in. She suggested, similar to what I had read online, “Clap the word and make out the syllable(s).” That he did, and it was “one syllable.” I asked him to clap the word “Purple”; that was two syllables. Phew!

At last, mommy seems to be getting somewhere! Maybe she knows something about homeroom teacher’s assignments; and can be respected and trusted to help out! We still working on it. Until then, surely the Homeroom Teacher Knows Best!

Re-Learning to Write Academically

I am still trying to write an abstract for an academic conference paper! Since January this year; you better believe it!

I don’t know what has happened to my intellectual ingenuity, my art of writing, my academic genius, and my conferencing skills, especially academic conferencing!

IMG_3535I started presenting at international academic conferences in college, and inspired plenty of colleagues at higher academic levels than myself, in graduate and post-graduate studies, to engage in presenting papers at academic conferences. In fact, I got the titled “Dr. Lwanga”, way before I became one. I had to correct the conference organizers, panelists and co-participants several times that I am not officially Dr. Lwanga; not a PhD, yet.“You should enroll in Doctoral studies!” they often said.…  I am yet to become “Dr. Lwanga”, but that is a story for another day.

Here I am, umpteen years later. I cannot gather my thoughts intellectually together to construct an academic paper abstract! A painful reality. Not because I am lost for topics to write about, or have no computer, sick fingers, lost my head or eye sight, or cannot squeeze in a tit bit of time, for a few lines.

I am struggling with how to put together an intelligible argument. How do I talk about Teaching and Learning”, which is the topic I would love to address for the conference on “Education”? How do I construct arguments on learning to learn from Young Learners? How do I investigate teaching multicultural children in a predominantly monocultural education setting? How can I address Teacher’s welfare in a student-biased education system? How about interrogating that holy grail “Gifted and Talented”, or the “Different Shades of Special Needs Education”.

Bet, you have a little understanding why I am conflicted about what to write. I am still trying to figure out which topic works best, which I could expound on and give plenty of meat.

So, here I am, close to six months, and still without an definite topic. Still contemplating, what the Topic or Title is going to be? Or the gist of the argument? I am not sure whether the paper format will be: 1) a poster presentation; 2) work-in-progress; 3) fully argued out research paper or; 4) research proposal/abstract? I know I am leaning more toward, #2, with a better potential of allowing me expound on it for future post-graduate studies. Yes, that “Holy D” is still on my head-roof, Ensh’allah!

Learning to Teaching from How Children Learn. OR Children Teaching Teachers how to Teach or Teaching a Multicultural Classroom in a Monocultural Schooling System. Yes! Yes! I think I finally got something there. And Curriculum, Research and Development sounds like great forage for me. Three topics already! Viva procrastination; that allows me to switch off for a while and turn on again.

Now, onto thinking about the thesis…What is the conference theme again? zzzz

Profiling Kids By What they Write

Profiling carries a negative connotation, and is pretty much a taboo in our society! More scary “profiling kids”, especially within a very diverse setting like a school environment. If like me, you are an educator, you are expected to “keep all personal thoughts to own-self!”

Perhaps there is an interesting angle to profiling?

I very much enjoyed my fifth graders yesterday! They were a great joy! I had the joy of working with them on writing in the ELA class. On one of the assignments, students were required to write about their favorite activity on a hot summer day.Kids activities

Their responses were telling! From biking around the neighborhood -uphill and against the wind, swimming in the pool, going to the beach, fishing, hanging out with friends at a mall, playing indoor and outdoor with friends [jump rope, monopoly, twister], playing video games, sword fighting, yoga and meditation, fitness exercise, taking a walk outdoors, playing basketball or football, going to the field park or waterpark, to season passes to theme parks.

Even without looking at the name, reading through the assignment already gives me plenty of information to ‘profile’, who is: middle class, black, sociable, soulful, outdoor lover, friendly, loner, athletic and fitness lover or family-oriented. Who is on ‘groupon’, who spends summers at the beach, and who likes ninjas.

As an education, this information is not used to negatively ‘profile’ or characterize students. It helps in understanding the different interests, aspirations and preoccupations of your students. It also provides additional information for the support the proper education and development of students, their dreams and aspiration through schooling.

In many ways, I realized that I could place students in the classroom into appropriate skill circles by reviewing their activities and interests outside the classroom. Read together with other assignments of the day, I learned a lot about who is active, playful, enjoys own time or loves the outdoors or indoors. All these translate into their place within the classroom.

Who is enthusiastic to respond to questions in class, who would rather keep quiet until called upon by the teacher, who stutters, and who would rather not respond at all, even when called upon.

The other assignment was on sentence construction using both “prefix” and “suffix”provided. The sentences were hilarious and telling of everyone, as most students placed themselves into their sentences.

One in particular was telling. The “prefix” sentences and short and ‘commandeering’: “Pre-sent it!”De-send!” Onto the suffix sentences: “Did you walk slow-ly?” “Do your parents treat you safe-ly?” All sentences were questions, either cautionary or probing questions. I thought, “This one will make a police officer!”

As I gain more exposure and experience teaching in the K-12, I am looking our for those features and cues that would allow me provide a memorable teaching and learning experience with my students and in my classrooms. After all, teachers learn a lot from their pupils, to help them improve and grow in their teaching and meeting the needs of their entire classrooms.

Meeting the “Gifted and Talented”: No Nigerians Here!

Finally, I met the “Gifted and Talented” aka G&T. I am still questioning what that means. When my son was in Kindergarten, he got tested for inclusion in “Gifted and Talented”. I received feedback from his Guidance Counsellor that his scores were way above expectations; should I say, outstanding!  He still gets plenty of those outstanding reviews, including from the most recent reading seminar organized for parents at his school. I was a very proud momma.

Yet, as his major teacher, of course according to me (he would vehemently insist his school teachers as his main/all-knowing teachers), I am always demanding more from him. I call him out when he slacks, and engage him with more learning. To me, he is not doing great because he is G&T, but because he is exposed to plenty of learning resources and the support of his dedicated mother and teacher. True, I am highly tickled by his reasoning, many times, his wits and comprehension. Maybe he is quicker to learn [than others of his age], I do not know. What I know is, he reads fluently for his age, because I have exposed him to books since before he was born, and we have read on since then.

Then I met the G&T, who are not related to me. They were also much older than my own. I am sorry to say that the two hours I spent with me, nothing about them sparked me as “Gifted and Talented”,. I saw a kids enjoying doing things other children do, like building cars, bridges, playing with legos, making stuff and rolling on a ball. I talked to kids who seemed to enjoy what they were doing, some with hands-on engagement, while others contributing verbal ideas.

I could not stuck away that miseducation I have regurgitated for generations since I began learning in the world I live, that “all smart people are white; all white people are smart.” I was surprised to learn that plenty of the G&T had, what we call in America “Hispanic Names”. They were children of immigrants from South America, two with parents from Colombia.

One told me visibly terrified, “My father was born in New York but grew up in Colombia. His mother took him back and left him there!” I explained that, sometimes parents have to make difficult choices to raise their children. For a single mother, which I learned her grandmother was, it can be difficult raising a child in New York without family support. Yet, her family in Colombia could easily help out.

Another myth buster – Not all G&T are children from rich and wealthy homes. Some are children of truck drivers, such as Aei. Another told me s/he lives in a single parent household. What is true, though, the “nerdy” stereotype was there. I could relate to those kids from among my school circles. I know exactly kids like them.

Sadly, there were no Blacks among the G&T kids I met. Yes, it does matter; here in America, race is one of our greatest preoccupations. My conclusion was, there were no Nigerians in the district! (smile:). If we go by the ‘great discovery’ of The Triple Package, the one Black group profile among the “super powerful/highly successful cultural groups” in America is Nigerians. Add to that, pretty much every story featured in the media about a black genius nowadays seems to have Nigerians roots. Not in this district, though!

Especially, surprising since there is a significant number of black kids in this particular location compared to other schools in the same district. Should we really care? Does it really matter, you may ask? Of course it does; just like having a G&T kid whose father is a truck driver, or the immigrant from Colombia, so should there be a Black G&T. It is inspirational, and these kids should have an avenue to talk to their classmates about the kind of activities they are engaged in or what makes them academically “different” from others.

While I am not totally blown away, yet by the group of G&T I encountered, I enjoyed supervising them as they worked on their projects for a regional STEM competition. More exciting because they were working with Legos, one of my son’s favorite play-toys! I told them, he would be thrilled to watch them build stuff. They suggest I should bring him to their STEM fair, so he can see their final products and much more from other competitors. Another thought crossed my mind, LegoLand Discovery! Thereafter, I can get him bumped him up from 1st Grade straight to 3rd Grade G&T class! 😉

Surviving a 4th Grade Class!

Whoever coined the phrase, Never say Never”? Google tells me this phrase was first recorded in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, 1837.

Still, have a beer on me, and pass on the check! I am a living testimony of my contradictions!

Once upon a moon, I said, I will never teach elementary school! Did I tell you that, already? Well, I was comfortable with my college, graduate school and adult students. I did not even want to try High School; I imagined all those kids would not take me seriously, ‘hit’ on me or play foolery with me. I imagine them trying to give me a run for my investment in their learning. I did not want to test humiliation.

I swore off Elementary School, as well; I wanted no more responsibility with little ones ever again! Don’t get me wrong, I grew up around little children and did a ton of babysitting for my family. As the last-born girl in my family, I was still young when my siblings had babies. Being a socio-culturally grounded girl, I did not have the luxury of saying no to babysitting for my family. I invested fully in my little nieces and nephews. Yes! I cried whenever my niece cried, played with those little munchkins, and entertained them lavishly. I had my fair share of ‘babysitting’, to blissful satisfaction, never again clamored or desired!

Well, that was before I birthed my own, and all the sworn off ’No more babysitting’ flew right out through the window! As a parent, I embraced my new responsibilities as smoothly as I did for my siblings. I learned anew the meaning of taking care of children, more than I did before. Soon I realized that, while I could bail out on my siblings, I did not have the same with my own. Fortunately, the experience raising my child stimulated my eagerness to learn more about Early Childhood and Elementary Education. It sparked my interest in entering the classrooms to learn how children learn, and to augment my own knowledge and expertise.

Recently, I began teaching in the Elementary School Classrooms in my school district. I started out with pre-K, K and Special Needs classrooms, and have since upgraded to higher levels. I am really enjoying the experience as “Commander in Chief” of an elementary school classroom.  I have since gained a new-found appreciation for teachers, teaching and young learners.

Last week was my first experience as a Sole Substitute Teacher in 4th Grade. All my full fears and anxieties were put to rest, because the kids were not as terrible as I had imagined; they were just being kids. I am thankful for the experience of parenting my son, because it has given me a lot of perseverance, education and new perspective on children’s education and development.

As a Substitute Teacher, I had to follow the class teacher’s schedule. Still, I found an opportunity to engage the kids in learning about myself. I was excited to find kids open and friendly to their ’strange teacher’, especially in our America of “Do not Smile with Strangers”. One of the kids told me she is on the same school bus with my son, and had seen me at the bus stop. The other kid said his brother was my son’s best friend in Kindergarten! Awesomeness!

To break the ice, I asked them, if they could guess where I was from? Many guessed all the countries associated with majority black immigrants to the United States: Caribbean, Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Africa, and surprisingly Kenya and South Africa.

When I asked them if they thought I was from London, almost everyone said “No”. Why? “You have an accent?” So, I asked, “Do you think people in America have an accent?”, Some said no. Then I asked, “Do people from Pennsylvania speak the same as people from New York or Georgia, Tennessee or California? Then they began to engage with the question about “accents”, acknowledged that even Americans have accents, and different parts of America have different accents.  One said, “People in Tennessee speak like country.”

I told them I was from Uganda, but literally none had heard of Uganda. Except one girl who said, she watched on Disney TV show called “Jessie”, with a character from Uganda. The one who guessed Kenya said, it was because President Obama’s father was from Kenya. [Impressive!]

I then asked, if any had parents born outside the United States, which was easier understood than asking them, “who had foreign-born parents]. A couple of hands went up, with parents from: Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Albania, and two Africa. While everyone else said the specific countries where their foreign-born parents came from, the ones with “African parentage” did not have a clue about the specific countries! When probed further, they didn’t seem to have taken an interest in finding out their parent(s) country of origin! I gave the kids a lesson that Africa is a big continent with more than 50 countries, just like the 50 united states, a shocker to many!

Overall, it was a great classroom experience! I managed an entire day with 4th graders with no major incidents. They were eager to help, some more than others, and eager to learn and participate in classroom activities. They were just young kids, like my six year old. They helped with the schedule, especially classroom recess and play activities. I even had the chance of engaging in more responsibilities outside the classroom, including managing the kids at fire drill and taking them to gym class. Let’s do it again!

Does Anybody Really Care about Teacher’s Welfare…?

Taking on Teacher TenureThe other day I read an article entitled “Taking on Teacher Tenure” by Haley Sweetland Edwards in the Time, November 3, 2014. The gist of the article was Vergara v. California, the court ruling that struck down decades-old California laws that had guaranteed California teachers permanent tenure and other job-related protections. Plaintiffs in the case argued that students stuck in classrooms with poorly performing teachers are denied the “right to a basic quality of educational opportunity”. Since most students cited to be attending bad schools and bad classrooms were Latino and Blacks, the case took a civil rights twist, arguing that those students were denied equal protection before the law.
The plaintiff, under the umbrella of Students Matter had the strong backing of David Welch, a 53-year old Silicon valley businessman and engineer, according to the Time article. Given the obsession with numbers in the Silicon valley, the complaint included a tabulation of  income loss to students in classrooms with poor performing teachers. For instance, that bad teachers undermine lifetime earnings of their students by$250,000 per classroom. Basically, tenure equals bad teachers; bad teachers create bad students; bad students get poor future earnings. The trial court judge agreed with the plaintiff!
Bye bye bad teachers in California! All schools will now have good teachers, producing excellent performing students, and future big money-makers, right? I find the argument simplistic, and Huckin Filarious! It perpetuates the convenient blame-game which posits that students successes or failures in-school and after-school depends primarily on their teachers. Teachers should be the ‘fix-all magicians’ for their students’ in-class learning and post-classroom performance. Teachers should excel at teaching, educating, babysitting, disciplining, guaranteeing safety, security and sound health in the classroom, and imparting exemporary leadership and management skills to their children. The responsibility of creating a ‘successful student’  is hardly proportionately distributed among all parties involved in the students academics -parents or guardians, school administration, the state and federal government and the students themselves.
In this case, as well as existing policy and public condemnation of teachers, the assumption is that those students performing poorly are all receiving poor quality of education from their teachers. Not that they might be bad students, per se because they are not interest, engaged or capable of participating fully in their classroom experiences and excellent learning. Where is the evidence that all students who go through excellent teachers and schools excel in their academics, and/or have highly rewarding post-graduation careers? Shouldn’t all students from the nations top performing schools and colleges, that tend to attract higher performing teachers have six-figure plus earnings post-graduation?

Time, November 3, 2014

Time, November 3, 2014

Undoubtedly, within the same classrooms of bad teachers are students who excellent in their academics and earn high incomes post-graduation. Others excel in their classrooms but do not necessarily enjoy high earnings post-graduations, while others who do not excel in academics may earn highly post-graduation.
Not the same vigor goes into inquiring how “on-the-job wellbeing” affects teachers’ attitude toward teaching, and creating an excellent learning environment for their students. If, as Vertaga v California argues that, good teachers produce excellent student performance with higher financial earnings in the future, shouldn’t it follow that improving teachers’ welfare would enhance their performance and their students classroom experience?
Evidence suggests that the world’s best schools in Finland, Singapore and South Korea seek out teachers from the top third of each graduating class, unlike in the U.S. where close to half of teachers come from the bottom third of the graduating classes (Editor’s Desk, Time, November 3, 2014, 2). An investment in teachers would mean an investment in a good classroom experience and a well-trained student. This requires an teaching environment where teachers are valued, and their needs and welfare respected as much as those of their students. Teacher training is just the first step to ‘moulding’ a good teacher, that should be coupled with classroom support with teaching aides, technologies, school counselors, support staff, other school departments and out of school family support for the students learning.
Time, November 3, 2014

Time, November 3, 2014

Instead, what the Vertaga ruling does is to escalates job insecurity within the teaching profession, already undermined by poor remuneration, budget cuts and politicking. Partly why tenure was introduced, to protect teachers from politicking and short-sightedness about the teaching responsibilities from outside interest groups.
Even without taking away tenure, teachers are already stretched working under unfavorable conditions that have them question whether to stay in the teaching profession and for how long! In our school districts, public school teachers are no longer assured of salaries during the summer when they are not actively teaching in the classroom, even though they are technically active developing creative teaching aides for the next school year. Never mind that they did not request for or have any input in the three-month long institutionalized vacation on the school calendar by national school planners. The intentions are laudable, to give teachers and students a much deserved break from school activities, enabling full rejuvenation by the next academic year. Instead of resting in the summer,  teachers are busy scrounging around for a decent living, taking on seasonal short-term employment as bagging groceries at departmental stores.
Blaming teachers for students’ future earnings is in my opinion insane and mind boggling! How many PhDs, which is the highest display of academic intellect and attainment earn incomes equivalent to what they put into their education? Instead of escalating job insecurity, and chasing away those who entered the teaching profession as their passion and first choice, why not invest in strategies to improve teachers classroom performance and build their confidence in the classroom? Why attack the entire teaching profession with legal sanctions, because of a section of poorly performing teachers?
Realistically, teachers, especially in public schools are among [if not] the most hardworking public workers and a key asset to national development, yet lowly remunerated and under-appreciated. Policy makers, legislators passing legislation, litigators and judges making all sorts of pronouncements against the teaching profession are comfortably seated on their ‘high horses’ of big paychecks and big perks, while throwing teachers further under the bus. It is an easy and fancy privilege to judge a teacher’s performance in the classroom, if you have never been in front of a public classroom. It is also disingenuous to pretend that all students ‘churned’ out of classrooms with excellent performing teachers go on to earn great incomes and perform excellent in the post-graduation employment.
I support every effort to improve the teaching and learning experience proportionately across all public schools irrespective of zip code, but not at the expense of teacher’s job security and protection. Work with those teachers not performing great, rather than a uniform onslaught on the entire profession. Teaching in public school requires the academic credentials at least a Bachelor’s degree for a teaching position, and continued enhancement and refresher courses. More importantly, the learning about teaching comes from the classroom experience, helping to further equip a teacher with creativity, adaptability, thoughtful planning and resourcefulness — much of which is learned from cumulative classroom experience.

Time, November 3, 3014

Time, November 3, 3014

Different shades of Special Needs

“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.

Special Ed Teachers Have Special Needs Too!

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.

Teaching Children about Columbus Day in an era of Contested Knowledge and Truth Formation

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!