Visit My Classroom at CCJDC & See How Hope Happens

Dear Senator Portman, Senator Brown, and Congresswoman Fudge,

I spent this past school year teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. I’m sure that you have preconceived notions about what the school and students are like. I can guarantee that your predictions and expectations would evolve after a visit to my classroom.

I work with 15-17 year old male students. Many of them have had childhoods filled with tragedy and have faced obstacles that have left them feeling as if there are no options for them except a life on the street. Most complain about school because it is not designed for students who like to learn with their hands, who can’t sit still for extended lengths of time and be quiet, who are intellectually gifted, or who don’t want to go to college. Instead of changing the system to meet the needs of these most vulnerable students, or providing resources and instituting funded policies that would assist these young men, they are faced with a system often endorsed by politicians that feeds a school-to-prison pipeline.

With all of the research we have about brain development throughout every stage of life, it is inexcusable that we treat these young men as if they have the capacity to make sound adult decisions, particularly when the majority haven’t been given strong social guidance during their crucial developmental years. Instead of endorsing a system of high stakes standardized testing that pushes these students out of schools and bores them into behavior problems that can result in criminal charges, our students need wrap around services such as access to mental health care, addiction treatment, social workers, mentors, nutrition and full healthcare access, and an opportunity to learn in an environment that doesn’t further punish them for poverty or instability in their homes. Families need this support from conception to graduation, not just K-12.

I have had students flourish in my class under the direction of our administrator. They have gone from being chronologically behind grade levels, to being caught up on their high school credits during the time they are incarcerated. These successes give them something that they are lacking in the segregated, impoverished neighborhoods from which most of them begin their academic careers: hope. These achievements can only occur because I have the freedom to design curriculum on an individual basis for my students, the opportunity to design instruction based on student interests and the most recent educational research, and because I am trusted by my administrator to try strategies that I believe may assist my students. Being confined by strict curriculum scripts, a narrow focus on passing high stakes standardized tests, and zero tolerance discipline policies that exist in traditional high schools would only cause further detriment to these students who need the best instruction the most. I am also trusted to adapt my instruction as needed, to collaborate with my partner who teaches the same age group, and to not only learn from successes, but from attempts that were not necessarily as successful as I had hoped.

One student I had this year began his time in my class unwilling to do a lot of work in school. After a little time with us, he began to realize that he was surrounded by people who care, people who have his best interest in mind and heart, and is in a facility that will support him, his education, and his teacher. Through his hard work and some incentives negotiated between myself and the detention officers, the student is now a senior instead of a sophomore, has passed 4/5 state tests, and will not leave our administrator alone about how many credits he has and still needs to graduate. Even in his challenging situation, he now has hope. He has experienced academic success and can now envision possibilities. What if our entire education system was structured to provide this same feeling for all of its stakeholders? What if not only students, but teachers, parents, and the communities that some of these most at-risk students come from were in a culture of hope instead of one that seeks to marginalize, punish, and contain?

The resources, small classes, and wrap-around services provided to our young men should not be exclusive to a detention center. These supports must be provided to all schools that need them, so that some day my school does not have a detained juvenile population to serve any more. Politicians, policy makers, and wealthy elitists need to stop trying to further deform our education system with mandated testing and pseudo accountability, and instead focus on research based strategies in existence for decades that will adapt schools to fit students’ needs. The damage to students and failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is evident when you walk into our school, or around the community in which we are located. I implore you to come visit my classroom, hear our stories, and meet the citizens that your legislative reforms, and needed reforms, impact every day.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Refuse of Cuyahoga County

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

As a sequel to Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “THAT Kid”

Lessons “THAT kid” taught me in my classroom:

  • Just when I’m about to declare myself to be completely left without a shred of patience, I can close my eyes, take a deep breath, and open my heart up just a little bit more. There are always more patience.
  • It is alright if some days I learn more from them about humanity, than I think I can ever teach them.
  • Save tears of happiness or sorrow for when I’m alone. Seeing a teacher cry even scares the older students who think they are tough stuff.
  • Always focus on the small victories. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and building children is far more important.
  • Don’t allow the lies of education reformers (AKA deformers) to get me down. They have no idea that teaching is part love, part science, part craft, part knowledge, part social, part academic, part trust, part persistence, part determination, and part faith in “THAT kid” becoming an awesome adult one day
  • Be grateful to fate for bringing “THAT kid” to my classroom. because maybe I can help “THAT kid” figure out that being “THAT kid” isn’t really all THAT bad. In fact, being “THAT kid” doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all.

Why I Tell My Kid Not to Avoid “That Kid”

I recently read a letter sent by a retiring veteran principal to his staff in Stewart, Ohio that was published in the Washington Post. He shared his experiences with zero tolerance policies and testing mandates which have made it harder for those in education to just be nice to kids. Just as adults have picked up on this phenomenon, students sense it also. Even in this age of anti-bullying campaigns and organizations founded with missions to increase love and kindness in schools, students witness their teachers reduced to tears because of pink slips and unfair evaluations based on standardized test scores. In extreme cases, like at Newton D. Baker in Cleveland, Ohio, an educator found the unkindness of administration and unfair mandates too much for her gentle soul to bear, so she took her own life; leaving behind colleagues and students to mourn the loss.  Add to this harsh school culture a pervasive fear among students that their teacher’s job, school’s rating, and community’s real-estate values are all intertwined with how they perform on standardized tests, and it is easy to surmise that kindness, patience, and tolerance are difficult to maintain as school priorities, regardless of how many posters are sticky-tacked to school walls proclaiming to be against bullying and for kindness.

 

Zero tolerance policies in schools which have been a feeder for the school-to-prison pipeline, the pressure of high stakes standardized testing, billionaires deciding that they are educational experts, and the distorted view that teachers are to blame for societal ills, are all menacing bricks constructed behind classroom walls, and they can often act as a barrier to the social and emotional learning and bonds that have always been at the foundation of academic success for students. It is even more difficult for students to see examples of empathy and compassion at school when policies support disciplinary actions that lack recognition of the need for a whole-child approach in education, and are often implemented without respect for teachers as well-trained professionals. My 4th grader this year told me in one of our car-ride conversations that he thought his teacher was “the only one at school who really understands people” because he noticed how she bought things to help accommodate her special needs students instead of “yelling at them to sit still.”  I know there are an abundance of caring teachers at his elementary school, but the current climate in education isn’t allowing for evidence of this fact to be as blatant as it used to be. Half of teacher-effectiveness ratings in Ohio are based on test scores, not kindness and being nice. So, just being nice needs to have a solid start in the homes of children.

 

Yet, kindness and caring may not be as much of a priority among parents at schools either, since test scores and grades determine the value of their child’s learning abilities. No one is getting into Harvard or Yale for “just being nice.” I listened to conversations that surrounded me as I volunteered at a working meeting for a school event, and the dominant theme being discussed among the parents was which of their children was in advanced classes, excelling at a dance recital, first chair in an orchestra, or being recognized for honor or merit roles. I do not think that celebrating middle-class privileges, which enrich childhood and foster success for children, is wrong. However, when a recent playground incident that involved an aggressive act by a child was brought up in the conversation, the parents were quick to offer their disapproval of the child, and in agreement that consequences should be doled out, as they continued to relish in the good behavior of their children, and wonder what was wrong with THAT kid. I left that working meeting feeling sad not only for the child injured on the playground, but also for the child that inflicted the injury.

 

I had already heard about the playground incident before it was discussed at that meeting, and it seemed that the child may have some emotional issues. When my son came home that particular day and described the drama on the playground at recess, I asked him what he did . He replied that he gave his statement about what happened to the adults in charge, as instructed. I offered my approval for his actions and asked him if the injured child was going to be alright. Then we discussed what we could do to help his peer who had caused the injury. We talked about not knowing what life is like for that child; if he was struggling with things going on outside of school, and how my son could be a friend without approving of negative behaviors that the other child may exhibit. This is what we have done all school year when my son comes home to share tales about any of the students often labeled as “THAT kid.” For example: “THAT kid” who is not able to cope with a change in the classroom routine without creating a disturbance, or “THAT kid” who randomly shouts out inappropriate words. I explained to my son what I know about the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome and Tourette Syndrome, so that even if my hunches were wrong, at least he was aware for any future encounters he may have. We talked about not knowing what other kids might be going through outside of school, and I reminded him of the times he may have been struggling through events unknown to his classmates. I encouraged him to be a friend, an example of positive behavior, and an upstander. Luckily, his teacher reinforced this approach by showing love and patience to all of her students every day at school throughout his 4th grade year. Students sensed that in her class being nice was a priority.

Research shows that peers can have a strong influence on behavior, which I am acutely aware of as my son is close to the beginning of his adolescent years, so I am not endorsing harmful or unhealthy friendships. However, understanding and having empathy for conditions others possess, or for struggles others may be enduring, is not an endorsement of inappropriate behavior. Rather, it is building within my son the strength of character to be a leader, even when it would be easier to ignore or taunt children that may not be easy to get along with. He knows kindness is not weakness. Instead, it precipitates a life filled with tolerance, compassion, and happiness.  As Logan LaPlante suggested in his TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada, schools should be able to play a larger role in preparing students for a life of happiness, and not be restricted to just preparing them to make a living. Respecting and honoring “THAT kid’s” experiences without endorsing harmful behavior may not prepare my kid for acceptance into Harvard or Yale, but it will have him better prepared to live a life full of happiness and being nice. And that’s a pretty good start.

Lessons I learned from “THAT kid” in my classroom…