Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It’s Like A Kick In The Gut

Last night I received a phone call from Larry Otten, good friend and middle school principal at Creston. Larry and I worked together for nine years and worked with a lot of the same kids. The phone call last night was not one with good news. Larry told me that they found Travis Henry dead. He had killed himself. Travis was a freshman this year, and while he was not one of “my kids” since I moved to North Fayette this year, I knew him because he attended the same church as we did when we lived in Creston. And, his mother was a teacher for me at the high school. The irony is that earlier in the day, the family of James Kosman held his funeral in Creston.

James graduated last year, but apparently was hanging out with a bunch of high school students when he made a real bad choice and was electrocuted before he dropped 35 feet to the ground. I got to know James pretty well almost exactly a year ago when I went on a trip with him and 41 other students to Washington, D.C. and New York. One of my jobs on that trip was to keep and eye on James and a few other young men because they were a bit ornery. We didn’t have any problems, and I got to know James a lot better than I had in the nearly four previous years of high school. In particular, we had a real good talk on the bus between Washington, D.C. and New York.

It may sound a bit callous, but I am to the point in my life and career that I can say that nothing surprises me any more. But death at such an early age under the circumstances that they two boys died does cause me to pause and wonder “why?” I am not going to provide commentary on the conditions under which each of the deaths occurred, nor ponder as to why they happened. I am going to state how I feel and why.

Before I do that, I also have to add that back in October, David Reeves, took his own life. Compounding the sadness was that only months prior, David’s mother Lynn lost a valiant battle with cancer. Of the three young men, I knew David the best, as did my daughter, who used to play in the saxophone section with him. Like the others, David was a young man with a world of potential and unlimited opportunities in front of him.

The staff and students at Creston are hurting. I don’t think anyone can truly understand the challenges of conducting school each day under such a cloud of grief and sadness. But I know the teachers there work very hard every day to keep school in front of the kids. The problem is that a lot of the emotion is gone because in so many respects, it has literally been sucked out of them.

Now I am four hours away. I have a whole new group of young people that I have responsibility for here at North Fayette. But as I said earlier, nothing really surprises me anymore, thus in a strange sort of way, my worries seem to only have increased. When I heard about David, that painful lump immediately found its way into my throat and I fought back tears. However, they streamed down my face when I shared what I knew with my daughter. Actually, my wife Tammy had to speak the words because I could not. I knew that the pain that had to be felt by his dad, brother, and grandparents, as well as close family friends had to be unbearable. Just a week before they buried David, he had been playing the drum with the Panther Marching Band in a snowstorm in Des Moines. And now he was gone. I still find myself thinking about David and pondering how a young man with so many gifts got to the point where death was a better option than life.

When the emails and texts started coming in about James, my initial response was “Dammit! He pushed it too far!” In recent years James had tested the limits in many respects and I know that his parents and others had concerns about risky behaviors that he was experimenting with. When I heard that there were about a dozen high school students out and about at 2:00 in the morning with James, I thought what the heck is going on! And then, just today, I was told that only three of the group stayed with James after the fall waiting for an emergency vehicle and the rest of the kids ran. Now I asked “why?” What was going on that kids would scatter when their friend was lying on the concrete either dead or dying? Why?

And then it was Travis. Many people in Creston attended the funeral for James only to receive text messages a few hours later that another young man was dead. What worries me, it that that lump in my throat is not quite as painful, nor the pain in my stomach quite as bad. I am afraid because I hope that I am not getting used to this! But, that lump and sick feeling in my stomach does grow when I think of the folks on the front line at Creston High School. The principals and counselors, teachers, secretaries, custodians, cooks, and aides. Those folks are carrying a heavy burden on their shoulders. More than anything else, I really feel for Tammy Riley and Angie Bolinger, the guidance counselors. Those two wonderful counselors are hurting. They are the ones that have to be strong and have to be there for the kids, families, and everyone who comes to them. Their jobs are so complex in this day and age that they are stretched when things are normal. And now, everything else gets put on the back burner because so many people need them. And I am also angry because some people have the audacity to throw criticism their way. The critics don’t have a clue. I’ll leave it at that.

Life is precious. Like is tough. Life is worth living. David, James, and Travis, I wish you were still here to give it another shot.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Sound of Silence

A couple of months ago I attended the monthly Ministerial Association meeting and as we were discussing some issues early in the meeting, one of the pastors made a comment that really struck me. He stated, “When the sounds of children are absent from worship the church dies.” For some reason, that comment really caused me to think and reflect. I certainly understand the impact of a shortage of young people in church. It is no secret that many congregations are getting older in terms of their members and that younger families, for what every reason, do not attend church, as did previous generations. I also thought it a bit ironic because I have been in church when young children were making a little noise and older folks were visibly agitated because of the noise. I have even seen a couple of elderly people “shush” some little kids and tell a young mom that she needed to “quiet her children.” And then, I thought about school. What about school and the sound of silence?

In a number of classes that I have taken over the years as well as workshops and training focused on school improvement and better instruction, a common theme that is being expressed runs along the lines of “when I walk down the hall I want to hear noise from the classrooms.” Now, that runs counter to some of the “old fashioned” methods of running classrooms where students did not speak unless they raised their hands and were acknowledged by the teacher. But what research tells us is that students learn best by doing, and in many respects they have to talk to one another, collaborate and problem solve as a team rather than in isolation. If the only one talking is the teacher, then we should wonder how much learning is going on. Yet, that is still the case in some instances.

For many, many years, teachers have been viewed as the “sage on the stage,” and were the primary source of information. Perhaps you can remember one that was full of wisdom that shared it with you. I certainly can remember Mr. Cannon and those wonderful stories he told in my history classes, as well as Mr. Kenney who was the first to really point out that there was truly meaning in pieces of literature beyond the words that were in print. Today, that role of teacher has changed. No longer are teachers the purveyor of information that they once were. Our culture has changed so much that we do not need to rely on their wisdom. This is not to lesson their importance. On the contrary, they may even be more important! What has happened is that content information is more readily available than ever before. Students can access information faster than a teacher can tell a story. The “sage on the stage” has had to transform to the “guide on the side,” navigating young minds through the minefields of misinformation and training them to use their minds to develop greater understanding. It is no longer good enough to learn content.

The engaged learning environment is one where noise is the norm. Dialogue takes place between teacher and students, as well as student to student. Teams are created much like the workplace where collaboration is necessary in order for a task to be completed. Of course, this transition has not gone as smoothly or as quickly as it should. There are some that remain resistant to “giving up control” over their classroom. And honestly, as I remember back to my teaching days, I know that I needed a little peace and quiet! However, because of the power of collaboration and the sharing of ideas, as well as the need for students to “do” in order to learn, I need to hear noise when I walk down the hallways. Otherwise, I must question whether or not students are learning.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What We Can Learn From Jerry Seinfeld

On Valentines Day I read an article in the Sunday paper about Jerry Seinfeld and thought, “Wow! This is what I have been saying all along!” Now, I watched a number of episodes of Seinfeld though I would not describe myself as a big fan and certainly am not one of those that remember specific dialogue or episodes. However, I have read a number of things about him and his life since his television show and have found that a number of our values and beliefs are the same. I realize that there are a number of experts out there with qualifications that far exceed Seinfeld in the area of parenting, but I found his “Three Rules of Parenting” about as good of a common sense list that I have read.

Seinfeld refers to his rules as “the poison P’s.” The first is Praise. How often have we heard in recent years that we need to praise on our kids? We need to build their self-esteem! In order to motivate them we need to focus on the positives! Truth be told, I have always been skeptical of this and everything I have been reading in recent years from child and educational psychologists tell us that we have way overdone it. Young people need to develop intrinsic motivation and a sense of doing something for personal satisfaction, to serve others, or because it is the right thing to do. The phenomenon of layering praise on top of praise has had some consequences that are hard to fathom from my perspective. Go to any kids sporting event and in many instances the child receives a medal or trophy for simply showing up! And, take a look at those trophies! Some are taller than the little shaver that carries it off the awards stand! Grade inflation is something that has made its way into school. My goodness, the quality of an “A” paper is not close to the level expected for an “A” paper back in the day. A challenge for our teachers is to restore that level of excellence and raise the quality bar. Simply completing an assignment is not good enough and we should quit pretending that just because something is done does not mean it has been done well! In some respects it seems that kids are immune to praise. They hear so much of it that is carries little meaning to them. We need to offer encouragement and support, but make certain what we praise is truly worth praising.

Problem-solving is the next of the poison P’s. Seinfeld was quoted as saying, “We refuse to let our children have problems. Problem solving is the most important skill to develop for success in life, and we for some reason can’t stand if our kids have a situation that they need to ‘fix.’ Let them struggle – it’s a gift.” To borrow a quote from another individual, Steve Deace from WHO radio in Des Moines, “Students need to experience disappointment. It is part of life. They need to learn to overcome adversity. It is part of life.” How can we possibly believe that we are preparing our children for life’s struggles when we solve all of their problems for them? Whatever happened to requiring a son to go in an confess his missteps over the weekend to the principal rather than a parent doing everything possible to sweep it under the carpet, or taking the position of “it isn’t wrong unless you get caught” and then hope that Junior doesn’t get caught! What is up with that! I believe that in the classroom teachers have become so concerned about moving through content that they do not allow students to struggle and solve problems before they rush in and solve it for them. Kids do not stick with it and give up when something gets tough because they have not developed the skills of persistence and fortitude. Call me mean but both of my kids have sat in tears trying to get something right with their homework, and I have not rushed in and helped because one day I am not going to be there for them. I often wonder what “helicopter parents” are thinking by swooping in and rescuing their child. Let them skin their knee, bump their noggin’, pick themselves up and dust themselves off! That is learning! It is okay to fail! What is important is what one does after the failure. That is perseverance and problem solving.

The third poison P is giving your child too much Pleasure. Seinfeld didn’t elaborate much on this except to share an example of a young mom who bought her daughters huge cookies at 5:00 in the evening rather than saying that dinner was at 6:00. I would say that this is probably the “P” I struggle with the most. Maybe it is that “I want my kids to have what I didn’t mentality.” But, on the flip side, I do not have a problem saying “No!” I believe that we don’t say “No!” enough. Perhaps it is part of this consumer society that we live in where so many parts of our lives are lived in excess that we buy, buy, buy. Or on reflection, our kids are so tuned into video games, texting, and those things that when we hear them say they are bored that we rush to entertain them. I buy into the idea that our kids have far more than they need and that they do not do a very good job of entertaining themselves like we did when we were kids, so the challenge is to figure out how to bring back a sense of value for our kids because that is something that I don’t think they truly understand. By the same token, why are so many 16-year olds quitting sports and music program so that they can work to pay for a car? What’s wrong with riding the bus or walking to school? I bought my first car when I was 23 and finished with college and needed something to move to the town where I acquired my first job. Some may argue, but I think I turned out okay!

I am not saying the Jerry Seinfeld is the end-all, be-all when it comes to parenting. But like many in my generation, we are looking at what is going on around us and for whatever reason, common sense and sanity are starting to kick in. Look at the three P’s and do a little self-assessment as to where you are. You know, teenagers need parents more than they need an adult friend. I have read a tremendous amount of research where teens have said they want structure and expectations in their lives. How about we get it right before it is too late!