Can Middle Schoolers Understand Consent?

It was toward the middle of the last class of the day when someone put together that it was, in fact, my birthday. As if that fact was not enough, the class spontaneously broke into a loud, disruptive, and wholly unnecessary rendition of the birthday song.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like being sung to. I don’t like being forced to endure the ritual. And I certainly didn’t want the massive disruption in a class that was already teetering on the edge of control, so I did what I thought was best. I held up my hands, palms up, and calmly said, “No. Please stop.”

white mouse

They didn’t stop.

 

I repeated myself, louder and more firmly this time: “No. Please. I mean it. Please stop.”

 

Then a student said, “You don’t really mean that. Doesn’t no really mean yes?” The class laughed, certain of the joke; I felt like white hot lightning ran down my spine.

“Come on, Mrs. Leung. We just want to sing you Happy Birthday,” said one.

“Yeah,” said another, “you don’t really want us to stop.”

That’s when I dropped my arms and my voice. “I think we need to have a little conversation about consent.”

Immediately, the student who made the “no means yes” comment grasped what she had said and inhaled a short, sharp breath.

In the space after my declaration, a boy asked, “What does consent mean?”

Before I could answer, another student piped up, saying, “It’s like we’ve been talking about in ‘Flowers for Algernon.’ Charlie Gordon couldn’t really give consent or full permission to the doctors for the experiment. He didn’t know what they were asking him to do–and they shouldn’t have taken advantage of him.”

Then I added: “Consent means you agree fully and give permission. No only means no. Yes only means yes. Even if you think a person is really kidding when they say no, it’s so important to take them at their word. If someone tells you, “No. Stop,” then you must stop.”

After that, the class nodded thoughtfully–and asked some good questions about why I’d declined their serenade–and I was happy to explain my feelings and how much it meant to me that they had eventually listened and respected my wishes.

I hadn’t planned on teaching something so important–or so sensitive–to my students, but I know my message got through in a meaningful way. I hope that if they find themselves in a situation involving consent that they will think of Charlie Gordon and know what to do.

Can middle schoolers understand consent? In a word, yes.

My Students Say Thank You

I don’t remember when I first noticed it. A student here or there would pause on the way out my classroom door, turn to me, and say, “Thank you, Mrs. Leung.”

It’s new to me.

When I was in middle school, it never occurred to me to thank my teachers for opening doors and windows in my mind or for believing in me. I never said thank you for the corrective feedback and coaching on writing assignments. It never crossed my mind that my teachers were anything more than gatekeepers of right and wrong.

So that’s why it struck me. Those thank yous stopped me in my place with the power of gratitude: Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for today’s lesson. Thank you for listening. Thank you for challenging me. Thank you for the feedback.

Thanks so much Ms. Leung for the feedback. I will use your feedback.

Student comment on feedback. The response came one minute after I posted.

I’ve been teaching fourteen years and I’ve never had so many students say thank you so often. In a way, I think it’s a function of the ease of electronic communication. If I leave a comment in a Google Doc or in Classroom, many students see the note pop up on their personal screens. It’s a way to say, “Hi. I saw your work. I notice your skills.” How can that not lead to stronger teacher-student relationships? But that can’t be the only reason. This generation of children I am fortunate to know has a keen understanding of valuing relationships.

When I feel frustrated at the lack of civility that seems to permeate public discourse, I think of my students and am so grateful. If a student understands the power of thanks at the age of twelve, that is a person who will grow into a grateful adult who can accept constructive criticism and use it to better herself.

These remarkable people are growing up fast. Keep your eyes open. When they start appearing on the horizon, you’re going to be dazzled by how much they’re going to change the world.

For Those Keeping Score at Home

Today was the big composition test and in the words of my students, “It was the dumbest prompt EVER, Mrs. Leung.”

Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, but I am quoting twelve year-olds.

Despite the “dumbest prompt EVER,” they did it. They told me they felt capable, that it felt like they’d accomplished something. Instead of feeling lost and unsure of what to write, they told me how they broke apart the prompt, used a brainstorming tactic we’d discussed in class (be still my heart!), and even took advantage of the classroom dictionaries. A few said they were proud enough of their work that they couldn’t wait to get it back…

Oh yeah, and they were disappointed to learn that not only would I not get to read their work, but they would also never see their essays again.

“Why did we have to work so hard if we can’t even see it again or show it to our parents?”

Great question, kids. This is why I am so proud of you. Never stop asking great questions.

Argument: Was this in the cards?

According to the student handbook, playing cards of any kind are not allowed at school. It’s an obscure rule buried deep in the handbook and has its reasons, but isn’t on the list of top student infractions.

"Wave" by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

“Wave” by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

A few of my students had been using a deck at some point during their lunch break to perform magic tricks, and an adult rightly asked them to put the cards away.

This is where things got interesting.

The students came to me, their language arts teacher. We’ve been studying argument writing and my students, instead of wanting to complain or protest, wanted to write an argument to defend their use of the playing cards as appropriate and to ask for an exception to the school rules. I’ve seen this movie before. Over the years I have witnessed student petition drives, performance art, handbills plastered across every public surface, and even outright rebellion as students fought to have their voices heard. Often there was an edge of immaturity to these protests because, let’s face it, adults have the power and the advantage. The immature response is a result of their perceived lack of power or frustration due to feeling unheard. The adult reaction isn’t always as constructive as it could be, often devolving into a “because we said so” or “sorry you feel that way; too bad.”

That wasn’t happening this time. These students were calm, rational, and respectful. They acknowledged that the adult in charge who had asked them to put the cards away was following the rules and they held no grudge. They had done their research, brought a copy of the handbook rule to me with the significant parts highlighted, and simply asked: how can we have our point of view heard?

What is a teacher to do? I knew the rule and the simple thing would be to tell the students there was no point in arguing. This is the rule; we have to abide by it with no exceptions. Instead, I offered to help them put their thoughts in order. The rule is inconsistently applied with some playing cards allowed at certain times of day, including a four-table Pokémon game before school officially begins. They had been using a standard deck of playing cards and the rule assumes these cards are a distraction while the other games’ cards are not.

The students came to my room during team time to get my advice and to start putting their argument together. I will read it and likely give them advice for revision or editing, but the words and opinions will be theirs. As I listened to their thoughts, I was so impressed with the way they turned to writing and dispassionate argument as a way to find their voice and a sense of personal power. Real world writing, indeed!

Are the adults in administration ready for these voices? Are we prepared for students to take the lessons we teach them about analyzing evidence and defending a position to challenge our rules, policies, and procedures?

When a student uses close-reading strategies to mark up the handbook, are we ready for honest conversation and to possibly admit we need to change?

I hope we are. There could be nothing worse than to teach students how to become their own advocates through reason, logic, and maturity to tell them it only works when it’s for a grade.

Search Out the Enemy

There are times I have to take a break: turn off the 24/7 “news,” skip social media debates, and breathe fresh air. On dark days, it seems there are conspiracies brewing all around us. We have a culture of distrust that assumes someone out there with wealth and power is always pulling a fast one, somehow knowing exactly how the future will unfold according to their plans. “They” sit behind polished desks and plot the destruction of everything fair and just. “They” have a master plan that can only be thwarted with careful vigilance and protest–and maybe a superhero or two. If we’re lucky, maybe we will get to witness it all in its three-act glory full of explosions and beautiful people on the big screen.

Count, if you can, the number of films in the last five years that have revolved around this world view.

I fell into this trap as a teenager. I attended a Catholic high school with declining enrollment in an aging building. In the middle of my freshman year, we were told that the school would cease to operate. Conspiracy theories abounded. It must have been the neighboring businesses who wanted to raze our building and take the real estate in a land-grab. How could “they” do this to us? Didn’t “they” know how this selfish destruction was hurting us? We protested, rallied, and spoke darkly of those villains, the mysterious “they” who must have had a plan. In reality, the funding necessary to pay the bills simply did not exist. Our school had operated on a shoestring budget for too long and our financial reality was unavoidable. In our case there was a happy ending–with wide community support and thoughtful, long-term financial planning–but the narrative of villain-victim-hero still pervades too many stories we tell ourselves about the way the world works.

This poisonous fictionalization of reality can rip us apart. Once we fall into the trap of the villain-victim-hero, it can become impossible to make any rational, realistic change or progress. We pit teachers vs administrators, students vs teachers, taxpayer vs school system. Suddenly it becomes easy to spot malice or incompetence everywhere.

Does it make any rational sense to believe that an individual or group actively pursues the destruction of what we value? Yes, individual human beings can be selfish, myopic, and make poor decisions, but they can also be broad-minded, thoughtful, and creative, too. The whole purpose of democracy is to distribute the decision-making as broadly as possible so that multiple perspectives can be considered, pulling us together instead of driving us apart. When we see the process as fiction with villains who must be defeated by the forces of good, we stop listening and see any sign of compromise as a failure. When we assume the worst and leap to conclusions, we can fool ourselves into thinking that anything we don’t like must be the “fault” of an “enemy”–someone who isn’t like us and deserves to be cut off from “real” believers or citizens or patriots–someone who must be punished or “held accountable.”

This happens nationally when we demonize Common Core standards or teacher unions–not that there shouldn’t be discussion or debate–but to filter the people involved through the lens of villain/victim/hero means that we miss too much of the truth. Public schools are woven into the fabric of society, not separate from it. The schools belong to the community and are a vital part of it. When we compartmentalize, demonize, and shift into the worn old narrative, we miss so many opportunities to hear one another clearly and make real, lasting improvement.

As a teacher of English Language Arts, I feel an obligation to my students to share stories of many different kinds, to awaken empathy and broaden their perception of protagonists, antagonists, and conflict. I worry about the impact our cultural drumbeat has on my students who are awash in a world populated with the narrative of villains, victims, and heroes. How will they see themselves and their fellow citizens as the narratives warp and shift around them?

When we go looking for an enemy, we will always find someone to blame and remain locked in a trap of our own construction.

The 30-Day Challenge

At the beginning of January, I like to talk with my students about goal setting. We’re in the middle of the school year and now that the honeymoon is over, it’s time for us to make some choices about how we orient ourselves toward the work to be done in our remaining months together. In the past, I have asked students to write a personal goal statement or even reflect on their personal new year’s resolutions, but then I watched a TED talk by Google engineer Matt Cutts.

In this very brief talk, Matt Cutts argues very simply that by selecting a personal challenge for thirty days can be a way to revitalize your life and either add something new that you’ve always wanted to try, or it can be a chance to do without something that might be a bad habit. I watched the video with my classes and we’ve been inspired to try the thirty-day challenge.

In these doldrums of the school year, it can be hard to face the cold, early mornings and the flat, uninterrupted greyness of the world outside. It’s easy for students and teachers to focus on the long months ahead. By making the next thirty days meaningful, I am hoping my classes will feel purposeful and fresh.

Starting on Monday, in each of my classes, we are either going to have the “vocabulary word of the day” or the “fun fact” of the day. I plan to post a schedule for student volunteers to sign up for a word or fact, then we’ll spend two minutes each day exploring language or ideas. I hope to report back on how this challenge shapes up for us, and I hope that my students will still be energized enough after thirty days to tackle something new.

The Invisibles

We all have them in our classes, the students who have learned to sit back, blend in, and not call attention to themselves. They do their work without complaints, and even more often, without asking the kinds of questions that would help them better understand and deepen their learning. Many of the Invisibles feel this way because they are not the hair-trigger question-askers or answerers, so they let their more extroverted peers and the “smart kids” do all the talking. They are also not the attention seekers, the talkative, or disruptive. Their work is generally good, if sometimes shallow or superficial, and often they have learned to work this way because compliance and obedience have “worked” for them. It’s not that they don’t want to stand in the spotlight or take more risks, but the cost of moving out of their comfortable, familiar role can seem too high.

These students need us to see them, to let them know that we see their potential and that we believe in them, to challenge their fixed mindsets and perceptions of themselves. I remember the first time I knew one of my teachers saw ME: the person, quiet–but capable, and at the same time, unsure. I was in seventh grade and my science teacher asked me to join the varsity academic bowl team–as the only girl and only seventh grader on the eighth grade team. It opened a whole world of possibilities to me, just knowing that my teacher saw potential in me. If she believed in me, maybe I could take the risk. I think about this now as a seventh grade teacher myself. I realize she knew exactly what she was doing and she was helping me become Visible, to trust myself.

To borrow an idea from the Velveteen Rabbit, once someone SEES you, you become Visible; you can never go back to being Invisible.

Not a weed, but a wildflower. Not bought or sold, but bravely beautiful. Defiant.

Not a weed, but a wildflower. Not bought or sold, but bravely beautiful. Defiant.

Who in your classroom needs you to SEE them, maybe for the first time in their school career? I challenge you to reach out and offer that student an opportunity to see themselves as something other than Invisible.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)

9/11 and My Seventh Graders

Today I teach children born in late 2000 or 2001. They have never known a world without the United States at war in the Middle East. Bin Ladin was as real (and frightening) as Voldemort from their childhood storybooks. And they are profoundly affected by their passive connection to this day’s events simply by being born in the year of 9/11. It shows in their conversation and in their writing. From this generation on, 9/11 is a dusty bit of history, as remote as Pearl Harbor.

We did not dwell on 9/11 today. I left their families to approach the historic day, or not. They carry a burden, no matter how young they were on that day. It breaks my heart to read their first writing assignments: a self introduction. Many of them begin, “I was born the year the twin towers fell.” They don’t understand that day, but they have absorbed its haunting, lingering fear. The media images play like cinema footage, equally real and unreal.

I hope for the day when they can say, without fear, “I was born the year the twin towers fell, and I am here to change the world for the better.”

My Kids -Your Kids

I started teaching in 2002, armed with a Bachelor of Science, methods courses, and a mentor. I was fresh out of college, single, and childless. I looked so young that I once had a colleague stop my class from going down the hallway because she thought they were unescorted by a teacher and thought, at first glance, that I was one of my eighth-graders. At the end of the year 7th vs 8th softball game, I wore my hair in braided pigtails for team spirit and a parent asked my partner teacher if I was a “new kid” in the seventh grade class.

It’s now over a decade later and no one is going to mistake me for a twelve year-old anymore, and while I am now married, I am still childless. According to an article by Sara Mosle on Slate.com entitled “Parents make better teachers,” because I am childless, I lack a critical perspective on child and adolescent development.

Mosle writes about her early career as a TFA grad, working for a charter school with the limited perspective that is part and parcel of being in your twenties. If you’re out in the world as an adult for the first time, you’ve got learning and living of your own to do. She writes, “To the extent I understood family dynamics, it was solely from the perspective of the teenager I’d been just a few years before.”

I can remember early entanglements with parents when I attempted to assert my authority in the classroom. A parent refused to have her daughter serve a detention because I could not prove that she was talking when I had asked her to stop. Her mother said, “Just because her lips were moving doesn’t mean my daughter was talking.” I talked with my mentor; I learned flexibility; I learned how to reflect on my actions; I became a more savvy classroom manager–but these skills took time and mentoring to develop. Now, my students rarely receive detention because I’ve learned how to engage them, guide them, and help them stop a problem before it gets to the level of a detention. It took experience and observation to get good at this part of the job.

I remember having a sophomore student who missed class frequently, didn’t bathe regularly, never completed his assignments, and often went to sleep in my class. In my early years, I would have seen this student as someone who needed discipline and strong consequences. Instead, I asked the guidance counselor what was going on. He lived with one parent who worked the graveyard shift. If his parent didn’t come home in time to take him to school, he would miss. This fifteen year-old only had access to the groceries and laundry detergent that was in the house. When supplies ran out, he had to wait until the next grocery trip. He spent most of his waking hours at school or alone at home. When his parent was home, the parent slept. They were on opposite schedules for school and work. He felt adrift and unmotivated. How’s that for “family dynamics”?

I’m not sure how having my own child would help me better empathize with students like him.

I agree with Mosle that charter schools who employ only young, single, childless teachers are being short sighted–but I reject her thesis that hiring teachers with children is the answer.

Enough. Enough with the oversimplification.

It takes a school community. It takes teachers like my mentor when I was twenty-three and starting out to help me learn from her experience and reflect on my management choices. It takes guidance counselors and principals. It takes parents and guardians who are willing to work with teachers and schools as partners. Charter schools who demand their teachers work 100 hours a week for the sake of their students at the expense of their own lives or own families are not sustainable. Teachers are human beings with a very real and important need for boundaries that allow them to be whole people with lives and families of their own. Teaching and caring for someone else’s children should not be all we are allowed to do.

I would love to have children of my own, but so far I can’t. I suffered a miscarriage while at school and had no choice over the following weeks and months to mask my grief and pain in order to protect my students. Don’t tell me I can’t be a good teacher if I’m not also a parent.

I buy school supplies for my students. I buy them lunches. I have held them when they’ve cried and talked them down from their feelings of betrayal and despair when a parent goes to jail or when there is divorce. I have held a student’s confidence when she told me she’d just worked up the courage to tell her parents and the police she’d been raped. I have walked students to the guidance office when they were facing the possibility of pregnancy. I have had a student steeped in his own depression lean on me to guide him to the help he desperately wanted but didn’t know how to ask. I have consoled parents who don’t know how to handle their child’s heartache, or addiction, or anxiety. I have been to hospitals. I have been to funerals.

It’s an old cliche that teachers refer to students as our kids. No one who says so does it lightly. I know when a new group of children are entrusted to me at the beginning of the school year that I have an obligation to provide each child with an intellectually and emotionally safe, motivating environment. They become my kids and I advocate for them; encourage them; and challenge them to see their potential even when they cannot.

I may not be a parent, but I have learned over the course of my career that I don’t have to be a parent in order to be a good teacher. What makes a good teacher? All those things I have been so blessed to find as I have grown and developed as a teacher: consistency, support, positive relationships with parents (their child’s first teachers), trust, and experience. Having a fertile womb hasn’t really entered the picture.