Monday, December 19, 2011

How Do You Know a Teacher Cares About His/Her Students?

Any teacher who has ever been accused of not caring about kids will be incensed at the accusation. But how can you really tell if a teacher truly does care?

A teacher who cares about kids will get to know the kids personally. The teacher will talk to kids about their weekend, their vacations, their siblings, their pets, their schoolwork in all classes, ask to see pictures, go to sporting events and academic contests, chaperone dances and field trips, and just sit and talk with the kids when given the opportunity. Likewise, a teacher who cares about kids will share the same details about his/her life. Obviously, this all needs to be done in an appropriate way and taking the kids’ ages into consideration. But the bottom line is that a teacher who cares about kids takes the time to know kids personally and lets the kids know him or her personally, too.

A teacher who cares about kids will take the time to understand how the kids in his or her class learn. This is done in so many ways – surveys, observations, discussions. A teacher who cares about kids wants to understand how the students learn so that he or she can be effective at his or her job.

A teacher who cares about kids will do his or her job well. In order to do the job well, that requires extra time and effort beyond the classroom in the form of course work, conferences, workshops, reading, webinars. A teacher who cares about kids will stay on top of what is happening n the world of education and consider how those events impact his or her students. Sometimes this requires a teacher to be out of his or her classroom. Please don’t ever assume that if a teacher is gone for a day or two that it means that teacher is blowing off his or her job. It is quite possible that the teacher has to be gone for a day in order to work on professional development. What happens when that teacher returns to the classroom the next day can be magical! The teacher is rejuvenated and inspired to try the new things he or she learned in the conference or workshop. This ultimately benefits the kids. Teachers will continue their learning because they care about kids’ learning.

A teacher who cares about kids doesn’t just do things out of the goodness of his or her heart. I know that sounds contrary to caring. But hear me out. Teaching is a job; it’s really more of a profession, a calling. Yes, teachers could do their job for free or for little pay, but what happens when teachers work that way? They become jaded and burned out. Then kids suffer. It’s not really greed that drives teachers to expect to be paid for their work. It’s actually for the benefit of the students. Teachers who work hard for their kids because they care about them should expect to be paid for their work. It inspires and ensures a level of dedication and professionalism in their work that ultimately benefits the students. When teachers are not treated like professionals, then they don’t have the expectation that they should act like professionals, so they end up being unprofessional. Being compensated for their work inspires teachers to continue doing their job well. Teachers who work beyond their pay (meaning they are underpaid, which is many teachers) do so willingly – to a point. There comes a point where a teacher just can’t sacrifice his or her sanity, health, happiness, or family any more than he or she already has. Please don’t interpret this as not caring about kids. It is really about valuing the profession so much that the teacher can’t give anymore without compromising the integrity of the job.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Girl Fights – Helicopter Parent vs. Helpful Parent

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

A Google search of the phrase “helicopter parents” will lead you to Wikipedia, which defines helicopter parents as those who pay “…extremely close attention to his or her child’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions.” You will even find the term “lawnmower parents”, who “…attempt to smooth down and mow down all obstacles…” their children encounter. What’s the difference between being a caring, concerned, and involved parent, and one who hovers and interferes? It’s a pretty thin line to tread. It is instinctual for a mom to want to protect her child, but when is it okay to do and how should it be done? If you decide to intervene in your daughter’s social problems, here are some suggestions that will make your involvement helpful instead of hurtful, thus putting you in the category of helicopter parent.

• DO be realistic. When there is a problem between two girls, rarely is one blameless and the other completely at fault. There is usually plenty of give and take going on. Ask plenty of questions of your daughter about how she reacted to nasty texts or comments. Ask to see the texts or her Facebook page. Get the facts you need to really determine how involved you need to be.
• DO plan what to say if you intend to confront another parent. It is wise to avoid confronting a child. It is too easy to misconstrue the intentions of an adult when dealing with a child. The adult WILL come off looking like a bully. Instead, confront a parent but ONLY when absolutely necessary! Plan what to say so that you don’t ramble. You will be better understood if you can be concise.
• DO bring evidence. If your daughter has received texts, emails, voice mails, Facebook comments, or Tweets that are problematic, bring them as proof that you are not making things up. Be careful not to take things out of context, though, to make them look like something they are not. Also be sure that you don’t accuse the other girl of something your own daughter has done. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter who started it. If they are both doing it, they are both at fault.
• DO have a goal in mind. If you are going to offer advice to your daughter or speak to a parent, start with the end in mind. What do you want to happen as a result? Do you want the problem to stop? Do you want the guilty party to be punished? Are you just trying to get even? If you’re honest with yourself, you might be surprised by your answer. But that answer will drive what you say and what you do.
• DON’T blindside anyone. The element of surprise will not work in your favor. If you feel the need to confront another parent on behalf of your child, showing up at the person’s house unannounced will only put that person on the defensive and jeopardize any chance of reconciliation. Call or email first and ask to talk. I have found that a very effective approach is to simply say, “I need your help.” It is friendly and implies that you don’t want to argue; rather, you’d like to work together.
• DON’T use the word “you” more than you use the word “I”. Using the word “you” will only come off as accusatory and hostile and make the other person extremely defensive.
• DON’T be vague about what you expect from your child to end the conflict. It is not good enough to simply say, “Just stay away from her,” or, “You just need to leave each other alone.” Instead, use very specific language: “Don’t talk to her when you see her in the hall at school. Delete her from your friends list on Facebook and block her. Don’t send her any more text messages. Don’t talk about her to anyone, not even your best friends. If someone asks what’s going on, simply tell him or her that you don’t want to talk about it.” These directives are clear and will make your daughter’s life easier in the long run because the expectations are so precise.
• DON’T involve anyone else. This can be a tough one for your daughter. Her friends will be eager to circle the wagons in defense of their friend. While the sentiment is touching, it will only escalate the problems and quickly spiral out of control. As a parent, you can only offer instructions and reprimands to your own child, and if another child is acting on behalf of your daughter, you have no control over those words or actions. This is why it is so important to be sure to tell your daughter, “Don’t talk to anyone about this issue.”
• DO contact the proper authorities. If your daughter is being called names, it might be a bullying situation and therefore proper to contact the dean or principal at your daughter’s school. If she is being threatened, then contacting the police is not out of line. But contacting the police because one girl called your daughter fat is way out of proportion. In the long run, over-reacting will only hurt your credibility and make it more difficult for you to report real issues to the people in charge when you need them.

As difficult as it may be to stand by and watch your daughter in the midst of conflict, you will do her more service by allowing her to problem solve on her own with a subtle guiding hand from you. If you step in and deal with the issue, she may learn a little about how to handle conflict from watching you, but there is a great risk that she will continue to come to you every time she needs a battle fought. In the long run, she will be weak and dependent when what you really want is a daughter is strong and independent.

Here are some resources for learning about helicopter parenting:

Wikipedia definition

Are You a Helicopter Parent? Quiz

Effects of Helicopter Parenting

Friday, November 4, 2011

Teens and Grief

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

In the span of one week, here is what the children in my small town have had to cope with:
• A high school senior named Mitch had a kayaking accident on Lake Michigan. He was last seen by the Coast Guard when his kayak capsized in high waves and he slipped from his life jacket and under the water. Searchers still have not found him a week later.
• A junior high girl named Kelsey was struck by a truck while walking home with two of her classmates and seriously injured. She is currently recovering because of what can be described only as a miracle. Sadly, she was struck by a teenaged driver who was driving without a license.
• A high school senior named Allison passed away after experiencing previously undetected heart problems.
The small community where I live knows all of these kids and they are tied together in a criss-cross of friendships. Personally, I can tell you that my daughter knows all of the children mentioned above and it has been torturous watching her deal with these tragedies at the tender age of seventeen while trying to contain my own wellspring of emotion. However, it has not been lost on me how the teens in this community deal with their grief; it is like nothing I have ever seen, and I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing.
The first thing I observed, and it is actually the underpinning of all that these kids have done to deal with their grief, is the use of social networking as a coping and communication mechanism. In all three tragedies, the news was spread and received via Twitter and Facebook. Never once did my daughter receive a phone call about what had happened to her peers. All information was disseminated via Twitter; in fact, the kids developed their own hash tags to express their feelings and make it easy to share information (#prayforfajman, #prayforlittle, and #prayforallison). They clearly found comfort in expressing themselves via this format and asking the questions they know no one can answer – why is this happening? how can I go on? what can we do for each other to help each other feel better? Amazingly, all the kids were careful to put information out that was as close to verified as possible. No one wanted to be accused of starting rumors. This was a surprise to me; I figured that rumors would run rampant. Apparently when they are all talking at once via Twitter instead of in person or over the phone, the information presents itself much more clearly, something I never would have thought possible.
The next thing I noticed was how quickly the kids mobilized themselves to do things in honor of their classmates. Mitch had his kayaking accident on a Saturday; Kelsey had her car accident on Sunday. On Sunday night, the high school students attended a candlelight vigil at their school for Mitch. On Monday, the kids at both schools were wearing particular colors to honor their friends, one missing, one seriously hurt. The wearing of different colors for Mitch and Kelsey continued all week. All the information for these symbolic salutes was shared through Twitter and groups on Facebook. These tributes were an amazing unifying force; it didn’t matter if you knew Mitch or Kelsey personally; it didn’t matter if you were friends with Mitch or Kelsey. All the kids banded together simply because he and she were one of their own.
In a way, I have been grateful for this support system simply because I have been trying to deal with my own emotions through these ordeals. Empathy is powerful stuff, and I have been full of it. I can’t seem to keep my mind from imagining what the parents of these teens must be feeling and it is impacting me deeply. And I have the luxury of knowing my feelings are imagined; the parents I am empathizing with don’t have that luxury. Their emotions are horribly real and so much more intense than mine, and their emotions won’t go away for a long, long time, if ever. I have tried so hard to be strong for my own child for those moments when she needs me. They have not been frequent, though, which I partially expected. I know that at the age of seventeen, she prefers the company of her peers over her parents, but I wasn’t prepared for her to have such a large support system in place through social networking.
One thing I am watching for, though, is the potential for that system not to serve her needs like she wants. While I think it is amazing the way the kids have used social networking to bond and communicate, I fear there may come a day when my daughter and many of these other kids are going to need some guidance and comfort from someone personally. I fear the emotions will become so overwhelming one day that the teens won’t know where to turn for help – the counselors at the school will be gone, the memorial services will be over, the hash tags will not be trending anymore, the posts to the Facebook groups will slow down, but moments will arise where the feelings of sadness and grief break through. Who will help the kids when this happens? I believe I need to let my child use the systems set in place now, but I will keep my guard up for a while, just in case she suddenly has to face reality without the network. At the very least, I am sure it will be needed come May when the class of 2012 graduates without Allison and without Mitch.

If you are interested in reading more about these stories, here are some links:

Coast Guard briefing about Mitch’s kayaking accident

Chicago Tribune update on the search for Mitch

The Patch article about Kelsey’s accident

Student support for Kelsey

Facebook page for Mitch

Facebook page for Allison

Herald News story about Allison

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Understanding the Role of the Bystander in Bullying Situations

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

So many anti-bullying programs focus on getting bullies to stop their abusive behavior or empowering victims. Both are noble and worthwhile endeavors, but more and more researchers are starting to acknowledge the huge role that bystanders play in any bullying situation. Bystanders are important, according an article on the website, because bullying often takes place in front of peers, providing the audience the bully craves, but rarely happens in front of adults. Most bystanders want to stop the bullying but they don’t know how, or they are afraid. According to Ken Rigby, an expert in bullying, “Children on the whole feel bullying is wrong and unfair, and most want to intervene….”

According to an article
on, there are hurtful bystanders and helpful bystanders. Hurtful bystanders might
• instigate the bullying;
• encourage the bullying;
• join the bullying; or
• passively accept the bullying by watching it and doing nothing.
Helpful bystanders, on the other hand, might
• directly intervene; or
• get help.
Bystanders have a number of reasons for why they don’t get involved, including
• thinking the bullying is none of their business;
• fear of becoming a victim as well;
• feeling powerless;
• feeling like the victim deserves it or brought it upon him or herself; or
• they simply don’t know what to do.

What can be done to empower kids to become helpful bystanders? Rigby has a few suggestions. One thing he says is important is to help kids see that their peers think bullying is wrong, too. Once they realize that they aren’t alone in feeling this way, they might feel like they can band together to intervene. Rigby also advises teaching kids that intervening can make a real difference. There is at least a 50% chance the bullying will end if bystanders try to stop it. Once the bully realizes his/her audience disapproves, he/she is inclined to stop, much like an audience booing a performer offstage. Next, Rigby stresses the importance of general anti-bullying education. Without anything in place, bystanders might feel more compelled to encourage the bullying rather than stop it.

Author and counselor Stan Davis suggests bystanders tell an adult when they see bullying, even if it is something general like, “Please watch the locker room at third period. There are bad things going on there at that time….” Davis also says we need to eradicate the idea that telling an adult is tattling. He says, “It’s not tattling, it’s being a witness to a crime.” Another idea from Davis is to offer the victim a means of escape by saying something like, “Mr. Smith needs to see you right now.” Finally, he suggests offering support to the victim by sitting next to him/her in class, at lunch, or on the bus. Even a phone call to the victim at home saying, “…I saw what happened and I didn’t know what to do, but I don’t think you deserved it,” could be enough to show the victim that someone sees what is happening and he/she is not all alone. One caveat: Stan Davis does not advocate intervening physically. In situations where the bullying is getting physical, he says it is necessary to get an adult to intervene.

Bystanders who don’t get involved can end up being victimized themselves in ways they didn’t realize. They may feel pressure to join in bullying or anxious about talking to someone who is a victim of bullying. In addition, they might become overcome with guilt for staying out of the situation. It is imperative to create a culture that does not tolerate bullying. It is the largest group, the bystanders, who have the power to influence the culture. Once bullies realize their behavior is not socially acceptable, it will wane and hopefully come to an end altogether.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Standardized Test Scores: Take With a Grain of Salt

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Another school year is on the horizon, and with the start of a new year comes another round of standardized testing for our students. As a teacher and a parent of a college-bound student, I am all-too-well aware of this. There is so much importance attached to students doing well on standardized tests – for their state, for their school, for their teachers, for their futures, for themselves – that it seems inevitable for angst to follow. I caution all parents and their children to take this high-stakes testing seriously but also take the results with a grain of salt.

Education expert Alfie Kohn wrote extensively about the pitfalls of standardized testing in 2000
, and more than a decade later, he still has many valid points. In this article, he makes some important points to consider, including
• Standardized test scores often measure superficial thinking. It is difficult to measure higher-order thinking skills on a multiple-choice test scored by a machine.
• Many experts disapprove of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old. There is such a wild variance in children’s learning at young ages.
• Many experts disapprove of basing an important decision (like promotion to the next grade level, graduation, or college admission) on the results of a single test. This is a pretty small data set to use for making such impactful decisions about a child’s future.

Leigh Pretnar Cousins writes about the impact that test scores can have on a child’s self-esteem. The scores, whether good or bad, are important to the kids, even if they say they aren’t. Trust me, the kids are being told directly and/or indirectly that they are important. Kids will wonder if they are smart based on their test scores and the scores of their peers. Please don’t be fooled into thinking the kids won’t compare scores. They will. The kids with good scores will share their results; the rest of the kids will silently compare themselves to those kids. I see it all the time. Schools and states use the kids’ test data to compare themselves nationally and internationally. Even though it is not one particular child’s results being shared individually, the kids know their score is part of the larger scope.

It is easy to find all sorts of information about the problems and issues surrounding standardized tests – how they are created, how they are administered, and how the test scores are used. The website Fair Test: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has devoted itself to these issues. This is a hot topic in education right now; leaders in education like Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee, the teachers’ unions, and The Gates Foundation all have opinions on how high-stakes test scores should – or should not – be used.

So, here is some advice from an educator/parent to all the parents and kids. This is the same information I tell my students, the parents of my students, and my own child.
• A child is not defined by test scores. No matter what anyone says, a child is always more than a number, a percentile ranking, or a bar on a graph.
• A test score shows how a child did on one particular test on one particular day.
• A test does not measure intelligence; it measures how well the child was able to navigate this kind of test format and use information he was able to recall at that time.
• Many circumstances impact a child’s test scores – the format of the test, the prior knowledge the child has, how hungry the child feels, how tired the child feels, the temperature of the room, the comfort of the chair he is sitting in, the noises in the room or outside the room. The list goes on and on. If one day a child is taking a test on a full stomach in a comfortable chair in a comfortable room, it stands to reason that score will be better than the one coming from the test taken on the day the child came down with strep, skipped breakfast, and shivered in a cold room.
• Students with text anxiety or learning disabilities are rarely going to get anything that could be even close to a score that is considered valid.
• Test formats impact the scores, too. They may all be multiple choice, but factors like the interest level of the reading material on the test, the size of the bubbles to fill in, the number of questions on the test, the use of color or pictures (or lack of), and the length of the test all impact a child’s motivation and effort and therefore the end result.

Please tell your child to always try his best on a standardized test, but explain that good or bad, that one test score doesn’t mean much in terms of the kind of person he or she is.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Five Words to Call Out a Bully

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Recently, actress Jennifer Aniston had the chance opportunity and the courage to stand up to a bully. It may be hard for anyone to believe that Aniston could be the victim of bullying considering her stunning good looks, international fame, and resulting wealth, but she was often on the receiving end of nasty nicknames and comments slung at her by celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton. She describes how she accidentally bumped into him in a parking garage one evening and felt compelled to ask him one question comprised of five words. Those five words carried quite a bit of power, enough to make someone like Perez Hilton rethink his behavior. She asked him, “Why are you so mean?”

Perez Hilton spoke with talk show host Ellen Degneres about being called out for being a bully. Interestingly enough, Hilton says he doesn’t want to be perceived as a bully, and it was “…a big wakeup call that so many people perceived me that way.” He says he felt justified in his behavior because it wasn’t the “real him” doing the name-calling; it was a character. Degeneres points out to him that, “Kids look at [his bullying] and go, ‘Well, adults think it’s funny to make fun of other people; why can’t we make fun of other people?’”

There is so much to be learned from this situation. One is for adults to realize that kids do pay attention to what they do and how they treat other people. Whether or not someone is famous, whether or not someone considers him or herself a role model, kids learn social behavior by watching adults.

Another thing that is interesting to note is the rare glimpse into the way a bully’s mind works. Hilton himself said he found ways to justify his name-calling, and he never realized anyone actually thought of him as a bully. Parents, teachers, and even kids themselves can make good use out of this insight. Bullies may know on the surface that what they are doing is wrong, but if they can create a justification for it, then they are able to perceive their behavior as acceptable. They don’t think they are being bullies, either, because they have used pretzel logic to make their behavior feel okay.

Finally, I think Aniston has provided a great way to call a bully out by asking the simple question she posed to Perez Hilton. Asking, “Why are you so mean?” is a great way to be assertive (as opposed to aggressive, which is often met with further aggression). The question doesn’t draw attention to the victim directly, and it shows the bully that his or her behavior has been noticed and asks him or her to explain his or her actions. This question, delivered in a direct tone of voice, must be quite disarming to a bully. It’s possible that the bully will retort with some sort of snide answer, but hopefully it will be enough to give the bully pause at some point to reflect on his or her behavior.

This is a question that either a victim or a bystander can use to address a bully. This question subtly sends the message, “I know what you are doing. It’s easy to label. I’m calling you out on it. I won’t put up with it.”

This Hollywood story has a relatively happy ending. Perez Hilton has acknowledged his nasty behavior and vowed to improve, which he has done pretty effectively. Yes, he still likes to comment on juicy celebrity stories, but the tone of his blog has changed noticeably. It has been a long time since he has been truly insulting; he has managed to create a way to keep up the gossip without being quite so destructive. Bullies can change – all it takes is one good jolt to wake them up to what they are doing. Jennifer Aniston, by standing up for herself, gave all our kids one more tool to use to bring bullies down.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

No Laughing Matter

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Yesterday morning, I checked Facebook and noticed that one person I am friends with had made many, many posts on another friend’s page. I’m talking 50 or 60 posts. I cringed because I knew what this meant: I was eventually going to see a comment something akin to, “Thanks for raping my Facebook wall!” Sadly, I wasn’t disappointed; that comment did appear once the posts were discovered. This is not the first time I have seen, in particular, high school and college students throw around the word “rape” in such a casual way. I find it incredibly disturbing. Even more disturbing is that every time I see it on Facebook, it is almost always said by a female. When did this word become socially acceptable to use in such a flippant way? What is going to happen if it continues to be used to describe unfortunate but meaningless situations like having too many posts on your Facebook wall?

There is actually a new term for what happens when someone’s Facebook page is left open and “hacked” by someone else or the Facebook page is hit with hundreds of posts; it’s called “frape”, a combination of the words “Facebook” and “rape” (read an article about the effects of “frape” on boys here, and see the Urban Dictionary definitions offered here, but reader beware – at Urban Dictionary, you will encounter a deluge of obscene language, but realize this is “the site” kids use to pump up their slang).

Rape is no laughing matter. It’s nothing to be taken lightly. It’s not something to make a joke out of. It should never be treated insensitively. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network has compiled some research findings and statistics that have frighteningly real implications for our children, including
• 44% of rape and sexual assault victims are under the age of 30.
• 29% of rape and sexual assault victims are between the ages of 12 – 17.
• Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
• Victims of sexual assault are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
• About 2/3 of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows.
• 60% of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police.

There is an immense amount of education that needs to be done in order to prevent our daughters from becoming victims of this heinous crime. One of those pieces of education needs to be teaching our daughters AND sons that there is nothing funny, silly, or casual about rape, and that using the word in a joking way diminishes the impact of the word and therefore the act itself and makes it sound socially acceptable. Which is not acceptable at all.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Honors Classes: Yes or No?

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Every January, my 8th graders need some extra special TLC from me. This is because January is the month for applying to honors classes in high school. There is always a great deal of angst among the students and their parents about honors classes. The most common question I receive is whether or not a student should apply for honors classes. The answer to this question is not cut and dried. If you have a child who might be considering honors classes for high school, I offer the following things to consider.

First, think about why you want your child in an honors level class. As a teacher of gifted 7th and 8th graders, I see parents divided into two camps in response to this question, although few will admit to being in one of the camps. One group of parents wants their children to be challenged, and they appreciate the advanced curriculum I strive to offer. I try to teach my class on par with a high school class in terms of curriculum, activities, work load, and student responsibility. As a result of this, my class isn’t really an “easy A” class. Sometimes these highly intelligent kids with great work ethics don’t get all A’s in my class. The parents who appreciate the challenge are okay with this. The other camp includes parents who like the prestige of being able to say that their child is in an accelerated class. These parents often like being able to brag about their children earning all A’s, too; there is a great deal of prestige in a child being able to accomplish this. Sometimes, these parents get very upset with the curriculum because of the level of complexity. However, I feel it is imperative to offer a challenging curriculum to these advanced learners and sometimes they don’t earn an A right away. Most high school honors classes are going to be very challenging, so be honest with yourself and don’t strive for your child to enter an honors program if you want it only for the prestige factor.

Next, realize that it takes a lot of work to get into an honors program in high school. I fear that some of the parents I work with like having their child in a gifted class because they think it gives them an advantage when it comes time to apply for honors. In the high school that we feed to, it does not. If your child isn’t willing to put in work during the school year, or into the application process, or into the high school class itself, then honors might not be right. Be honest about your child’s work ethic and study habits. Both are going to be very important once he or she is enrolled in a class with high academic standards.

Now think about college and how high school honors classes will impact your child’s college experience. It is commonly believed that colleges will take on students who have been in honors classes over those who have not. This is not always true; it varies from school to school. However, all colleges do like to see that students are taking challenging coursework, so having honors level classes on a transcript can reflect well. As far as how those accelerated classes will impact what college coursework will be taken, that also depends on the individual school. As an honors student in high school, I took four years of math, which I enjoyed but was not my forte. When I got to college, I was essentially “forced” into taking trigonometry instead of college algebra because of all the math I had in high school. In my eyes, my honors math classes worked to my disadvantage. I scratched and clawed my way through trig but see no benefit to it now that I am an English teacher. Discussing with an admissions counselor the kinds of coursework that will need to be taken in college after honors coursework in high school is a good idea.

Finally, please take into consideration what your child wants. Too often I talk with students who want to take some honors classes but not others, but their parents are “forcing” them to apply for all the classes. My biggest fear when I see this happening is that whatever subject the student is being coerced into taking at an honors level in high school will become that student’s most hated subject and/or the subject he/she does the most poorly in, which then sabotages the student’s academic record. Yes, sometimes saying, “Try it; you’ll like it!” yields positive results. But it’s a gamble; it may end up being an albatross around the student’s neck.

Here is a good Q and A about the advantages and disadvantages of enrolling your child in honors level classes. In addition, you can peruse a Yahoo! Answers discussion about the benefits and challenges of honors classes. Also, the website CollegeData (sponsored by 1st Financial Bank) offers up some reasons to take honors classes as well as some things to consider here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Education Reform -- Non-Research/Statistics Based; Just My Opinion

I have been trying to keep abreast of all the education reform debates since last fall when I had the chance to attend a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show related to the film Waiting for Superman. What piqued Oprah’s people's interest was my comment that went something like this: I'm tired of teachers who do nothing except sit on their tenured butts and collect a paycheck. And I stand by that statement today. What self-respecting, truly good educator wouldn't? But I do sometimes feel like a pariah for saying that. Some would see that statement as unsupportive of my colleagues, that I don't stand in solidarity with my fellow teachers. All I can say is that I do indeed support whole-heartedly all the teachers out there who work as hard as I do, but I will not feign support for the lazy teachers out there, the ones who clearly can't stand their job or the kids they work with every day; the ones who complain all the time; the ones who teach the same things the same way year after year; the ones who have kids do everything open book because there are so many fewer bad grades that way, resulting in fewer parent complaints; the ones who never volunteer to do anything extra, whether it earns a stipend or not; the ones who put on a dog-and-pony show the day they are observed by the principal. Those teachers do harm, in my opinion, and I will not defend them simply because they work in a classroom every day. And I am finding that makes me pretty unpopular. Well, that and my other views on education. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm misguided. There is a lot of great stuff going on in education in this country, but there's plenty of lousy stuff, too. I have my own ideas about what needs to be done to make education in this country meaningful but I fear it will never happen because it requires too much cooperation and collaboration from too many people who don't look like they will ever see eye to eye. Regardless, here's what I have to say if you care to read it.

Who is involved in meaningful education reform? I believe it is teachers, teachers' unions, school administrators, students, and parents. Each group has a mission, if they choose to accept it.

Teachers need to work. Really work. That is inherent in the job of teaching if it is done correctly. This means logging more hours than there are in the contracted day -- grading papers, developing lessons and assessments, communicating with parents, documenting the learning that takes place in our classrooms, and millions of other little tasks that are associated with teaching. My husband once said that good teaching is like porn -- you know it when you see it. While that statement might be a bit crass, there is an element of truth to it. Face it, fellow teachers; we all know who the good teachers are in our school and who the bad teachers are, too. We can explain why the good teachers are good and why the bad teachers are bad, and most of the time, the good teachers are the ones doing all the tasks that take up that extra time and the bad ones aren't. Good teachers aren't lazy. They will do what is right for kids even if they don't get paid for it. I know I will open a can of worms with that comment, and please don't think I am saying that teachers don't deserve to be paid well -- we do (the good ones). But the good ones have never been in this business for the money, so they end up going the extra mile because ultimately, it furthers our mission -- education!

Teachers' unions need to recognize that not all teachers are created equal. They need to make it reasonable for a school district to get rid of a bad teacher. How a bad teacher is defined is a whole other blog post, but if it can be shown that a teacher isn't doing his or her job, isn't improving on his or her own or through mentoring or mediation, then the teacher needs to go. Yes, this does happen sometimes, but sadly, there are a lot of collective bargaining agreements out there that are ridiculously cumbersome. It should be a reasonable process to dismiss an ineffective educator, not one that has plenty of loopholes in it. I have heard some people say, "Well, administrators shouldn't agree to those contracts -- it takes two sides to negotiate a contract." True. But I would say that the unions shouldn't try to push through a contract that has enough cracks in it that lousy teachers are protected. Contracts that are written to cover the rear ends of the bad teachers are demoralizing to the good teachers and diminish the professionalization of this career. I am always heartened to read about unions who are working to revamp contracts that are going to be of benefit to the good teachers, help the poor teachers who want the help, and remove the poor teachers who just don't care. The teachers' unions need to keep moving in this direction.

School administrators need to be brave. Bravery is what it takes to tell a tenured teacher he or she isn't doing the job right. I think too many principals are unwilling to fight that fight because it will surely stir up a hornets' nest in more ways than one. It might bring down the wrath of the union. It might bring down the wrath of teachers in the building or district. Regardless, it's gonna get ugly! I say, do it anyway! Lousy teachers and the unions like fearful school administrators. They like principals and superintendents who would rather look the other way or only see what they want to see. Praised be the administrator who isn't afraid to call a spade a spade. They know it will be an uphill battle and they will probably be pretty unpopular (think Michelle Rhee) but they ultimately are willing to do what is best for the kids in that classroom. Having ineffective, unmotivated, lazy teachers in a classroom isn’t good for kids. One thing I say often is that nothing will make a kid hate school more than a teacher who hates school. Please, principals and superintendents, help kids love schools by being brave and calling out the teachers who are causing harm!

Students need to realize the value of education. Too many kids in this country take their education for granted. They often whine about being in school. Some of that whining probably comes from being stuck in a classroom with a boring, unmotivated teacher, but a lot of it comes from not appreciating education. I seem to recall Oprah Winfrey getting flak about opening her girls’ school in Africa as opposed to this country and her response being something akin to what I just said – those girls in Africa will be grateful for their education; most kids in America will not. Part of my philosophy of teaching is to make learning meaningful for my students right now, not just in the future. I teach junior high kids, and they are so entrenched in the present that careers, college, and even high school seem so far away that telling them, “You’ll need to know this for when you get a job. You’ll have to do this when you’re in college. This is going to help you when you get to high school,” is beyond their scope. I believe that by helping them see how what they are learning now is useful now will help them appreciate their education. Once they see an immediate use for it, they will be open to wanting the same for the future as well. Students also need to take responsibility for their own learning. On the first day of school, I tell my students that they have a legal right to an education and that if I am not providing it, they should demand it from me. Kids should not be content to have busy work, extra study halls, and lots of free time in class. They should demand what is rightfully theirs. Conversely, they should reciprocate for the teachers who DO provide them with a good education by paying attention in class, doing their work, being respectful, and looking for the worth in everything they are learning.

Parents need to value education as well. Not just pay lip service to education – truly value it. So many parents talk about how important their child’s education is but in the same breath gripe about the teachers and the school. Too many times parents are upset when their children bring home anything less than an A or complain when schoolwork infringes upon the baseball game scheduled for that evening. I would like to see parents who want their children engaged in learning during the day, parents who want their children challenged. Too often parents are content with their children receiving busywork because the report card grade ends up being good. Being challenged, being pushed intellectually doesn’t always result in an immediate A. Sometimes it’s a B or a C. Or lower. But what is important is that the child continues to push and be challenged because learning is going to happen and then those grades will come up. Too much importance is put on grades by parents. Look instead at the curriculum and the lessons that are being taught. Would you prefer your 8th grader to get an A on 6th grade work or a B on 9th grade work? Another thing, parents need to realize that school comes before extra-curriculars. Yes, outside activities are important – they are what help our children become well-rounded citizens and learn things like teamwork, sportsmanship, and taking criticism gracefully. But academics must take precedence. Realize that if your child has work to do for school while at home, it is not some conspiracy on the school’s part to make your child miserable or infringe upon your family time. It is going to help advance your child’s learning, so make it a priority in the home.

All these individuals need to make changes if we want meaningful education reform to happen. It needs to happen swiftly and as simultaneously as possible. Squabbling over who is right and who is wrong isn’t doing a single thing to help the kids in our schools right now. All these people stepping up isn’t going to solve every problem, either. There is still lots of work to be done. But if teachers do their jobs well AND if teachers’ unions set standards of excellence for their membership AND administrators are willing to fight to keep the good as well as remove the bad AND students take their education seriously AND parents get involved and support their kids and the schools, changes WILL occur and they will be positive.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Surviving Your Daughter’s Break Up

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Any parent with a teenaged daughter dreads the thought of her dating boys. What is even more difficult to deal with than some boy dating your daughter, though, is some boy dumping her. As parents, our first instinct when our child is hurt is to be hyper-defensive and hunt down the no-good louse who caused our baby such pain. Eventually, we become rational again and we are left to figure out how to help our child deal with the aftermath. Here are some things you can do to help your daughter cope with a break-up; these are things I’ve learned through my own experience with a teenaged daughter, and often things I’ve learned the hard way!

Provide space. Sometimes, we can see the break up coming down the pike. It is important to step away from the situation and let your daughter handle it on her own as much as possible. Fight the urge to subtly encourage the break up (if you don’t particularly like the boy) or to help salvage it (if you happen to like the boy). Interfering in either instance can backfire – try to hasten the break up and your daughter may stick with him out of stubbornness; try to stop the break up and she may stay with the boy no matter how unhappy she feels in the relationship.

Be a sympathetic listener. This is the perfect situation to practice our active listening skills. Try to hear exactly what your daughter is saying about the boy by reading between the lines. Is she wanting to initiate the break up? Is she secretly relieved that the relationship is ending? Is she still head over heels and not prepared for the break up? Regardless of the scenario, it is going to be emotionally wrenching. Be as supportive as you can of your daughter’s feelings but be careful not to belittle them, which brings me to my next tip.

Be prepared for irrationality. No matter how much space you provide or how sympathetic a listener you are, chances are your daughter will tell you that you just don’t understand or care. If you provide space, it means you don’t care. If you try to get involved, you should just stay out of it because you don’t understand. This irrationality is just a manifestation of your daughter’s pain and really has nothing to do with you. Try not to get angry when you’re told you don’t understand; your daughter really doesn’t want to hear about the horrible break ups you endured because, in her mind, there’s simply no way they were anything like the one she’s going through. She’s really not trying to be rude or disrespectful, so ride out the irrationality – it will go away soon enough!

Guide her through proper break up behavior. Remember, the relationships our teens go through are supposed to help them grow along the way to adulthood and hopefully help them form mature relationships as adults. They are bound to make mistakes in the relationships they have as teens. In the most non-preachy way possible, remind your daughter to stand up for herself and not measure her self-worth by the fact that she has a boyfriend. Remind her to be assertive, but not mean or hurtful, or even worse, clingy and needy. Remind her to be selective about whom she talks to about the break up and how she talks about it. Teens today use social networking for so much of their communication; be firm that your daughter not be over-dramatic or detailed about the break up on Facebook. Also suggest she not get into too many gory details with her girlfriends, whom she will very likely turn to for sympathy and understanding. This is normal and appropriate, but girls tend to like to rally around their friends. If your daughter can keep the details to a minimum, her friends will be less likely to feel the need to get involved by saying something directly or indirectly to the ex-boyfriend.

Make time for your daughter. After the break up, there is bound to be a temporary hole in your daughter’s social life. Try to help fill it by spending time together. I have found that doing out-of-the-ordinary things helps a lot. Yes, lunch and a shopping trip is fun, but we do those things on a relatively regular basis. Instead, offer to do something like go for a bike ride, take a trip to the zoo, or go on a picnic. Eventually, that hole in her social life will shrink and be filled with friends or even another boyfriend, so take advantage of the time you have together to show your daughter she is definitely worthy of love.

To read what some experts have to say about helping teens through a break up, check out these resources:

What Parents Can Do When Their Teen Has a Break Up
Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Help Your Teen Get Over a Break Up
Getting Over a Break Up

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Play It Safe: Parents’ Role in Technology

This post was originally written for Summit Series for Families.

Recently, The Huffungton Post published articles (one here and another here) where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talks about his position regarding children as young as thirteen using Facebook: he says yes. One article indicates that according to research done by Consumer Reports, there are already 7.5 million Facebook users under the age of thirteen. This could be debated ad nauseum, whether children so young should have a Facebook account, but the debate won’t hide the reality – young children are online using Facebook as well as gaming sites, video sites, and other social networking sites right along with adults and often without their parents knowing. So pushing aside the debate, instead, focus on what we as parents can do if our kids are going to use the Internet – and they are. Our children are digital natives. Here are some suggestions I give to parents when I do Internet safety presentations in my school district.

Online Gaming If your kids are playing any games online, consider sitting down next to them to see what the games are about. Learn about the parental controls each game site has and employ them as needed. If your child wants to play games online, often creating an account is required, so help your child do this to make sure he isn’t giving out too much personal information.

Game Systems If your child plays games on systems like Xbox and Xbox 360, the live feature allows interactive game play, chatting, and photo sharing. These systems also have parental controls available, and often these controls are in place even when your child logs in at a friend’s house.

YouTube Kids love to watch videos online, and YouTube is about the easiest site to find videos on. YouTube can be run in Safety Mode, which will help filter out videos with inappropriate content. (Read more about safety features on YouTube here.)

Cell Phones Enable parental controls on cell phones. To find out what’s available and what charges might be for those services, it will be necessary to contact the cellular service provider. It is also important to periodically check the outgoing and incoming calls to the phone as well as peruse the texts on the phone. Some may say this is a violation of privacy, but in this age of cyberbullying, I think it is imperative for parents to check up on how the technology they are paying for is being used. It is also advisable to set a time for cell phone use to end for the day and have the phone plugged in for the night somewhere other than the child’s bedroom. At my house, my high school daughter plugs her phone into the outlet in my bedroom at 10:30 every night. She gets it back no earlier than 6:00 A.M.

Social Networking
If your child wants an account on Facebook or some other social network and you approve, the responsibility has just begun. Parents should also create an account with the same social network and “friend” their kids. My rule for my daughter was she had to be friends with me and her father or she would lose the Facebook account. Periodically go through your child’s friends list and ask who the people are. If a “friend” isn’t someone your child can say he or she knows personally and has actually had face-to-face contact with, the person should be taken off the friends list. Look at your child’s posts and if there are any that aren’t okay with you, ask for them to be taken down. If they don’t get taken down in time, then take them down yourself. This brings me to my next tip: have the username and password for your child’s account. I log in to my daughter’s account periodically to make sure she hasn’t been sneaky and changed it on me (she hasn’t, fortunately). One caveat: if I have to log in and take down something, I also take a moment to change the password so she can’t log on without my permission. Again, I don’t view this as a violation of privacy; I see it as a way to prevent problems that arise from online drama.

In general, parents need to educate themselves about the technology their kids are using and then get involved. One colleague of mine has a daughter who has been begging for a Facebook account. My friend is going to relent but she is also getting one for herself, which she dreads. She says she doesn’t want to do things on Facebook. I told her she doesn’t have to – all she needs to do is check in on what her daughter is doing; she doesn’t have to do anything else if she doesn’t want to. But she, like the rest of us parents, has to be involved. Our kids are only going to get more involved with technology as they get older so let’s make sure they get a good foundation!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Protecting Our Daughters

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

It’s a constant battle at my house: my seventeen year old daughter thinks she’s fat. She wears a single-digit clothing size and her height and weight put her in a normal BMI range. But somehow those things bring her no comfort; she stills sees herself as fat. Just like all girls, my daughter is bombarded everywhere and all the time with images and messages of what she should and should not be like to be considered thin and attractive. Personally, I don’t think any of these subliminal messages are really meant to be sinister in nature. What is scary, though, is that there ARE a number of websites on the Internet that really are sinister in nature, and therefore dangerous for all girls.

The website compiled self-esteem research findings from a number of sources, including these facts:
• A girl’s self-esteem is tied more to how she views herself than how she actually looks.
• Three fourths of girls with low self-esteem report engaging in negative activities.
• More than one third of girls with low self-esteem also believe they are not good daughters.
Understanding these sad statistics makes it all the more vital to be aware of what lurks on the Internet to continue chipping away at girls’ self-esteem and perception. Psychologist, author, and mom Michele Borba recently highlighted some websites that are nothing short of dangerous to girls.

One site mentioned is the Miss Bimbo Game. It’s not really necessary to explain any further – all it takes is a look at the title to figure this one out. In order to be a successful bimbo, the player needs to keep at a target weight, is encouraged to buy diet pills to do this, and keep up an attractive appearance by doing things such as purchasing breast implants. Some might say this game is just that: a game. But any parent of a daughter knows this game is played out in reality in homes across America every day.

Formspring is another site Dr. Borba mentions, which is also a site I mentioned to parents of incoming 7th graders last fall at our open house. Formspring encourages kids to ask questions and give comments about each other anonymously. The danger is in the anonymity because members use this as an easy way to attack and demean others, all without the worry of being caught saying something horrible. My daughter had a Formspring account for a while and she shed tears over what she read more than once. I kept telling her to just dump the account, which she finally did. She now realizes it is nothing more than a tool for easy cyberbullying.

Finally, Dr. Borba mentions some sites that encourage and promote eating disorders. Keep your eyes and ears open for the “names” Ana and Mia – these are clippings for the terms anorexia and bulimia. Sites that put eating disorders in a positive light bombard girls with messages about the importance of being thin and ways to avoid eating without arousing suspicion from parents.

Protecting our daughters from the dangers that lurk online involves two key things: open lines of communication and being involved with what our kids do online. If parents talk with their daughters about self-esteem issues with love and without judgment, and if we spend time learning about their online behavior, we will make strides in keeping our girls safe and raising them to be beautiful, confident young women.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Topic We All Want to Ignore but Can’t: Sexting

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Few words will make a parent, teenager, teacher, or school administrator more uncomfortable than the word “sexting”. It seems that any time the word “sex” is brought up in any form, all of the above people want to run and hide. Unfortunately, sexting is something that too many teens are engaging in either actively or passively, so parents need to grit their teeth and learn as much as they can – for the sake and safety of their children.

The Cyberbullying Research Center is one of the premiere websites that addresses all aspects of cyberbullying, including sexting. The definition created by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin is fairly comprehensive: sexting is “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive images or video via a cell phone.” It is worth noting that while sexting most often occurs via cell phone, it can also happen through email, instant messaging, and social networking. Also, sexting doesn’t necessarily include sharing totally nude pictures; the pictures may be semi-nude (topless or in underwear) or sexually suggestive in nature.

Research done by Hinduja and Patchin in 2010 suggests that as many as 8% of teens create sexting messages and 13% receive these messages. The numbers climb as children get older. They also found that boys and girls were equally likely to send a sexting message, but boys receive significantly more sexts than girls.

The thought of sending such images makes most adults cringe; why do teens seem so blasé about it? Research done in 2009 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicate that the reasons include
• sharing images as part of a sexual relationship
• sharing images instead of having a physical sexual relationship
• starting or maintaining a relationship
• sharing images for fun or as a joke
• sharing images out due to peer pressure (girls say they feel pressure from boys or else risk not having or losing a relationship)

So, what can parents do? The overarching task would be to talk to your teen about sexting. Yes, it will probably be uncomfortable, but it is necessary. Teens need to realize that sexting is dangerous behavior both legally and socially. Laws in many states consider sexting to be creating, disseminating, and possessing child pornography, and the punishments for those offenses are severe and could have a life-long impact. The social consequences can be equally devastating. The stories of Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell sadly and graphically demonstrate this (both girls tragically ended their lives after engaging in sexting). Beyond keeping the lines of communication open, parents need to check up on their children’s behavior with the computer and cell phone. Dougherty County, Georgia, District Attorney Greg Edwards explained this quite succinctly: “The only thing that a parent can do is to check, check the devices, it's so many devices that allow you to do it now and it's going to be difficult but it has to be done.”

For more information and summary of recent research done on the issue of sexting, you can download a sexting fact sheet here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mean Girls/Relational Aggression: A Primer

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

If you have ever seen the movie Mean Girls, then you are probably familiar with the term. Some of the mean girl behavior shown in that movie is portrayed accurately, but alas, the movie ties the story up in a pretty bow at the end, and that is rarely how it happens in real life.

Mean girl behavior is called relational aggression, a term coined by Dr. Nicki Crick. Relational aggression is a form of bullying that uses relationships in order to hurt someone. Relational aggression can include such behaviors as social exclusion and rejection and spreading gossip and rumors.

Girls tend to be the biggest relational aggression bullies and targets because girls often feel power through their relationships as opposed to feeling powerful because they are physically strong or have a lot of money. Girls can do a lot of things to assert their power and make other girls feel helpless, including name-calling, telling lies, ignoring, excluding, and sexual harassment. This form of bullying works for some girls because they gain attention or acceptance, it creates excitement, or it helps them release feelings of jealousy or revenge.

In situations of relational aggression, it is common to see three types of participants: the bully, the victim, and the bystander. The bully is the mean girl who is the driving force behind the relational aggression, initiating the behaviors such as spreading rumors or exclusion. The victim is the target of the bullying. As a result of the relational aggression, the victim will often be passive or pretend that she isn’t hurting in an attempt to be and appear strong. Unfortunately, the end result is often damage to the victim’s self-esteem and self-confidence. The bystander tries to stay neutral and comfort herself by saying that she did nothing wrong because she didn’t start the rumors or call anyone names. Often, the bystander doesn’t speak up because she is afraid to get involved for fear of incurring the bully’s wrath upon herself. Sadly, when bystanders do nothing, they indirectly contribute to the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness experienced by the victim. A fourth role that isn’t seen nearly enough in relational aggression scenarios is the empowered girl; she will not silently stand by and allow another girl to be bullied. It does not matter if the victim is her friend or not. Being empowered means she is not afraid to speak her mind and stand up against injustice.

So, what can be done to combat relational aggression? Ultimately, it is important to create environments that are not tolerant of bullying. Teaching empathy can also be a big help. Adults who interact with kids, especially girls – like teachers, moms, scout leaders, dance teachers, coaches -- need to be educated about relational aggression and watch for signs of it. Girls need to be empowered to stand up for each other rather than allow someone else to be victimized in order to keep themselves safe. Finally, don’t tolerate relational aggression. The “Boys will be boys” and “Girls are just that way” attitudes need to be banished. With relational aggression in particular, it is important to heed the words of Elie Wiesel: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

The information for this post was summarized from the workshop “Mean Girls II: A Second Helping of Insights and Strategies for Working with Relationally Aggressive Girls and Empowering Their Victims” presented by Dr. Chamarlyn Fairley (2007). A collection of books about relational aggression is available through Youth Light, Inc. (

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bullying and the School’s Responsibility

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from bullies, and it is natural for parents to want their children’s school to address bullying when it happens. But what can schools really do about bullying, and what can parents do to help the schools help them?

Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, discusses what is and what is not in the scope of responsibility of schools in a blog post on his website. He explains that students have freedom of speech at school just like they do outside of school. What is problematic is when that freedom of speech turns ugly against our children. We as parents want the school to make it stop. But what can the school do specifically? Schools are allowed to restrict students’ speech and discipline behavior at school in order to maintain an appropriate learning environment, but if a school is going to intervene in something that occurred off campus (like on Facebook or via text message or email), that speech or behavior has to present itself as causing or likely causing a significant disruption of the learning environment. Regardless, the school can do certain things like call parents, talk to students involved, or even impose extra-curricular sanctions.

What does all this mean in terms of help a parent can expect from the school? The first thing to keep in mind if your child is being bullied is that the school really does want to help but may be limited in the action it can take. The next thing to do is tough – keep your emotions under control. This is difficult because it is instinctual for a parent to protect his/her child from harm, but in order to accomplish things quickly and effectively, the parent needs to be calm and rational when coming to the school for help.

According to the principal and dean of students at the junior high where I teach as well as a tip sheet published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the most important thing is to keep evidence. If cyberbullying is occurring, it is imperative to save and print out copies of emails, web pages, and pictures. Keep copies of text messages – they can even be forwarded from the child’s phone to the parent’s phone. It is also helpful to type out the date, time, and text of text messages, but don’t delete the actual texts themselves! Don’t delete any voice mails, either. Learn more about keeping digital evidence here. If the bullying is taking place in person, keep a log of bullying incidents. Have your child explain when and where the bullying took place, who was involved, who else was there as, what was said or done, and how the incident finally ended. Keeping a log like this can establish of pattern of behavior and may offer other insights, like the most common places or times the bullying is happening.

It is also important to keep lines of communication open with the school. As a teacher, I appreciate when a parent tells me of conflict involving his/her child and another student in my class. This allows me to keep a close eye on the students and avoid potential problem situations like having the students work as partners. Let the school know how the situation is progressing – have things improved or gotten worse?

If the bullying turns violent or threatening, or the bullying cannot be disciplined through the school, don’t hesitate to contact local law enforcement. They will need the same kinds of evidence.

Don’t be afraid to step in and help your child if he/she is being bullied, and don’t be afraid to involve the proper authorities and notify your child’s school. Most bullying situations don’t resolve themselves; they require adult intervention.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Is It Bullying or Just Teasing?

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

As a teacher, I often have students tell me they are being bullied. Parents will also email me and my colleagues alerting us to bullying. The term “bullying” has come to be commonly thought of as any mean or unkind behavior exhibited toward another person. This is only partially true, so it is important to really understand the difference between what is truly bullying and what is just teasing.
Bullying is angry and hostile. The body language and tone of voice are key indicators. Bullies will act aggressively, moving in close to their target, maybe clenching their fists or speaking through gritted teeth or a sarcastic smile. The tone of voice might be insulting, mocking, or threatening. It will also appear one-sided, with the bully doing most of the talking. Teasing, on the other hand, will appear playful and more easy-going. Kind gestures and expressions can be observed. There will likely be a playful back-and-forth between the parties; both people will be speaking and even smiling or laughing.
Bullying continues or escalates when the victim becomes upset. Bullies are trying to elicit this type of response and will exploit it once they’ve found a weakness. On the other hand, teasing isn’t meant to be hurtful so it usually stops once one person becomes upset. There may even be an apology, which certainly won’t accompany bullying (at least not a sincere apology).
Teasing can turn into bullying if it is taken too far and doesn’t stop happening. Once a situation appears to be more than teasing, another “test” to use to determine if a behavior is bullying is to use the acronym RIP.
R stands for “repeated.” Bullying is a pattern of behavior. It happens often, even constantly, to the same victim from the same offender or offenders.
I stands for “intentional”. If a student bumps into another student in a crowded hallway, that isn’t necessarily bullying. When that bump happens every day during every passing period and the offender knows what he/she is doing, that’s bullying because it is done purposefully.
P stands for “power”. Bullies like to have power over their victims. They will use repeated, intentional, and even seemingly innocent behaviors to subtly assert that power. When a bully purposely and repeatedly bumps into that kid in the crowded hallway, it can be passed off to a teacher or other adult as accidental, but the bully and his/her victim both know better. The victim is rendered nearly helpless – who would seriously complain about being jostled in a crowded hallway? The bully has now gained power over the victim.
It’s important to be alert to behaviors that are clearly hostile or could easily become hostile. But it’s not appropriate to label every negative interaction that occurs among children as “bullying.” To really see bullying, one needs to watch for the subtleties in the exchange that is taking place and document all behaviors to look for a pattern.
Learn more about the difference between bullying and teasing here.

Five W's and an H: Cyberbullying

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families

Gone are the days of what adults think of as bullying: the boy on the playground threatening to beat up someone for lunch money. Nowadays, bullying comes in a more insidious form that has coined its own genre – cyberbullying. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center cyberbullying is the “…willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Since this form of bullying and harassment is a new form of intimidation, parents need to learn everything they can about it in order to protect their children from it, prevent their children from doing it, and help their children deal with it when they encounter or experience it.

WHO are the cyberbullies? Ultimately, anyone with access to technology can be a cyberbully. However, research done by Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin shows that girls are slightly more likely to be cyberbullies than boys, and cyberbullying behavior seems to occur at even rates among all races/ethnicities (see graphs of their research here).

WHAT is cyberbullying? Simplifying the definition above, cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass and intimidate others.

WHERE does cyberbullying happen? It is incorrect to think that all incidents of cyberbullying happen at home. Cyberspace has expanded beyond the walls of our homes so cyberbullying occurs wherever kids can use technology, which can include a friend’s house, school, the library, the mall, or in the car with parents. Smart phones and computers allow kids to be connected to the world literally every place they go.

WHEN does cyberbullying start? Some research indicates that kids experience cyberbullying in their teens and that it is most prevalent among 15 and 16 year olds but really can start any time children have access to technology, which can be as early as age 10 when kids might get cell phones or some relatively unsupervised time on a computer (see research by the National Crime Prevention Council here).

WHY do kids cyberbully? A thorough list of possibilities can be found here through the Stop Cyberbullying website. The bottom line is some reasons stem from misguided attempts to do something perceived as good (like improving social standing or defending a friend) to reasons that are more sinister in nature (like anger, revenge, power, or to elicit a reaction). Ultimately, many kids can’t succinctly express why they do it.

HOW do kids cyberbully? The most prevalent forms of cyberbullying include posting mean or hurtful comments online and spreading rumors. The most commonly used forms of technology include cell phones and texting, Facebook, and game systems such as xBox 360 (see data).

The kids of today have always had technology as a part of their lives. For the majority of adults, it hasn’t been with us for even half of our lives. Because of this, parents need to learn about the technology that is at their children’s fingertips in order to do our jobs as parents by bringing up safe, responsible digital citizens.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Honors Classes

My students are currently driving themselves insane filling out honors applications for high school. Every year I go through the panic with them because their desire to get into honors classes is palpable. However, I often wonder if all the blood, sweat, and tears is worth it. I suppose that depends on why these kids want to be in honors classes to begin with.

When I was in high school, I was in honors classes. If I ask myself why, I guess there were a couple of reasons. One reason was because that was what my parents wanted from me. They had high expectations for me academically so it was natural for me to be in high level classes. I also wanted to be there because I deserved to be in honors classes. I know that sounds arrogant, but I liked school and I liked seeing how well I performed on standardized tests (I actually got a thrill at seeing the little bar on the chart going all the way to the 99th percentile). I knew I had the academic mettle to be in honors classes, so I deserved to be placed in them. I will also admit that I wanted honors classes for the prestige factor. I liked being in with the "smart" kids. I liked telling my non-honors class friends about what I was doing in class and having them be impressed. Or at least they acted like it. In hindsight, I have realized that I liked being challenged. In high school, I thought I hated it, but now I realize that I thrive on being pushed to think.

The down side of honors classes, for me personally, actually consisted of two apparently contradictory parts. One thing I found when I got to college was that the honors classes didn't seem to matter to anyone. I didn't get anything special out of college because I had been in honors classes in high school. I didn't get to move ahead any faster. Now, maybe I did and just didn't realize it. Maybe my academic transition to college was pretty easy because I had honors classes in high school. But I guess I expected something more tangible, some noticeable edge. It simply didn't seem to be there. The flip side was honors classes actually worked against me in college in math and science. I was an English major so I was looking to take the easiest math and science classes I could in college, preferably something with the course number 101. No such luck. Honors math and science classes landed me in college level trigonometry and advanced chem courses; I wasn't allowed the 101 courses! I was not a happy camper!

In hindsight, I am glad I took honors classes in high school mostly because I enjoyed the challenge. As my students work on their honors applications, I often wonder what their reasons are. I hope if they get into honors classes, they are all they want them to be and do it for the right reasons. I also want them to know that if they apply and don't get in, they still have a promising future. Honors classes are wonderful if they are appreciated, but they do not define a student's potential.